Killing Beauty

By Marjan Keypour Greenblatt and Sophie A.

Fatemeh Zarei, an aspiring model, was murdered in Iran on July 3rd of 2022. Three years ago, after a violent altercation with her husband that left her hospitalized, Zaeri recognized the danger she faced at home and fled to Erbil in search of a new life and career in modeling. Although she fled her abusive home, as a woman in Iran she couldn’t escape the institutional system that discriminates against and disadvantages women as second-class citizens. At 23 years old, Zarei was found dead.  Such stories are becoming more prevalent and less shocking in today’s Iranian society where women are forced to adhere to mandatory hijab and modesty rules. Whether in the streets or at home, women and girls are confronted by the violence of the morality police or their male relatives because of the way they choose to dress and present  themselves.

On the streets, women can get arrested for defying the mandatory hijab and “immodest” choice of clothing– a crime that can send them to jail or cost them the pain and humiliation of lashes. But the control and violence can be more violent and even lethal at home, where according to the Islamic Republic’s legal system, domestic violence is a private matter, seldom involving the police, and a man has control over the life of his female relative as property. In extreme but rising cases, men have taken away the lives of their female relatives in the name of “honor.” An honor killing, which is the intentional killing of a relative because they have brought dishonor upon their family, is a type of femicide, a broader term coined by Diana E.H Russel, referred to the killing of women and girls because of their gender. In the eyes of her husband, Fatemeh Zaeri brought dishonor to his name.

In today’s world of Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, the participation of girls and women in modeling is not just a hobby, but rather a passion and vocation for many. Millions of girls dream of being models when they are young; but Iranian girls are limited in what they can post because the Iranian government controls modesty rules and deploys cybersecurity agents to restrict such posts. Consequently, for such aspiring models, careers they choose are limited by the Iranian law and culture.

Child marriage or forced marriage are also among the culprits of lethal violence against women. Women are forced into marriage from a very young age, and the age differences within marriages allows for a power dynamic that favors the men. Some Iranian women are refusing forced marriages as they want the freedom to choose their spouses and the careers they wish to pursue. Despite the limitations, exposure to social media posts by women in the free world  inspire some Iranian women to break from their limitations, possibly like Fatemeh Zarei. Women like her likely face the threat of social stigma or even violence  because they are intentionally breaking the conformity of Iranian society.

Violence against women is usually prompted when a woman refuses to follow the societal norms of their environment. In many femicide cases, women who have been killed have been convicted of seeking a divorce, having an affair, eloping, or committing an action that has tainted the family’s reputation. Women in Iran are not only controlled by the males in their lives, but also the Iranian government.

By implementing a social and legal system that values females as lesser than males, Iranian society has created an environment that’s conducive to acts of violence against women. The Iranian government allows violent behavior from fathers, husbands and brothers to instill fear into the women of Iran. The Iranian Constitution condones honor killings by considering fathers and paternal grandfathers the owners of the blood of their children. This has allowed for violence and killings within the household by fathers to go unpunished. Such honor killings are systemic because the laws are superseded by a regime that has manipulated the Islamic religion for its own benefit. Iranian women also confront institutional discrimination daily as all women are required to wear a hijab in public, and are prohibited from entering athletic stadiums, as well as suffering from other limitations. The laws of the Iranian government gives males more power than females. These limitations have a very large effect on the women of Iran and create a hostile culture towards the rights of women.

Femicide is an important issue that on the surface affects a narrow subsection of the Iranian population but in reality, damages the social fabric of the entire country. Women’s choices, from career to clothing are dictated by the government and the men in their lives and those who aspire to have a career like Fatemeh Zarei risk brining shame upon their families and even the possibility of murder. Iranian women are limited by the culture in that they are heavily controlled by the men in their lives as well as the government. The systems the Iranian government has in place has permitted the practice of  female honor killings where the perpetrators murder with impunity. Fatemeh Zarei suffered a fate that is almost unimaginable by most people in the United States, but for a woman from Iran, this type of fear prospers everyday.

Marjan Keypour Greenblatt is a human rights activist and founder of the StopFemicideIran and Alliance for Rights of All Minorities. She is a non-resident scholar at Middle East Institute and member of ADL's Task Force for Middle East Minorities.

Sophie A. is a women’s right activist and researcher

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