There’s plenty going on in the world right now that deserves our attention, to be sure. With social media feeds and our 24-hour news cycle, there’s something new every day that demands to be noticed.
But somehow, Romina Ashrafi and her tragic murder seemed to have largely escaped our collective attention. The 14-year-old Iranian girl was from Talesh, a northern county in Iran’s Gilan province which forms the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. When Romina ran away with her "boyfriend", who happens to be 20 years older than her, she was later returned to her family by authorities. Not long after, her father Reza executed her with a sickle.
In the US, this would probably have been a case for kidnapping and statutory rape on the part of the "boyfriend", and then murder in the case of the father. But since Iran considers all sex outside marriage illegal, there are no laws against the statutory rape of a child. They also have no legal age of consent. Her country failed her twice.
Outrage has poured out from all sides of Iran and from Iranians outside their home country as well. The nation’s highest religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has said that any person abusing women deserves “harsh punishment.” Let's not forget however, this Ayatollah inherited a fundamentalist regime that began in 1979 and reversed almost all of the gender equality progress women had made in Iran. He supported the elimination of women's rights in marriage, banning Western clothing and requiring that all women wear a hijab, and imposing many other horrific restrictions on women in accordance with sharia law.
Under Iran's law, which is informed by sharia, a man can legally kill his child and face little to no consequence. But a woman who kills her child will be executed. So, even though many in the West hate to believe it, Romina’s death is a startling reminder that so-called “honor killings” continue to exist in the developed world.
Honor Killings Are Not a Rare Occurrence
Honor killings are based on an antiquated belief, usually prevalent in fundamentally Muslim societies, that the victim will bring humiliation or dishonor upon their family through their actions. Women are often the victims of honor killings at the hands of male relatives, such as brothers, fathers, uncles, or husbands. Some reasons women might be seen as deserving of honor killing would be losing their virginity outside of marriage, getting a divorce, or having a child out of wedlock. In Romina’s case, her father believed her actions of "dating" an older man necessitated her brutal and gruesome death.
Honor killings are based on the belief that the victim will bring shame upon their family through their actions.
Honor killings, though widely believed to be nonexistent in today’s culture, are often kept quiet by local communities. A report from 2019 estimates that 30% of murder cases in Iran were honor killings. These are often classified as “suspicious deaths.”
Romina’s death supposedly came about because her father had failed to convince her to take her own life. According to an aunt, her father Reza was pressured by other family members to kill Romina and spare their family the shame she had supposedly brought on them.
Women in Iran Have Been Making Progress in Education and the Workforce
Romina, like many other girls her age, attended high school. In recent years, the country has seen a surge in progressive actions meant to eliminate discrimination and widen the cultural berth for accepting women in more non-traditional roles.
For example, The New York Times reports that women in Iran occupy a diverse number of roles and are comparatively better off than women in other countries in the region. Women in Iran make up 50% of the workforce and can sit on parliamentary and cabinet positions in local and state government. They can be mothers and wives, or doctors, lawyers, filmmakers, and educators.
But women’s rights are still too limited.
Despite these freedoms, however, women are still kept on a leash. They still need permission from husbands, fathers, or brothers to divorce, leave the country, study, or work outside their homes. By law, they must cover their legs, arms, and hair when in public.
By law, women must cover their legs, arms, and hair when in public.
As Reza Ashrafi confessed his daughter’s murder to the police, the sickle still in his hands, he didn’t reveal to the media what Romina wanted to be when she grew up or how she liked to spend her time. Her family didn’t mourn her death or the unbelievable circumstances that lead to it. They only justified it with her boyfriend’s age, alongside outdated laws that meant impunity for Reza’s act.
The Laws Protect the Parents, Not the Children
As Romina’s father, Reza Ashrafi knew he would be protected under so-called guardian laws, which entail minimal punishment and jail time for crimes committed against children by their parents, as well as exempt them from receiving the death penalty.
Before killing his daughter, Reza consulted with an attorney to see what the likely outcome would be — at most, he would face 3-10 years in prison. Valuing this as comparable to the life of his daughter, he went to her room as she slept and beheaded her.
Guardian laws entail minimal punishment and jail time for crimes committed against children by their parents.
The fact that Reza was motivated to seek legal counsel (clearly indicating he acknowledged the severity of what he was doing) has spurred many to claim that Romina was a victim of patriarchal, institutionalized violence as well as the honor killing practice. The natural outrage from her murder has been so strong that guardianship laws, the very ones that protected Reza, are now under review.
Reforms are impeded by fundamentalist Muslims.
President Hassan Rohani has been called on to implement stricter legislation, protections, and harsher criminalization for honor killings. Similar legislation has been proposed several times before, but it often sits in limbo and is never passed, as fundamentalist lawmakers strongarm the government into making sure such legislation aligns with Muslim religious law, thus stalling its implementation.
Only a few organized bodies, like Amnesty International, have also called for amendments. As of right now, it’s unclear as to whether such laws will be adopted, or whether Reza Ashrafi will be held accountable for his daughter’s murder.
Although Iran passed a measure that criminalizes child abuse on June 8, it’s difficult to say whether this will effectively end honor killings and the risk still present for girls like Romina.
Iran passed a measure that criminalizes child abuse on June 8.
An old proverb says let the punishment fit the crime...but is there even a punishment adequate enough for taking the innocent life of a teenage girl?
Family members claim that Romina’s father has a quick, angry temperament, which most likely factored into her running away with her boyfriend. A 14-year-old child, already being victimized by a much older "boyfriend" (who would have faced statutory rape charges in the US), found violence and death at the hands of her father, instead of help.
Honor killings — or more accurately, senseless, unjustifiable murder — have happened and continue to happen. Romina’s government and family failed her, and this would be a viable time for international powers to condemn the killing and urge for progressive change. But it looks like her life, and other young lives that may be threatened by similar circumstances, have taken a backseat to the priorities of the Western world.