New Internationalist

Blood money

Issue 364

Women take on hard-line Islam in a campaign for equal rights

When 19-year-old Roxana was killed in a car accident in Tehran, her father, Hadjimashhady, was appalled to be offered dieh (blood money). A lawyer and avowed socialist, he refused to take the money. ‘It would not solve anything,’ he says. ‘This is a reactionary law. It is something that belongs in medieval times.’

Nevertheless, in most Muslim societies, those responsible for someone’s death must pay dieh – a form of compensation to the victim’s family. In Iran this amounts to one of the following: 100 camels, 200 cows, 1,000 sheep, 200 silk dresses, 1,000 gold coins or 10,000 silver coins. To simplify matters, the authorities have devised a monetary equivalent of $18,750 for men, and half that for women.

The law originally existed because the death of a man was seen to place a greater financial burden on the family. ‘But this argument is invalid,’ says Fatemeh Rakei, head of the Parliament’s Committee for Women’s Issues. ‘Today you need two incomes to support a family, and all over Iran women are having to work.’

Rakei and a group of Iranian women MPs are now campaigning to have blood money made equal. ‘The present situation,’ she says, ‘is insulting.’

Two-thirds of Iran’s population is under 30. With the votes of women and students likely to be decisive in February’s election, the debate over blood money is the latest in a series of struggles that is redefining Iran.

President Mohammad Khatami’s promise to liberalize Iran’s hard-line attitude to women has been thwarted by the conservative clergy, and by institutions like the Guardian Council, a powerful body of religious experts charged with ensuring all laws abide by Islamic principles. As a consequence, Iran remains a country where wives can still be stoned to death for adultery and allowing girls to ride motorcycles is hailed as a breakthrough.

Rakei believes that ‘progress may be slow, but changing dieh is crucial because it involves the value of a woman’s life as defined by the state. Change dieh and other things may come.’

The Qur’an doesn’t mention the actual rate of dieh. Only in the velayat, or narrations – a side-text compiled by religious experts throughout the centuries – is it specified that blood money for a woman should be half that of a man’s. Some hard-line clerics – like Ayatollah Mahdi Hadavi – believe the narrations to be as legally binding as the Qur’an. ‘If you refer to the narrations, it has been repeated many times that the blood money of a woman is half [that] of a man,’ says Hadavi.

However, the campaign to equalize blood money has been recently assisted by a senior cleric by the name of Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei who has come out in support of Rakei’s case. As a Grand Ayatollah – one of only 15 in Iran – Saanei’s backing buffers Rakei from attacks by conservatives. ‘Blood money is the price of a human life,’ Saanei explains. ‘Death occurs when the soul departs the body. As men and women have an equal soul, so should they have equal dieh.’

In addition, the proposed granting of equal dieh to ‘infidels’ (currently a twelfth that of a Muslim) gives the campaign additional merit.

But despite Saanei’s support, Rakei foresees an uphill battle. She and fellow MPs have drafted a bill, which – even if it passes through Parliament – has to go before the Guardian Council. If they reject her bill, she says she will resubmit it. ‘Sooner or later,’ she whispers, ‘things will change.’

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