Ameneh Bahrami was 23 years old when an inhumane and possessive man destroyed her life. Having had his marriage proposal rejected by her, Majid Movahedi decided it was his right to pour a bucketful of sulfuric acid on her face as she was crossing a street in Tehran in 2004. Since that incident which has left her disfigured and completely blind, Bahrami has felt it was her right to seek retaliation for the crime against her. In the last seven years, following trials and appeals interspersed with tens of surgeries to restore her face and vision (unsuccessful), Bahrami was finally granted a decision of qisas. In Iran’s legal system, there is a kind of justice called qisas — blood money, or retaliatory punishment, that pre-dates Islam (it can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible). It’s more commonly understood as “an eye for an eye” — punishment that equals the crime, so to speak. Qisas has two basic components: the victim can either forgive the assailant (or in the case of a murder, the victim’s family can be the forgivers) and therefore be compensated financially, or a punishment that fits the crime can be administered, i.e. capital punishment for murder. Bahrami, in a move that she hoped would draw attention to the gravity of the crime, opted for punishment. Her attacker had blinded her, so she decided it would only be fair to blind him back, thus ensuring that he not only receive the same treatment she received (minus the total disfiguration of the face, years of surgery, and indescribable pain), but that he would truly understand the depth of her suffering.
She was granted her wish and Movahedi was to be sedated in a Tehran hospital and administered 20 drops of acid in each of his eyes — by Bahrami herself. But the punishment, which was to happen this week, was postponed at the eleventh hour, perhaps due to international outcry, or perhaps due to domestic controversy — Iranians themselves are divided in their views on the matter.
Bahrami and the Iranian legal system are being portrayed by some as barbarians for allowing what is perceived to be archaic and cruel punishment (even though in the United States, Israel, China and elsewhere, retaliatory punishment also exists and is practiced in the form of capital punishment) but no one doubts Bahrami’s reasons for wanting it. What some people doubt is whether qisas is effective in achieving more than the satisfaction of revenge: justice and the prevention of crime. The public prosecutor who defended Bahrami’s wish for the punishment said that his hope was that it would deter such crimes in the future.
But can crimes be deterred through punishment when a society itself pays so little attention to the suffering of the victim?
While Movahedi has been vilified in many segments of Iranian society, it is well known that in countries with trends of acid attacks — such as India and Pakistan — the commonality of the crime has rendered it ordinary and therefore often ignored. Not only are a tiny percentage of the attacks reported, but a minuscule percentage of those reported are prosecuted, and an even less detectable figure of those prosecuted actually involve any kind of punishment. The deeper problem, then, is not only that these attackers are not made answerable for their crimes but also that they are too often accepted back in their societies when news of their crime is made known.
Some experts argue that the most effective deterrent against crimes — especially violent crimes — is the engendering of a culture of intolerance for them. For instance, if an acid attacker knew that he would be shunned by his society for such a crime, perhaps he would be less likely to do it.
With acid attacks in particular, this kind of reasoning makes some sense. Most of these crimes occur within the context of pride and honor so the prospect of societal rejection and dishonor would presumably be more of a deterrent than the mere personal affront of unrequited love. Ultimately, however, debates of qisas and the controversy surrounding Bahrami’s wishes are really discussions of how far the law will allow a victim to go in determining her own justice. While it’s easy to judge from a distance, only a victim can know what could possibly satisfy her need for justice following a life-altering crime. Just ask any member of the staff of Depilex beauty salon in Lahore, Pakistan — the salon is renowned for being staffed by young women who are victims of acid attacks.
It is human nature to contemplate retaliatory justice — Hollywood has banked trillions on the notion. But laws exist in order to siphon that instinct into something that is just and deters crime. The slow fix to problems of crimes such as acid attacks is to gradually — through laws, law enforcement, and education — change the attitudes in societies where these crimes have become so common as to be ignored.
The quick fix, as it has always been, is an eye for an eye. Mahatma Gandhi once famously said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” — and he was right, of course, but he had never been the victim of an acid attack.