Monday, December 15, 2008

A Literal Eye for an Eye

A woman who was blinded by acid thrown by a male stalker has successfully convinced an Iranian court to blind the man in retaliation.
An Iranian woman, blinded by a jilted stalker who threw acid in her face, has persuaded a court to sentence him to be blinded with acid himself under Islamic law demanding an eye for an eye.

Ameneh Bahrami refused to accept "blood money." She insisted instead that her attacker suffer a fate similar to her own "so people like him would realize they do not have the right to throw acid in girls' faces," she told the Tehran Provincial Court.
[...]
The three-judge panel ruled unanimously on November 26 that Majid should be blinded with acid and forced to pay compensation for the injuries to Bahrami's face, hands and body caused by the acid.

That was what she had demanded earlier in the trial. But she did not ask for his face to be disfigured, as hers was.

"Of course, only blind him and take his eyes, because I cannot behave the way he did and ask for acid to be thrown in his face," she said. "Because that would be [a] savage, barbaric act. Only take away his sight so that his eyes will become like mine. I am not saying this from a selfish motive. This is what society demands."

Look, obviously I don't support eye gouging as legitimate judicial punishment. Indeed, there are many aspects of Iran's judicial system that I dislike -- find quite savage, to tell the truth. But the least we can do is ask that their brutal demands are applied even-handedly, and here it appears they are. One of the key liberal prescriptions for ridding a society of oppressive practices is insuring they're applied across the board. If the majority has to contend with what they impose upon the minority, they're likely to have a sudden flash of sympathy and tolerance. In too many countries across the world, throwing acid at women who refuse to submit to male patriarchal demands -- whether it's refusing to marry or simply going to school -- is considered legitimate practice. It is a practice that deserves to be met by the full weight of the judicial system -- whatever that system is.

UPDATE: Jill of Feministe writes as well. I want to clarify that I don't disagree with her -- the punishment being imposed here is barbaric. But my point is that this is hardly distinct from Iran's judicial system as a whole. What makes this case important is that Iran is treating this crime as "seriously" as it does other violations of human personhood. Obviously, the manner in which Iran responds to "serious" crimes is in violation of any modern standard of human decency. I just don't think that it's any more problematic when Iran starts doing these sorts of things to penalize anti-woman activity as when they do similar things to penalize women themselves.

14 comments:

Matthew said...

Punitive torture within the context of an authoritarian legal system hardly seems a viable path to democratic justice. You write that "One of the key liberal prescriptions for ridding a society of oppressive practices is insuring they're applied across the board." Crucially, this prescription tends to be made within the context of liberal societies. The punishment will not be applied across the board. Iran's judges will inflict inhumane punishment on less powerful members of society, who, by and large, are quite powerless to reform the system. Far from making the women of Iran safer, they can face savage attacks from male citizens and from the executors of the law. And what demonstrates that those executors now take women's rights "seriously"? The jurisprudence had to do with the retaliatory "eye for an eye" doctrine; primitive vengeance was vindicated. There will be no measures to protect women from future abuses, if any right of theirs was recognized it was the right to pursue cruelty under the aegis of legal retribution.

Instead of one woman being tortured in Iran, a man and a woman have been tortured. Only barbarians have cause to applaud.

Jack said...

Of course if she had been raped...

David Schraub said...

You write that "One of the key liberal prescriptions for ridding a society of oppressive practices is insuring they're applied across the board." Crucially, this prescription tends to be made within the context of liberal societies.

That's basically the opposite of the truth. The attempt to apply law equally is generally used as a counter against illiberal societies which use tiered legal systems. In medieval England (certainly not a liberal society), for example, one could torture commoners but not nobles. What's the best way to make it so commoners aren't tortured? Make it so that nobles would have to be tortured too. Indeed, in liberal societies the strength of "apply it equally" tends to dissipate, because the most outwardly outrageous laws have already disappeared and legislators start writing with Anatole France in mind.

Now, if this was a deviation from Iran's generally humanitarian punishment practices, I'd agree with you. But this is SOP for Iran -- it's just being extended (for once) to protect women rather than to punish them. Within the structures of Iran's legal system -- however savage they might be -- this is a signal that Iran finds this type of behavior absolutely reprehensible and worthy of as severe sanction as other brutal crimes against humanity. That's an important development that can be severed from a generic (and deserved) critique of Iran's punitive practices.

Matthew said...

I think you and I are defining liberalism differently. As far as I'm concerned, a liberal society is one which allows spheres of personal and public freedom; freedom of conscience and expression, to be pithy. But we don't need to talk about that because my simple point is that squeezing the citizenry does not produce reforms if the government has a host of mechanisms for ignoring, silencing and persecuting its critics. Your example about England hardly applies. Judges and clerics are not going to be blinded with acid. Citizens with no power will be. The nobility could demand reform because for those intents they were treated like members of a liberal polity: their economic and political power allowed them a position from which they could (within degrees) safely criticize their rulers. Few in Iran are so fortunate.

I refuse your claim about severability. You cannot talk about a system of punishment in the abstract without discussing how the system works and the manner of punishment. Because what your position commits you to is this: Iran will proceed to maim a greater number of people than it otherwise would have, and you are congratulatory.

PG said...

Matthew,

You really believe that if men as a class felt themselves at risk for being punished for their assaults on women with more than just a fine, they would continue to support a regime that created such punishments? A regime doesn't rest solely on the decision-makers; it also needs the muscle. If the military/ Revolutionary Guards, with the support of the common people, rose up against the clerics, the clerics would be dead.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

What caused the British to abandon torture, not just for nobles but commoners too, was not the danger that nobles could be tortured. It was the Enlightenment and later, the Industrial Revolution, which assigned moral and economic worth respectively to individuals regardless of their humble origins.

The part of me that liked Dirty Harry movies feels the temptation to endorse this a*hole's getting blinded after what he did to that woman. But at the end of the day, cruel and unusual punishment is just that -- cruel and unusual punishment. If this guy had committed this crime here in the USA, we'd go after him for attempted murder and mayhem and seek life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and that's what I think would be the right result here.

Matthew said...

"You really believe that if men as a class felt themselves at risk for being punished for their assaults on women with more than just a fine, they would continue to support a regime that created such punishments? "

Do I really believe that citizens would rather swallow their entitlements than pony up to secure said entitlements via a risky confrontation with their brutal, authoritarian government? Why, yes, I do. Counter-intuitive as that may sound. Precisely what do you think the average Iranian male can do to express - and more than that, make political movement from - his sense of injustice? What mechanism forces responsivity from the judicial system? You share David's faith in reform, but you are equally unable to specify the mechanisms from which such reforms might actually emerge.

To wit:

"A regime doesn't rest solely on the decision-makers; it also needs the muscle. If the military/ Revolutionary Guards, with the support of the common people, rose up against the clerics, the clerics would be dead."

And what causes you to believe that the Revolutionary Guard is going to take this decision as cue for insurrection? Do you think acid-blindings will be will be widely administered against them? You're talking about an organization which has both CIA-like powers and a parliamentary presence - and you think they're going to spearhead the humanization of the Iranian legal system?

Your whole argument rests on the notion that "men as a class" are going to force humanizing reforms from their theocratic rulers. This presumes (1) that "men as a class" are organized in any sensible political fashion capable of pursuing reforms and (2) that the have mechanisms to make Iran's religious and political elite take notice. Yet neither you nor David has demonstrated this, you merely assert it in the face of Iran's pronounced authoritarianism. I have to wonder if we're talking about the same country.

PG said...

Matthew,

Perhaps your confusion stems from misunderstanding what I'm saying. I am not saying that this decision in itself will be a cue for "insurrection." Rather, I am saying that the process of enforcing laws more equally, such that a particular harsh punishment begins to affect men as well as women, will have one of two effects: either men will begin to stop the behavior that would lead them to be punished in such a fashion (hurrah! no more throwing acid at women!); or men will continue such behavior, suffer the consequences, feel that these consequences are excessive, and militate to have these consequences reduced (hurrah! no more draconian punishments!).

Even without an actual coup, a military can pressure the nation's secular and clerical leadership to make legal penalties less harsh. The implicit threat of insurrection need never come to fruition; indeed, once you have to actually follow up on your threat, that means the threat has failed.

You seem to be positing an Iran in which the military is utterly divorced from the rest of society: in which they neither have a concern for how their non-military brothers are affected by the law, nor are subject to the law themselves. Yet you haven't provided any information to back up such a claim beyond asserting that the IRGC in particular "has both CIA-like powers and a parliamentary presence," which does not mean there's a policy of exempting the IRGC from generally-applicable law.

Matthew said...

PG,

Consider option three: men continue to abuse women and then those same men face draconian punishments. I'm not sure why you refuse to consider this outcome. Even harsh punishments can be ineffective at deterring behaviors with deep cultural and psychological motivations, and even unpopular laws can stay on the books. The former is especially likely when deeply influential religious institutions and emotional senses of entitlement are involved - and in the treatment of women in Iran, they are. The latter is especially likely when the legal system is controlled by a theocratic judicial elite and human rights reformers are persecuted - and in Iran, they are.

Let's take one more look at the type of reform you imagine occurring: Even without an actual coup, a military can pressure the nation's secular and clerical leadership to make legal penalties less harsh. The implicit threat of insurrection need never come to fruition; indeed, once you have to actually follow up on your threat, that means the threat has failed. Such action would be motivated in the absence of a policy of exempting the IRGC from generally-applicable law.

Dandy. But in what sense has a "generally applicable law" been created? One woman convinced one court to apply a punishment in one case. Do you think that, had her adversary been a military or political member of the IRGC rather than a deranged stalker, she would have been as successful?

Moreover, you can look at the actual historical role of the IRGC in Iranian politics. When they have mounted political pressure on the regime, it has always been in opposition to liberalizing reforms (see their threatening of Khatami).

Iran has, as we all agree, visited a host of cruelties upon its citizens via its legal system. When was the last time this spurred the IRGC to fight for reform? Why are you so confident that this increase in brutality will do the trick? In the meantime, will you applaud every increase in torture and abuse as it may bring the population closer to their breaking point?

This is all speculative. We've all staked our predictions on what will happen in Iran. The next months and years will either bear out or refute these hypotheses. But if things do not change for the better, I think that people like yourself and like David, will have cause to be ashamed of their support for Iran's torturers.

PG said...

Er, I don't see where David or I have voiced support for torture. Indeed, his first comment was, "obviously I don't support eye gouging as legitimate judicial punishment." What we have voiced support for is the equal application of the law.

Even harsh punishments can be ineffective at deterring behaviors with deep cultural and psychological motivations, and even unpopular laws can stay on the books.

I don't think that's true. The whole reason to create federal hate crimes laws was to ensure that white people's behavior of harassing, assaulting and lynching black people would be punished even in states where authorities were inclined to overlook such crimes. There's been a massive reduction in such crimes since genuine enforcement kicked in. As for unpopular laws' staying on the books, they generally do only when the majority group doesn't have to fear having the law applied to them. For example, sodomy laws almost never were used to arrest or prosecute heterosexuals even in states where the sodomy ban applied both to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Where the sodomy law was no threat to straight people, they had little motivation to get it off the books.

One woman convinced one court to apply a punishment in one case. Do you think that, had her adversary been a military or political member of the IRGC rather than a deranged stalker, she would have been as successful?

Possibly not in the first case, but more likely now in subsequent cases. See "precedent" as a legal concept.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

But straight people were never at any appreciable risk for violation of sodomy laws. A straight couple protested the laws in Bowers v. Hardwick and their case was thrown out for lack of standing because they had not been actually prosecuted for doing the exact same thing that the two men whose convictions were upheld were.

While I see the argument that rendering the application of a draconian law to elites could potentially cause the law itself to moderate, experience suggests that this is not a particularly powerful force. I rather think that even if the man to be blinded in this case had been from the military or religious elite, most of the elite would have gone alone with the sentence and thought well of themselves for doing so. Broader social and economic changes must take place before a horrific governmental-legal-justice system like Iran's will moderate.

PG said...

TL,

But straight people were never at any appreciable risk for violation of sodomy laws.

Yes, that's my point: because the risk never was very high (although I would consider it "appreciable"), there wasn't motivation for the hetero majority to get sodomy laws off the books. Had Georgia's or Virginia's law been enforced consistently, I doubt it would have survived the 1960s.

Bowers v. Hardwick wasn't a criminal case -- the gay men were arrested but never indicted or prosecuted, much less convicted.

Katharine said...

I agree with you. In fact, I almost blogged about this, and I was going to go with pretty much the same title.

My first reaction was OH MY GOSH THAT IS HORRENDOUS! What a cruel and unusual punishment!

And then I thought, wait a minute - wow, they are REALLY taking the original injustice of the blinding of the women seriously. I tend to just hear about blind eyes (no pun intended) being turned to fatal stonings and beatings for infidelity or of the victim for being raped etc... In fact, I often hear of that being encouraged...

So, it's horrendous. All of it. The original blinding. The subsequent blinding.

BUT that the original act was taken so seriously, thematically, culturally, is a step, albeit a bloody, messy, imperfect in its execution one, in the right direction. And you know, an eye for an eye is not the way to go, if you ask me, but it's better than you blinded me? Okay, I'm going to blind you AND chop off your arm... Again, the measured nature of it, however ultimately, definitely screwed up, speaks well for the general arc of history.

Just kind of sucks for the people involved that they are in the "part of the process" stage of this chunk of history, as opposed to "wow, we already learned all of our spiffy criminal justice lessons about human rights and all that!" section.

As much as that section can ever exist...

Katharine said...

Quoting one of David's comments: "this is SOP for Iran -- it's just being extended (for once) to protect women rather than to punish them. Within the structures of Iran's legal system -- however savage they might be -- this is a signal that Iran finds this type of behavior absolutely reprehensible and worthy of as severe sanction as other brutal crimes against humanity. That's an important development that can be severed from a generic (and deserved) critique of Iran's punitive practices."

That pretty much sums it up for me. Trends are important. Like, if you have a curve that's continuing to decline but then it starts to decelerate and becomes concave up, and you really want that curve to increase, that's SERIOUS progress, because even though the curve is decreasing, it has undergone a change that is necessary in order for it to start increasing... "the winds of change" are in the right direction, and no, I'm not trying to get all Obama - such colloquialisms existed before him!:-)

The arc of history. I'm a big proponent of looking for the various arcs - that's where you find the most power to do good, and often, that's how you can find hope in seemingly strictly tragic situations, and anything that's logical and chases away cynicism at the same time is good.

I kind of digressed at the end there, but yeah, I stand by it!