Legal Counseling in Cases of Divorce and Manslaughter

According to Iranian law, women do not have the same rights as men in many cases. The Iranian women's organization RAAHI offers women legal counseling, especially in cases of divorce or murder charges. Jasmin Tiefensee visited the organization in Tehran

Shadi Sadr, founder of RAAHI (photo:
Shadi Sadr, founder of RAAHI, is regarded as a pioneer of the Iranian women's rights movement

​​The offices of the non-governmental organization RAAHI (Institution for a Better Life) are located in the center of Tehran. From the outside, the building appears to be a normal office complex, and there is no sign indicating that it houses an NGO.

After hearing the name of its director, Shadi Sadr, one understands why. Her name is synonymous in Iran as well as abroad for her years of uncompromising and pioneering work in promoting women's rights. Shadi Sadr is one of the leading heads of the feminist movement in Iran, one of the initiators of the web site and also an excellent lawyer. Shadi Sadr needs no sign on her door.

RAAHI employs young women lawyers and social education workers aged between 24 and 32, offering help to women seeking legal counsel. The NGO cannot finance the work itself – impoverished women receive free counseling – and is therefore reliant on the support of a Dutch NGO.

Most of the clients visit the counseling center because of divorce problems. During their case, the women are supported by lawyers as well as social workers. RAAHI also works in cooperation with two unofficial women's refuges, to which it directs its clients should the need arise.

Help in cases of murder and rape

Another large group of RAAHI clients are women charged with manslaughter or murder. Sadr deals with most of these cases herself. Twice a week, she and a social worker are allowed to enter Tehran's Evin Prison to speak with their clients.

Many of these women have killed their husbands during fights, whereas others were defending themselves from rapists. According to Iranian law, a woman is not allowed any sexual contact outside of marriage. Yet, such contact can occur during rape, and, as a result, the woman can be sentenced to death by stoning.

If a woman, nonetheless, manages to defend herself against a rape attack and the rapist is killed before any sexual contact is made, the woman has no opportunity to claim self-defense, as the evidence will be interpreted to her disadvantage. As such, she can be convicted of manslaughter or murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

RAAHI has long had to deal with this deplorable state of Iranian legislation. In the summer of 2005, the organization founded a working group in which people from various sections of the legal system can exchange information and discuss experiences, and together attempt to draw attention to the injustices of Iranian criminal law.

Members of the organization adhere to various ideologies and lifestyles, yet they are united in their goal of changing the criminal law system.

Equal rights in marriage

Yet, these are not the only injustices in Iranian law that RAAHI wishes to highlight. It is difficult for married couples to live in a true equal relationship, even when both partners want to – tradition and the law do not permit it.

Girls are still being sold to their grooms. Most marriages nowadays, though, are of young people who were already a couple, usually without the knowledge of their parents. Yet, they can only get married if their parents consent.

The parents of the bride usually give their blessings when their daughter receives a large "morning gift," in other words, when the groom is prepared to pay a large sum for her virginity.

Counseling for young couples

In the summer of 2005, RAAHI organized the first event in Tehran in which young people were introduced to the principles of a marriage based on equal rights. It was attended by twelve young couples who had either recently married or were planning a wedding in the near future.

During the all-day event, therapists explained to the young couples how to draft a marriage contract in which the woman is also given the right to initiate a divorce. Without a marriage contract, such a step is not possible.

The therapists also spoke on conflict resolution and the importance of listening to each other. Traditional societal roles have to be put to one side so that married couples can be not only partners, but friends as well.

The enthusiasm of these young people gives hope that such events in Tehran will soon become a regular affair.

Jasmin Tiefensee

© 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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