It was snowing in Teheran when they hung the twenty seven year-old mother of two children earlier today in the notorious Evin Prison. From the moment she was arrested, she had not been allowed to ever see her children again. Her name was Raheleh Zamani and she had been married off when she was only 15 years old. The political campaign to halt or commute her execution failed.
This tragic story could easily be one of the tales in Marjane Satrapi’s film, Persepolis.
Raheleh had endured years of savage battering at her husband’s hands. He was a typical batterer in that the beatings intensified during her pregnancies. After giving birth two months ago, Raheleh was suffering from severe postpartum depression. And, her husband had begun to medicate her with mind-altering drugs. Listen to her describe what led up to her murder of her husband.
In court, Raheleh explained: “On the day of the incident, I got home and I saw a strange woman (there), who, upon seeing me, ran off into the bathroom. Shocked about this woman’s presence in my home, I confronted my husband. Mohamad yelled at me and told me that I was no longer of any use to him as a ‘woman’ since I had had two kids and he no longer found me attractive. When I got upset, Mohamad began beating me and threw me out of the house.”
Please understand: Raheleh had absolutely no recourse. Men are allowed to beat their wives. Men also automatically receive custody of their children when they divorce; for this reason, many Muslim women remain married despite serious abuse, other wives, and other lovers. Any normal human female reaction to such injustice or heartbreak would be seen not only as a female psychiatric problem, but also as a crime. Raheleh continues:
“I was extremely upset, but after a few hours I returned to my house and again asked Mohamad about the woman. Not only did Mohamad refuse to apologize for his actions, he actually threatened to kill me if I said anything to anyone about his extra-marital relationships. I was a mess. I could never have imagined that my husband would cheat on me or beat me so brutally only a month after I had given birth to our son. I was an emotional wreck; I was severely depressed; so when Mohamad gave me some pills that he said would calm my nerves, I took them.”
The pills apparently caused some kind of psychotic break. Raheleh found a steel pipe and began beating the “demonic monster” with it. It seemed that the “monster” kept on “coming after” her so she “fought back.” In that state, she still thought that the dead Mohammed was a “live demon who would repeatedly attack and abuse me.”
Despite all and any evidence of Raheleh’s altered state due to both postpartum depression and to Battered Woman’s Syndrome, Raheleh was found guilty of pre-meditated first degree murder and sentenced to death.
According to one report, “her in-laws watched the grim proceedings as she was hanged along with eleven other human beings.”
Until quite recently, America was not much more advanced than Iran in this area. Even today, most battered women who kill in self-defense are given life without parole; some are still sentenced to death.
However, in the 1970s, great progress was made in this area–all due to feminist activism. Let me recount four seminal cases that made headlines and case law. These stories are all but forgotten today.
In 1972, in Washington State, in her own home, Yvonne Wanrow, shot and killed an intoxicated man, William Wesler, who was also an alleged child molester. She was found guilty and jailed but was eventually freed by the Supreme Court of Washington State in a landmark decision about a woman’s right to self-defense.
In 1974, in California, in response to having been gang-raped, Inez Garcia shot and killed one of the men who had held her down–but she did so an hour later. She, too was first found guilty but was then freed by virtue of “insanity.” (Sometimes, a normal human response to being raped is considered “insanity.” That’s really crazy!)
Also, In 1974, while in jail in her North Carolina jail cell, Joanne Little, killed her jailor, Clarence Alligood, with his own pick-axe for trying to rape her. Little was acquitted.
And, in 1977, in Michigan, Francine Hughes, a battered woman, set her sleeping husband on fire. She was charged with murder. Her story was eventually made into a movie which was titled The Burning Bed, which starred Farrah Fawcett. (Hughes was found not guilty by reason of insanity–not an ideal conclusion but one that might have been true and one which saved her life.)
Each of these cases led to public feminist crusades, civil-rights political activism, (two of the women on trial were women of color who had killed white men), and to new case law. Americans learned, very much against their will, that a “reasonable” woman could not be expected to physically defend herself against a man who was armed with a weapon, or with military or police training, who was also a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than she was. In such cases, the courts would have to spell out different, gender-based standards for what constitutes self-defense.
We also learned that rape constitutes a psychiatric trauma with severe and long-lasting consequences and that women could rightly view rape as life-threatening and as such, were entitled do what they could to prevent it–even if it meant killing someone who had not yet–or who had just–raped you.
The Francine Hughes case taught us that, in their own homes, battered women are battered the way political prisoners are battered in police custody in a totalitarian state; that some battered women die from their physical injuries; that, surprisingly, battered women are in the greatest danger when they actually escape captivity. That is precisely when batterers most often kill their victims. Scoff if you will, but the cognoscenti now know that the only chance that a savagely battered woman might have of saving her own life is if she kills her batterer when he is helpless e.g. sleeping.
Sounds crazy, I know but there are so few shelters for battered women–the beds are always taken; and witness protection programs are not available to most battered women. Orders of protection are made of paper and do not stop speeding bullets.
Let me commend those Iranians who tried to save Raheleh’s life. As they say:
“May this be a reminder that these cases are indeed in need of our intervention. Hopefully, we can gather more support for those whose cases are still classified as urgent to avert a repetition of this horrific and tragic ending to a precious life.
May she now rest in eternal peace.”