The horrifying prevalence of “honour” killings in parts of Iran and Afghanistan was exposed in a recent edition of SAT-7 PARS’ Insiders programme.
Fariba*, a writer and activist involved in poverty eradication and empowerment in rural areas of Iran, spoke of women she knew who live with the threat of violence from relatives. Nor are they all young, as we might suspect.
“In my neighbourhood lives a woman in her sixties who separated from her husband about three years ago,” she said. “She has a knife-wielding son in his mid-twenties who wants to take her life because she is planning to marry another man. What I am getting at is that honour killings do not impact only young women, but also those who are middle-aged and older.”
“The sense of honour that people have, I believe, comes from the male idea of ownership,” Fariba explained. “When a woman has some family connection with them, these men feel that somehow they own her. They see themselves as the arbiters of her fate and believe it is in their power to speak for her and choose what she does and what happens to her. It arises from a deep ignorance and a lack of awareness among our men, especially in those segments of society which are tribal in their decision-making.”
Fariba recalled a disturbing story from when she was a child. A man living in her neighbourhood misinterpreted a comment about a literal stain on his clothing as a stain on himself because of something his sister had done. He rushed home and killed her.
“It may seem like fiction, but it isn’t,” Fariba explained. “When you can’t decide on whom to marry and on what you want to wear, the men in your family and even your cousins have license to choose for you.”
Attitudes of male ownership are ingrained from a very young age, she said. “I was a guest of a highly cultured family in Afghanistan and we were at a gathering where some male musicians were playing. There was a very young woman with a very beautiful voice and she happened to be unmarried. I asked her, ‘Why don’t you sing?’ So she sang and you would not believe it, but her cousin, a nine-year-old boy, angrily grabbed her hand, pulled her to a side room and berated her, saying she had no right to sing in front of strange men. And that was in a cultured family; even there young children grow up with this kind of mindset.”
Women in traditional, rural areas are also expected to wait on men and boys in the family. “Our children grow up with the outlook that it is women who must do the work. Women, and even very young girls, carry water over very long distances,” Fariba said. “Once I asked, ‘Why don’t men or boys help? Why doesn’t your brother help?’ The young girl I was addressing bit her lip and replied, ‘No, that wouldn’t be right. When my brother is thirsty, he tells me, and I get the water.’
“When women are assigned such a low position in the minds of men in these simple matters, and it is something that is cultivated from childhood, what else can you expect?”
Educate and influence
How can Iranian women who see the inequality and damage done by such attitudes respond? Fariba said, “The fact is that those of us who see the problems more clearly than those in societies that are much more rooted in traditional norms should ask ourselves: what have we done to help raise awareness? We are the ones with the greatest responsibility. What have we done to change the laws?”
Where these attitudes are prevalent, she stressed, “We need ongoing education for people, and to be working with people of influence within these societies who have the ear of the people.”
Fariba’s comments make clear the importance of the many SAT-7 programmes, including Insiders, that seek to demonstrate to men women’s equal value, status and potential, and help them to see how precious they are in God’s sight.
In this episode, Insiders presenters Sally Momtazi and Hengameh Bourji decided not to address the issue from a biblical perspective as this might have increased the risks faced by their Iranian guest. Instead, Hengameh said, they wanted to focus on the root causes behind honour killings and violence.
She said their hopes for the episode were, “in the first instance, that women will come to gain at least some understanding of their rights. Often Iranian women are so accustomed to the system that they cannot imagine being in any other situation. The oppression is normal to them and they don’t recognise it for what it is.
“So the first step has to be that individuals become aware that there is another way to live. The other thing we would like to see is that women become able to defend themselves and take positive steps in correcting the kind of life that is forced on them.”
“For us simply raising awareness of the issues is the key objective,” Sally commented. “As Fariba mentioned on the programme, women in the distant provinces in small towns and villages just don’t know that they have a choice, even in something as significant as choice of whom to marry. They don’t know that if their husband is addicted they can leave. If they don’t know they have these rights, they are in no position to defend them.
“It is important to help build a better culture, remembering that the men too in a way are victims of their upbringing. They are told from the time they were children that they own women and are answerable for them and they are told that their honour is everything.
“We can’t do anything about changing the laws,” Sally explained, “but we can inform and enable people to hear about these things.”
It seems that this approach is having an impact. Sally said the programme produced a flood of feedback. “Some spoke of their own personal experience of seeing honour killings,” she said.
But many, including male viewers, gave their backing to Fariba’s comments. “We had messages from many male viewers who said women must have the same rights as men. One male viewer wrote that he was ashamed as a man to see how some women are being treated in Iran.
“We arranged a poll on Insiders to ask a few questions, including, ‘Are there any circumstances, for instance disobedience, in which a woman must somehow be punished?’ The answer from 91% was negative and some even objected that such a question should ever be asked. This change in attitude is very hopeful for a future Iran.”
Since 2020, around 90 per cent of the guest experts on the Insiders programme have been people living in Iran. This development enables the programme to address issues within Iranian society in detail, is raising its profile, and will create new opportunities for engagement with viewers.
*Name changed for security
Violence against women, often connected with notions of family “honour”, is not limited to the Persian world. SAT-7 ARABIC and SAT-7 TÜRK programmes that serve Arabic and Turkish-speaking audiences also address the issue as they seek to make the Middle East a safer place for girls and women and one in which they can realise their God-given potential. Read the results of research carried out by SAT-7 ARABIC series Needle and New Thread here. Learn how SAT-7 TÜRK show Talking Point tackled the normalisation of discrimination and domestic violence in Turkey here.