Wednesday, July 28, 2004

A Glimpse of Life Under Shari'a

I was reading about the murder of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist beaten to death during interrogation in prison in Iran in 2003. She had been arrested while photographing student protests in Tehran. (Iranian authorities initially said she died of a stroke). Something jumped out at me, amid the whole sordid tale.

After a trial ended in charges dismissed against a low-level prison official (not the higher-ranking one that human rights activists said probably did the killing), Kazemi's Canadian son, Stephan Hashemi, was offered about $12,000 in "blood money" by the Iranian government as compensation for his mother's murder. Hashemi indignantly rejected the money, and good for him.

Under Iranian law, compensation for families of murder victims is set at $24,000 for a Muslim man, and about half that for a woman. Until only a couple of years ago, the rate for men of "tolerated" religions -- Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians -- was half that of Muslim men. Their women were half again, meaning the life of a Christian woman in Iran was valued at less than a quarter that of a Muslim man. As for Bah'ais, etc., forget it: no blood money, no rights, no nothing.

The Iranian theocracy, in a burst of reforming spirit, has upped the value of a tolerated non-Muslim man's life. But it hasn't been able to bring itself to admit women, even Islamic women, to equality.

Blood money is a barbaric relic, but it has its function, in a country where most people don't have insurance. If a breadwinner is slain, it helps his family survive. It's also true that Iranian women, especially in the few years since reformists began loosening the theocrats' grip, enjoy better rights than women in many other Muslim countries. They're now active members of the workforce, and they fill many senior public and private-sector positions.

"By participation in society women have changed the economic conditions of their families," said Fatameh Rakei, head of the parliament's committee on women's issues. "Most of them are responsible for covering family expenses." The murder of such a woman would have a catastrophic financial impact on her family.

But reformists such as Rakei have had no luck in getting an equalization of the blood money in Iran. The problem? Iran is bound by Shari'a Law. And "female breadwinner" and "seventh century A.D." just don't mix.

Any proposal approved by Iran's parliament also must be cleared by the hardline Guardian Council, which is responsible for ensuring that legislation conforms with Shari'a Law.

The Islamic definition of blood money is one of the following: 100 camels, 200 cows, 1,000 sheep, 200 silk dresses, 1,000 gold coins, or 10,000 silver coins. Authorities have set cash equivalents to simplify matters. That much modernization they could stomach without sensing they were violating Allah's commandments. "But it is clearly stipulated in the Koran that women get half blood money," a high-ranking cleric told Reuters in 2002.

Now, remind me again why important women's rights leaders in Britain consider it "a badge of honour" to form an alliance with Islamist preachers. As the writer here says, "Just because women wear the hijab, for example, does not mean that they are more oppressed than other women."

She specifically embraces Sheikh A-Qaradawi, who has said on the BBC that it's "God's justice" for Palestinian killers to target Israeli women in suicide bombing attacks, because "an Israeli woman is not like women in our societies, because she is a soldier." As for Jews, he says, "There is no dialogue between us except by the sword and the rifle."