Who is to blame for Atefah Sahleh’s death?

An analysis of Atefah Sahleh’s execution in the light of Cultural Relativism and Universalistic Human Rights perspective of Shar’ia

Name: Ovais Shah Professor: Kurt Richardson Course: RLG388H5

In the memory of Atefah Sahleh who will be remembered as a martyr of Human Rights Abuse in the Academic Scholarly Circles.
At last you have departed and gone to the Unseen. What marvelous route did you take from this world? Beating your wings and feathers, you broke free from this cage. Rising up to the sky you attained the world of the soul Jalal-ud-Din-Rumi ("In the Arms of the Beloved")

* Prayers*

Our Lord, bestow on us good in this world and good in the Hereafter and shield us from the torment of the Fire.
Note: The Inspiration for this work arose from the absence of very few case studies on Atefah Sahleh and many other female martyrs of conflict between religion and human rights in academic scholarly circles. It is pathetic how BBC covers such stories for purpose of instigating controversy and supporting Western efforts of War against Iran based on its poor track record of human rights. Furthermore, BBC doesn’t engage in scholarly debate or provide solutions over the issue of human rights debate with religion. The pure essence of the work is to remember and honor the life of Atefah Sahleh and how useful a case study she is in the study of human rights and religion. The only productive fruit from her death, is that human rights abuses can be stopped in Iran by engagement of scholarly community of reconciliation of Shari’a with International Human Rights abuse under the re-interpretation of Qur’anic scripture in light of rationale and modernity.

Summary of the case: Atefah Sahleh was a 16 year old happy-go-lucky girl whose life story began like that of any ordinary child. She was born in the Iranian city of Neka situated on the outskirts of the Iranian capital of Tehran. She was beautiful, playful and commonly known in her community as Madhuri in recognition of her resemblance to the bollywood star. However, at an early age she suffered from the loss of her mother in a serious car accident. The loss of her mother coupled with her father’s drug addiction left Atefah to fare on her own. Since an early age she had to take care of her old grandparents and fulfill the daily household chores that her mother would have normally undertaken. According to a report by the governmental social workers, Atefah was desperate (another word choice) for love and she received little attention from her drug-addict father and senile grandparents. This resulted in the teenager hanging out on the streets on Neka with other school friends. Atefah’s frequent presence on the streets of Neka without a male companion such as a father or brother brought her under the eagle eyes of Iran’s morality police. The morality police, a scion of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is a powerful law enforcement agency in the Islamic Republic’s rural areas. The purpose of the police is to enforce the Islamic dress code and maintain social norms of the republic in accordance with the Islamic religious “shar’ia” law. Atefah was first arrested under the conviction of a law violation for being alone in a car with a boy. As a result of her violation, she received 100 lashes and imprisonment for a short time. Soon after her release from prison, she was forced into an abusive sexual relationship with Ali Darabi, a 51 year old taxi driver and ex-prison guard. Following her relationship with Darabi, Atefah was arrested three more times under Iran’s moral dress code for either not wearing the veil properly, going to teenage parties or being in the company of men other than her close family. On her fourth conviction, Atefah was arrested from her house by Iran’s moral police under the premise

of a petition filed by two revolutionary guards who claimed that she had illegitimate sexual relations with other men, and hence was a bad influence on the community. Under Iranian Shar’ia law, the fourth conviction resulted in Atefah being put on a death trial by Neka’s local judge Hadji Rezai. Rezai personally conducted her case and subjected her to flogging under whose pressure she admitted to her abusive relationship with Ali Darabi. Atefah tried to justify herself as a rape victim who was 16 years old however the judge paid little attention to her testimony. He personally processed Atefah’s case as her prosecutor, judge, jury and lawyer as visible by Neka’s court records and ruled the verdict of capital punishment for the girl, while only 100 lashes for the rapist. Furthermore, Rezai secured a speedy approval for her death sentence in just 30 days from Tehran’s Supreme Legal Council; a process that takes six months on average. During her time in prison, many community members appealed for her death sentence to be reversed under medical reports that sexual abuse had deemed her psychologically unfit. However, the petition accompanied with psychiatric reports and signatures of many community members was ignored by the judge. On August 15th 2004 Atefah Salehah was hanged by a crane in Neka city square under the supervision of Hadji Rezai. The turmoiled life of a teenager seeking a normal living was bought to a despicable end. On the testimonial account of Atefah’s aunt; many individuals were gathered to witness her hanging, however none of her family members were present because the judge hadn’t informed her immediate family till the last moment. According to the account of Iran’s female moral policewoman who was present at Atefah’s execution, Hadji Rezai had misinformed Atefah that she was just being bought into public as a formality to scare the men who raped her and set an example for them. After Atefah’s death, many inconsistencies were revealed by court documents obtained by human rights lawyers. Atefah’s death certificate and birth certificate mentioned her age of death as 16 years. However, the court documents processed

mentions Atefah as 22 years. Since this revelation, the two policemen who bought the petition against Atefah were arrested for operating a massive child prostitution ring. Ironically, the young girl was not even allowed to rest in peace after her death and her body went missing from the grave. As for Hadji Rezai, he has been promoted from local judiciary judge to the rank of Chief Judiciary Judge for Iran’s Mazandaran province.

Introduction The fact that Atefah was executed at 16 years as a minor is in violation of United Nations Human Rights Convention to which Iran is a signatory country. The treatment that she received is not deserved by any individual in the world. The processing of Atefah’s trial and the application of harsh punishment for women over men is a grave reality of Iranian Shari’a law. It is important that the blame for Atefah’s death is not placed upon the Islamic religion. Islam like any other religion promotes human rights. The closure of the doors of progressive-ijtehad (logical reasoning) on behalf of Muslims in modernity has resulted in the Islamic legal human rights code trailing far behind International Human Rights. As a result, victims of human rights abuse such as Atefah are common practice in nation states that have shar’ia law as civil and public law. Hence, it would be unfair to blame Islam as being the perpetrator for Atefah’s death. One can argue that Iran’s culture of hetero-patriarchy is to blame for the unfair trail. It can also be argued that the corrupted political setup of Iranian theocracy is to blame. Therefore, the lenses through which Atefah’s case can be viewed are numerous. The purpose of this case study is two-dimensional. The primary purpose is to analyze the Human Rights abuse in Atefah’s case in the light of the conflict between Shari’a law and human rights theories such as cultural relativism and universalism. The secondary purpose is to analyze possible solutions so as to reconcile clash of

human rights with cultural relativist and Universalist theories of human rights. It is expected that the reconciliation of religion and human rights will prevent future martyrs of human rights abuse such as Atefah.

Cultural Relativism and Human Rights The human rights theory of cultural relativism argues that cultures are so vastly different and beliefs so irreconcilable with universal human rights definition that no set values apply. (Weaver, 2007). Hence, the countries of the world are at liberty to set their own standards of human rights with reference to their respective culture and religious beliefs. The logic of cultural relativism legitimizes the application of Shari’a law to protect the culture and religious values of Iran. The purpose of the analysis between Islam and human rights in the light of cultural relativism is to better analyze Atefah’s case study. In the international arena the Islamic Republic will argue that Atefah’s death sentence is legitimate because punishments such as execution by crane and flogging are prescribed for adultery in shari’a law. The government of Iran has often argued on the premise of Shari’a law being the supreme regulatory body that overrides all other human rights conventions (Somea, 2001). In addition, the ayatollahs use the relativist argument that Shari’a safeguards the social, ethical, spiritual and cultural dimensions of Iranian life. According to cultural relativism, Shari’a deals with the rights of individuals in different public and private fields of human activities. Therefore, it is the state’s duty to enforce the Islamic concept of human rights similar to the Western nation states enforcing their version of human rights. Islamic jurisprudence uses the concept of “right” that specifically makes references to rights of individuals in the framework of their duties. (Somea, 2001) Under the discourse of cultural relativism, Atefah’s death would be defined by the judge. This is because under the concept of

shari’a it is his religious duty “to decide the case and apply the proper punishment” ( ). Whereas, it is Atefah’s religious and cultural duty to accept the punishment prescribed upon her. A rational cultural relativist will argue that the application of capital punishment will not apply in the case of Atefah’s since she was raped. The rational cultural relativist will endorse lawyer Muhammad Hoshi’s commentary in regards to Atefah’s case that since she was a woman her testimony on rape was taken lightly over Darabi’s testimony (BBC, 2006). On the other hand, Iran’s Supreme Judicial Council will argue under the traditional notion of authenticity; that the Islamic republic was created to rescue Iranians from cultural alienation and the adoption of capital punishment (Afshari, 1994). Therefore, imposition of laws such as veiling and flogging are endorsed by Iran’s majority population is their right of expression. Therefore, the argument for Atefah’s convictions based on unveiling and adultery as it relates to the human rights of Iranian people to express their culture guided by Shari’a law. In the international human rights; debate, Iran would defend its poor track record of human rights by rebounding with the argument, that Marth Nussbaum considers the “capability of choosing oneself”- which is a fundamental element of human essence. In the case of Atefah’s trial, many Islamist women will argue over the Islamic concept of communal dignity. Under the logic of communal dignity Atefah’s death is justified because her unsolicited activities with men and adulterous relation with Ali Darabi would violate the Islamic human right of dignity of the Neka community. The cultural relativistic argument would consider Atefah’s sexual abuse by Darabi, as consensual sex because it falls under the Islamic age of sexual consent law which is 9 years for Iranian girls. Furthermore, her execution according to the cultural relativist viewpoint would not be considered as that of a minor, because shari’a law dictates a girl an adult when she reaches puberty and starts menstruation (BBC, 2006). Under cultural relativism, any Islamic fundamentalist would accept the liberal sentence of

100 lashes for Ali Darabi. The moderate relativist would argue that the liberal application of Shari’a to Darabi is legitimate due to absence of witnesses against him. Furthermore, strict relativists would argue that Darabi is not to be punished heavily because Atefah’s lack of veiling and record of poor chastity could have seduced Darabi into committing a crime (BBC, 2006). Hence, the strict relativist would argue under the Islamic notion of unveiling giving rise to zinaadultery. According to cultural relativism, the fact that Atefah was diagnosed with a mental illness should not effect her death trial because the vague Shari’a interpretation is based upon the judge who is to provide the best verdict based on his opinion of the situation (Somea, 2001). Nevertheless, any cultural relativist would object to the manner in which Atefah’s case was handled and the failure of judge to report the proceedings of the court to her father who held the Islamic legal responsibility of knowing what was happening to her daughter. Furthermore, the cultural relativist will also argue that Atefah’s lashing to extract the truth is against shari’a that prohibits excessive force in questioning and trial. The relativist will also hold the Islamic judge accountable for lying to Atefah about her execution sentence and keeping her optimistic till the very last minute. Therefore, in the light of the cultural relativist argument, the punishment that Atefah received is justifiable under the precept of Iranian people’s right of expression to practice shari’a law in accordance with their cultural customs (Afshari, 1994). However, the process of the trail as presided over by the judge is certainly open to question even under the strictest of application of shari’a law.

Universalism and Human Rights The Universalist theory on human rights argues that similar human rights should be applied to all cultures. Therefore, shari’a law and its affiliated religious authorities should not be allowed to

dictate and curtail human rights in Iran (Weaver, 2007). The Universalist theory of human rights accuses cultural relativism of denying the universality of human dignity. Universalism and Cultural relativism also conflict with the idea of certain human rights demanded by all humans regardless of culture, tradition, religion, race and gender. (Somea, 2001) The purpose of the analysis between Universalist theory of human rights and its conflict with Shari’a law is to expose the conflict between religion and human rights in the light of Atefah’s case. The Universalist position would argue that the modern concept of human rights lacks precise equivalents in Islamic law and hence Shari’a contradicts corresponding International Human Rights principles. Universalists will argue that the absence of individual rights of liberty, equality, and constitutionalism which are fundamental to establishment of human rights are missing in Iran. (Somea, 2001) The absence of equality of men and women in Shari’a rulings of testimony could be corrected by application of International Human rights law that guarantees equality of all before the law. Therefore, Atefah’s death would have been prevented if her testimony as a woman was equally weighed against Ali Darabi’s testimony. The Universalist would argue that Shari’a law upholds supremacy of revelation over hostility to rationalism (Somea, 2001). Hence, shar’ia fails to recognize independent source of law which goes against the very foundation stone of International Human Rights. The Universalist argument will also be based on the fact that Shari’a overrides the scope and extents of individual rights over freedom for communal interests (Somea, 2001). This is reflective of the death sentence that Atefah received as a consequence of the petition claiming her to be being a bad influence on the community of Neka for her supposed-adulterous affairs. The Universalists would argue that Shari’a law placed Atefah “in an inferior position that effects women since childhood and subjects them to obstacles since childhood that prevent proper socialization and participation in

public affairs” (Weaver, 2007). This argument is justified by Atefah being arrested and flogged as a child for her disrespect of the Islamic state’s moral dress-code. It could be argued that flogging and public humiliation of arrests was an obstacle to Atefah’s proper socialization with women which resulted in her developing a trait of rebellion against authority of her community that resulted in down spiral of events. Shari’a law considers women as affiliated to men either as a father, brother or a grandfather. The rights of the Muslim women in the Shari’a states are defined by her relation to patriarchal authority. This results in many Universalist arguing that Shari’a law provides second-class citizen treatment to women and doesn’t recognize their individual rights (Somea, 2001). This is further supported by the Cairo Declaration of Rights of Humans based on Shar’ia law to which Iran is a signatory. The declaration defines the contours of human rights of a woman’s obligation in relation to her marital status or role in the community as a mother, daughter or a wife (Somea, 2001). Whereas, International human Rights document such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights focuses on individualistic rights of people irrespective of their marital status. In the case of Atefah, Shari’a law discriminated against her in the absence of a patriarchal authority and hence subjected her to flogging for socialization with men outside of the traditional realm of father or brother. The Universalist argument is that flogging for such incidents can be prevented by abolishing Shari’a law and establishing International Human Rights theory whose main pillars are rationalism and individualism (Somea, 2001). While, the relativist argument justifies Atefah’s execution by considering her an adult, the universalistic application of International Human Rights would consider Atefah’s execution illegal because she is a minor (under 18) and is a subject of childrape. Under the protection of Universal Human Rights, Ali Darabi would be convicted of statutory rape and subject to imprisonment (BBC, 2006). According to the Universal

International Conventions of Human rights which are universally applied to all signatory countries, prisoners are prohibited to be executed if they suffer from disabilities such as mental disorders. The fact that Atefah was a psychologically imbalance case would have prevented her execution if the International Human Rights code was universally applied in Iran. Atefah’s inhumane execution on the archaic old Islamic law of shar’ia could have been prevented if the universalistic definition of human rights were applicable in Iran. The fact of the matter is that even though Iran has agreed to follow International Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreement; it consistently uses the cultural relativist argument to justify its executions by placing the argument of divine rights over rationality (Somea, 2001).Under the cultural relativist, argument the case of Atefah was that her court case was solely presided over by the district judge Hadji Rezai. However, the judge overstepped various legal boundaries by misusing shari’a law to declare her speedy death sentence. Incidents such as mishandling of court cases are common in shari’a law courts where judges are open to their personal interpretation of religious law (Somea, 2001).Therefore; the Shari’a judge can twist and turn the laws to their advantage as in Atefah’s case. In comparison, the Universal Human Rights Charter is a codified body that provides very little room to interpretation because learned scholars and leaders have put deep thought into its formulation and it is being improved upon over the years with input and consensus from academia and leaders all over the world. In summation, the cultural relativistic arguments of human rights under the premise of Shari’a law are proving disastrous for many innocent Muslims. The shift in the Islamic academia is slowly progressing towards an acceptance of a universal human rights code. The action of authoritarian governments interpreting shar’ia law to meet their political agendas under the cultural relativist argument is a major obstacle in the path of universalistic human rights. It is about time that Muslim countries learn from death of Atefah,

the consequences of their irrational actions. The question that remains to be asked is that how many more martyrs of human rights are required for Iran, Pakistan and other Islamic countries to reconsider their improper implementation of Shar’ia law.

Solutions to reconciliation of religion and human rights The debate on Shari’a law and its incompatibility with modern rights certainly clashes with the theory of cultural relativism. On the other hand, the sole application of universal human rights law even though it is effective in protecting a wide array of human rights is consistently opposed by Muslims as being a western invention influenced by the Judeo-Christian invention. Both the theories have valid points. However, Muslim societies have long been concerned with shari’a law’s incapacity to cope with modern life needs (Somea, 2001). Many Muslim thinkers have realized that the shar’ia legal tradition interpretation is centuries old and discussion of the question of human rights to analyze meaning, characteristics, general principles and qualifications are common to all shar’ia schools of thought (Somea, 2001). The reformist Muslim scholars point to great social and political changes in modern societies due to the recognition of human right entitlements. In the light of modernity, many Muslim thinkers influenced by the West such as Abdul Karim Soroush and An-Naim have advocated a process of Islamic law on human rights that enables the Muslims to achieve solutions within religion. The objective of modernist Islamic thinkers is to reconcile Shari’a law with International Human rights standards. In order to achieve this, many scholars have urged a re-interpretation of Islamic scripture under the pretext of Ijtehad-logical reasoning. The Muslim reformers argue that the doors to legitimate ijtehad had been closed since the demise of Golden Age of Islam in Andalusia (Manji, 2005). Therefore, these doors of logical reasoning have to be re-opened and the human rights documents

of United Nations have to be re-analyzed in the light of rationale and open-minded religious interpretation of Qur’anic scripture. The reformers have argued that Ijtehad is a distinct element of Islamic faith that distinguishes it from other faiths. The Islamic reformers have viewed the secular nature of institutions in the west and how they create a spiritual dead-weight and focus and individuals attention to materialism and individualism. In response to this many Muslim scholars want to guard Islam’s religious identity however they don’t want the religion to stagnate in the field of human rights. Reasoning and right of individuals is fundamental concept on which the Islamic religion was created. These scholars argue that Islam came as a light to put an end to jahiliyya-practice human rights violations such as infanticide and women abuse (Somea, 2001). In the context of modernity, these reformers can’t watch Islam as becoming the jahiliyya religion of a modern age. Hence, the reformers have focused on understanding the Western concepts of constitutionalism and democratic rights, which according to Bielefiedt are missing in poor Islamic countries. The reformers in the Islamic faith have realized the vagueness of Shar’ia law and hence they are debating on codifying human rights conception of universalism via constitutionalism (Somea, 2001). Case studies such as that of Atefah Sahleh and many other martyrs of human rights violations are awakening Islamic scholars to the injustices created by interpretation of shar’ia law that is suitable to 7th century Arabia. The new challenge for human rights reformers in the Islamic world is to analyze case studies of individuals like Atefah Sahleh and observe the conflict between Shari’a law and human rights. The analysis of such case studies and its comparison to Universal Human Rights reveal the inconsistencies in the archaic interpretation of shar’ia law. Based on these observations the reformers can come up with a new solution. Hence, the new branch of Islamic human rights in the future is going to be one that is a mélange of cultural relativism and universalism.

Conclusion The cultural relativistic argument justifies Atefah’s death, and is definitely against the essence of human rights. The case of the misuse of the cultural relativist argument is exhibited by Iran in International Human Rights conventions. On the other hand the universalistic definition of human rights condemns Atefah’s execution because it doesn’t follow its platform of human right to equality before the law as enshrined in all the worlds’ major religions. Both the theories of human rights are equally flawed. Cultural relativism’s defense of Islamic shari’a law shifts away from the definition of individual rights to communal rights. Whereas, universalism gives rise to secularism and destroys an individuals cultural and religious identity in discussion of human rights. The more appropriate solution to solve the conflict between shar’ia and human rights is neither cultural relativism nor universalism. Rather it is a reconciliation of the two theories of human rights in the light of modernist reinterpretation of Islamic religious tradition. In conclusion, the lessons on relation between religion and human rights theories, and the reconciliation between the two entities will give certainly avenge Atefah’s death by restricting future martyrs of human rights abuse.

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Afshari, R. (1994). An Essay on Islamic Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly, 16, 2, 235-276. Retrieved March 15th, 2008 from JSTOR

Weaver, K.M. (2007). Women’s Rights and Shari’a law: A Workable Reality? An examination of possible international human rights approaches through continuing reform of Pakistani Hudood Ordinance. Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law, 17, 483,-510. Retrieved March 12th, 2008 from Scholars Portal

Somea, R.E. (2001). Human Rights in Shar’ia and Iran’s Constitutional and Legal System: The Case of Freedom of Expression. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Montreal Faculty of Law. Retrieved March 11th 2008 from Scholars Portal

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BBC Documentary (2004). “Execution of a Teenage Iranian Girl: Atefah Sahleh” from http://www.stopchildexecutions.com/video/etgvid3.aspx

BBC News Story (2004). “Execution of a Teenage Iranian Girl: Atefah Sahleh” from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5217424.stm

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