Gendered justice in the name of Sharia: Iranian women convicted of adultery

Gendered justice in the name of Sharia: Iranian women convicted of adultery

Souha Korbatieh | 9 November 2021

Narges Mohammadi is an Iranian human rights activist who fights for the abolition of the death penalty. She has served a number of prison sentences for her outspoken criticism of laws and practices that violate human rights in Iran. In a video launched to mark the World Day Against the Death Penalty in collaboration with the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, Mohammadi was interviewed about the women she met in prison. Highlighting the discrimination suffered by women prisoners, she spoke about women who were convicted of adultery. One woman had not seen her child for eight years. Others had been disowned by their family, to preserve the family’s honour. In one case, the family even turned her children against her. Mohammadi recalls the story of a woman who was killed by her own son:

…her son, who was about 21 years old, had pulled the stool from under his mother’s feet and hanged her.

Mohammadi states that Iran suffers from a system that is ‘anti-women’ from its laws to its judges and legal representatives. The women Mohammadi met in prison were often too poor to engage decent legal representation and had to resort to court-appointed lawyers who often did not meet with them and ‘at best appear[ed] in court for part of the trial’. In one case, rather than defending her, the woman’s lawyer chastised her in court instead. Mohammadi also recounts a fellow inmate’s story about a judge who stated ‘I will have your neck’ before her trial.

Mohammadi’s description of her time in prison leaves one full of despair and hopelessness. Despair for a class of individuals who are deprived of their basic human rights; despair for a class of women who lack the ability to understand their legal system effectively, much less take it on and challenge the powers that be; and despair for a system that exists today where an individual can suffer systemic legal abuse because they are poor—and because they are women. Indeed, a report published by the Cornell Centre on the Death Penalty Worldwide, which provides a global review of  women on death row, states that women capital defendants are tried for their whole lives not just for their offence.

According to the Omid Memorial database, at least 46 women were executed between 2016 and 2020, which equates to 2.5 per cent of the total number of executions carried out during this period. No known executions were carried out for adultery; convictions for adultery are often commuted to imprisonment due to international pressure (interview with Roya Boroumound, executive director of Abdorrahman Boroumand Center). Indeed, the last known execution for adultery by stoning was in 2001, which led to a campaign by Amnesty International to end executions by stoning. The majority of Iranian women were executed for drug-related offences and murder.

It is worth noting that out of the 66 women executed for murder between 2020 and 2021, 41 were charged with the murder of their intimate partner (e.g. husband, fiancé, lover), 6 were child brides, 3 were under 18 years of age at the time of the offence, and 3 had killed in self-defence against rape. Iranian women face discrimination in marriage, divorce, custody and guardianship. The Iran Human Rights (IHRNGO) Report found that women in Iran suffer from forced marriages, many being child brides, and are often denied divorce even when they are victims of domestic violence. Islamic law permits women to obtain a divorce, with or without a legitimate reason. The famous case of the woman granted khula’ (wife initiated divorce) from the Prophet Muhammad is evidence of this. Yet this is not reflected in the current laws and practice of the Iranian legal system.

The issue of child brides is significant in Iran and has increased due to the availability of marriage loans to parents who see the loan opportunity as a way out of poverty. Child marriage impacts the development of girls and their education and exposes them to an increased risk of violence. Stuck in unhappy and often violent marriages, women may find they have no choice but to resort to crimes such as drug dealing to provide financial aid for their family, or commit murder in order to protect themselves or their children from violence. Women may also find themselves in adulterous relationships with a man of their choice when denied divorce. These are some forms of discrimination suffered by women in Iran, and their execution needs to be understood within this societal context.

Some of the most celebrated modern Islamic scholars and thinkers, including Mawdudi (d.1979), Tariq Ramadan, and  Al-Zarqa (d.1999), have stated that traditional Islamic punishments such as stoning should not be implemented. They argue that a country’s legal system must be fundamentally altered to apply traditional Islamic punishments because sharia ‘is an organic whole’ and that the conditions under which they should be applied do not exist anywhere in the world today. In fact, Kamali (2019: 339) goes as far as stating that ‘[m]ost of the leading twentieth-century scholars have actually taken the view that stoning for zina [adultery] is no longer an available option’ and he concurs with that opinion.

These positions of modern Islamic scholars bear little resemblance to the Iranian justice system Mohammadi has described and experienced. The famous scholar and jurist of the late 13th century, Ibn al-Qayyim stated:

The Islamic law is all about wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife. It is all about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good. Thus, any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, common good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is a ruling that does not belong to the Shariah, even if it is claimed to be so according to some interpretation.

It appears there is a mismatch between the ideals of the Sharia and the contemporary practical implementation of Islamic law in many Muslim majority states such as Iran. Identifying where the Iranian criminal justice system falls short of this ambition is a first step to identifying how to promote change for the better.


Souha Korbatieh is a Fellow at Eleos Justice. She is currently undertaking a PhD researching capital punishment in modern Muslim states.