Interview: The Iranian woman who decided at the last moment not to take the sight of the man who disfigured her, explains why her quest for justice is not over
One autumn afternoon 10 years ago, Ameneh Bahrami was leaving work in Tehran when she was confronted by a young man she had repeatedly refused to marry. The stubborn suitor, unable to cope with rejection, had pestered and threatened her many times before that day, but she had no idea what he was about to do.
“He had a red container in his hands,” she recalled. “He looked into my eyes and threw acid in my face.” Those few seconds left Bahrami, 26, blind and disfigured.
Majid Movahedi, her attacker, a man five years her junior and a former university classmate, remained in the crowd that circled her as she screamed for help, observing her anguish at close quarters. He would boast of it later in the court.
“I was beautiful, that was my crime,” Bahrami said.
Her personal tragedy made headlines around the world. The Iranian press focused on her extraordinary pursuit of justice, covering every twist and turn in her agonising case.
But 10 years on, her assailant has been released from jail and an increasing number of women in Iran are the targets of similar acid attacks.
Somayeh Mehri died this month from a respiratory problem caused by an acid attack by her husband four years ago. Mehri’s husband, a drug smuggler, was unhappy that she wanted a divorce – and one night while she and their three-year-old daughter were asleep, he threw a jar of acid in their faces.
Last year, a spate of acid attacks on young women in Isfahan, a city popular with tourists, caused horror and outrage. Unlike previous cases, which were usually driven by personal feud, these incidents seemed to have another root.
Many Iranians believe that women in Isfahan were targeted by hardliners for wearing clothes deemed inappropriate. The authorities, who have encouraged a crackdown on women with “bad hijab” in the past, vehemently deny this. As many as eight women were reported to have been attacked.
Bahrami knows too well what those women have gone through. When she was attacked by Movahedi in October 2004, people around her in the street did not know how to help, nor did medics at the first hospital she was taken to, or at the second. “It took almost five hours before I was seen by an ophthalmologist who took my agony seriously,” she said.
At the time of the attack, Bahrami was a young woman with big ambitions, studying electronics and working at a medical engineering company. “I had chosen a major which needed so much work involving my eyes,” she said. She was a year away from graduation.
Movahedi encountered Bahrami in a workshop at the university. “One day his mother called and said my son wants you,” Bahrami recalled. “I didn’t even know his name.” She rejected his offer for marriage, which infuriated him. “He called me and threatened me that ‘you’ll either marry me or I’ll wreck your life’.” Bahrami reported the harassment to the police but they didn’t take it seriously.
After the attack, Movahedi surrendered to the police. The judge presiding over the case intended to hand down a death sentence, but Bahrami wanted qisas (retribution), which is allowed under Islam’s sharia law.
Bahrami wanted him to lose his sight as well – an eye for an eye. “Inflict the same life on him that he inflicted on me,” she told the court.
But Iranian women have only half the worth of men in legal spheres. In courts, for example, a woman’s testimony carries only half the weight of a man’s. In a literal application of an eye for an eye, the judge initially sentenced Movahedi to be blinded in one eye, even though Bahrami had lost sight in both her eyes, she said.
Eventually, after much lobbying, Bahrami was granted an exceptional full retribution. In November 2008, a Tehran court ordered Movahedi to be blinded in both eyes. The sentence drew international condemnation, with human rights activists branding it inhumane.
Iran’s Islamic penal code allows the victim or their heir – walli-ye-dam – to personally execute the condemned prisoner in retribution cases. In hangings, the heir has the option of pushing away the chair the convict is standing on.
In Bahrami’s case, she or her family were allowed to drip acid into Movahedi’s eyes. A media furore led to the postponement of the sentence being carried out but eventually, in July 2011, Bahrami and her family went to Tehran’s judiciary hospital where Movahedi was due to be rendered unconscious before acid was dripped into his eyes.
“He kept swearing at me as they prepared him on the bed,” she said. “There was no word of regret, nothing to indicate that he was sorry.”
Being blind, Bahrami could not carry out the sentence herself, but her younger brother agreed to do it.
At the last minute, as officials were counting down, she pardoned him. “I couldn’t do it, I knew I could not live with it until the end of my life,” she said. “I knew I would have suffered and burned twice had I done that.”
She added: “Movahedi was completely in shock, he fell at my feet, I said go away and don’t utter my name in your whole life.”
Despite the pardon, Bahrami insisted her attacker remain in prison until his family paid compensation, which she badly needed for treatment. The government had helped Bahrami travel to Barcelona to undergo surgery but the funding was insufficient for her needs. “At one point in Spain, I had to live where homeless people stayed, I had no money.”
Her decision to pardon Movahedi was warmly received in Iran and, within a few months, a sculpture of her was displayed in a Tehran exhibition.
After the attacks in Isfahan and the lack of support she has received from the government – and the international community that called on her to show mercy – Bahrami is now uncertain whether she made the right decision.
“I feel I’m guilty. If I had carried out the sentence, maybe those incidents in Isfahan would not have happened,” she said. “I feel as if I had to do this. I felt as if I freed a wolf from its cage.”
Movahedi was released from jail last year, apparently pardoned by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, though no compensation had been paid to Bahrami. “I felt completely betrayed,” she said.
Faced with growing numbers of acid attacks, Iranian authorities seem to believe retribution is the best way to respond. In March, an Iranian man convicted of blinding another man in an acid attack was blinded in one eye, the first time Iran has carried out such a punishment. The convicted acid attacker was rendered unconscious in Rajai-Shahr prison in the city of Karaj as medics gouged out his left eye.
Bahrami has undergone more than a dozen operations in Spain to reconstruct her face. At one point, she recovered partial sight in her right eye but an infection in 2007 left her totally blind.
The acid attack changed Bahrami’s life entirely. Her older brother, who was traumatised and clinically depressed by what had happened, took his own life six months ago. Despite all her torment, however, she is determined to move forward. She has published a book,Eye for an Eye, in several languages though an English translation is yet to be published.
“The acid attack took my life to the zero line,” she said. “It made me, and I won’t let it stand in my way. I experienced things that not everyone can experience. Now, I think that there’s nothing in this world that can frighten me. There’s a way forward and I’m living my life.”