And Soon the Whole World is Blind

This morning, Skepchick commenter QuestioningAuthority sent us this article from CNN, reporting that an Iranian man who blinded a woman with acid has been sentenced to a similar fate as his victim: he’ll be blinded, and his eyes removed. In his note to us, QA asked, “Appropriate or not? Justice or not?”

I’d like to here what you all think. In the meantime, here’s what I think.

For far too long, marring and disabling women with acid has been a gut-churning trend in south Asia and the Middle East, particularly in fundamentalist communities with a long history of hatred against women. Women who dare to show more than a strip of skin, who think for themselves, or who desire to educate themselves, are all punished, usually by rogue vigilantes committed to protecting their backwards, ignorant way of life.

All too often, the men who abuse women in these societies go unpunished, so a story like this may be seen as a step forward – a man receiving exactly what he deserves, at last. The victim in this case clearly feels as though this is the correct punishment – she says that she didn’t ask that her assailant be physically scarred with acid as she was, because that would be barbaric. She only wants his eyes removed.

Rarely is it so clear to me how relative traits like “barbarism” can be. To me, the attacker was barbaric, and the courts will be barbaric as well when they exact their revenge. To a lesser extent, the victim’s mother was barbaric, for pushing the victim and her attacker toward an arranged marriage without the victim’s consent. And what of those among the man’s family, and friends, and teachers, who raised him to believe that a woman is a piece of property to request or to take? What of the Iranian government officials, whose constitution states a murdered woman is literally worth half a murdered man when charging the murderer? Whose constitution demands a woman leaving the house without a hejab be lashed? Whose constitution bans women from higher office? Will any of that change with this decision?

Will blinding one man who is the product of this society benefit anyone at all?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I am torn on this issue. On the one hand, an eye for an eye is a pretty horrible way to go about things and this is very likely to breed even more resentment towards women (they’re not seeking justice, just getting uppity of course). This is really just court sanctioned revenge.

    On the other hand, I am overjoyed that at least something is being done. This is something more than just a slap on the wrist and it shows that the judicial system is actually considering this woman’s pain and suffering to be meaningful.

    I think I’ve come to an uncomfortable acceptance of the issue. Considering cultural and historical differences I don’t think that it is fair or appropriate to hold Iran’s judicial system to the same standard as we hold our own, considering that America’s judicial system is pretty unique. I don’t really think this is a step in the right or wrong direction for women as a whole, it’s more of a step in a tangential direction where this woman is at least getting some relief because her attacker was brought to some sort of distorted justice.

  2. It’s important to remember that someone – some person – has to carry out the sentence. Ordering someone to blind another person, or kill another person in the case of capital punishment, is ordering someone to drop some of his (or her) humanity.
    I’m opposed to killing people who kill people to show that killing is wrong, so it seems logical that I’m against blinding people who blind people to show that blinding is wrong.

  3. I understand revenge. It is so easy that any child can understand it. I know that if this had been done to my wife, sister, daughter, mother, etc that I would want revenge. But I wouldn’t feel any satisfaction from revenge carried out by a court. Courts aren’t supposed to meet out revenge they are supposed to meet out justice within a framework of laws. Courts are supposed to prevent revenge. This man is evil and should be locked up for a very long time, possibly for the rest of his life, that would be justice. Once again, I understand revenge and would have tried to kill this man if it had been my family that suffered. The courts are supposed to protect the people from someone like me who would seek personal revenge. I don’t think that what is being done is justice.

  4. @LOLkate: I definitely see where you’re coming from, and I understand that it’s a different culture. From another perspective, though, do you think that it’s at all condescending (and please keep in mind that I don’t mean purposely so) to suggest that another culture isn’t able to be held to the standard of Western nations? Would expecting better of them be a step toward stopping the hatred against women?

  5. @Rebecca: I’m not at all expecting that they can’t be held to Western standards, but I think that expecting them to forget thousands of years of anti-female sentiment is unrealistic. I would love to see them take more steps towards equality, and I recognize that it is totally possible, but baby steps come before suffragettes.

  6. If we’re going to condemn the persecution of women in other cultures as being outdated and barbaric we should also condemn punishments that are barbaric and outdated. I have to admit, this satisfies a shallow, knee-jerk desire for revenge in me – especially when paired with that other recent story of girls who were squirted with acid on their way to school because they dared educate themselves alongside boys – but this just isn’t the way to progress.

  7. Well, Rebecca didn’t really ask if the punishment is “humane” or “fair.” Instead, she asked if punishing a man (severely) will change their culture. In regards to the punishment, it’s a personally moral decision as to what is ok. One the one hand, one can look at jail time as being akin to slavery, especially in a life sentence. An eye-for-an-eye may seem barbaric, but so can locking people up, especially in a culture where so many are barely surviving. If the father is locked up, the whole family may die.

    For Rebecca’s real question. When I was in Saudi Arabia 10 years ago, it was obvious the culture was changing. Most people seemed open to the West and a “newer” version of morality. However, there was still an oppressive element from those in power (i.e., their religious police). To them, any new ideas of morality threatened their existence, so they enforced laws severely. The truth is that the culture will never fully embrace human rights until popular elections happen and those in charge can be held accountable. This is because the people who are in charge will view any changes as a threat and will use their power to enforce morality.

    This is just an isolated incident and is not necessarily indicative of a great change.

  8. @Jen: Agreed, while the first reaction is that he deserves what he gets. It does not provide the lesson one needs to understand about why this treatment of women is wrong.

  9. For me this is a conflict between my belief that vengeance is not the right way for societies to behave and my unwillingness to stand up for a dirtbag like this.

    As to Rebecca’s comment about holding Iranian society to western standards it’s not condescending to feel they will eventually be able to but to expect them to arrive there overnight is simply unrealistic.

    There is also the possibility that it’s arrogant to suggest that our standards are the ideal, perhaps as Iran grows and betters itself they will solve some of the justice problems we have.

    But in the end I agree that “we are right and they are wrong” but I have no sympathy for this “man”. In a sick way I do think this is better than him going unpunished, but I don’t know if I’d call it progress.

  10. I think that it’s unfair to demand the sort of social progress that the West has had a long time to cultivate, of a country which hasn’t had the same economic (and other) benefits over the same period of time. Their culture is backwards by our standards, but at one point, so was our own. Iran is making progress in catching up but I don’t think it’s reasonable or realistic to expect that to happen overnight. If you think about what, say, British society was like before women had the vote, it was still more civilised than the general standard we are expecting from Iran.

    The issue is if Iran isn’t bothered about meeting that general standard, and if enough social change can be engendered without fear of religiously-motivated reprisals, which wasn’t something the suffragettes of Britain had to face. It’s all very well encouraging women to stand up to their oppressors, but if those oppressors think that murder is a solution then those women aren’t going to get very far. As Rebecca points out, it has to come from the top down. The Iranian government has to stop sanctioning the madness, then the general population will start to follow suit. Or overthrow the government, I don’t know.

    The economic factor is huge here. Why is a woman worth half what a man is? Is the Iranian economy dependent on physical labour? Are most jobs? If so, then it may be felt that a woman’s earning potential is less of that than a man (because in broad terms, women are not a physically strong as men. There are many exceptions but it’s generally true), in which case that’s how the impact of the crime would be measured. We do that to a certain degree here, too, we’re just not as explicit about it. The murder of a rich man or a celebrity can attract a harsher penalty than one homeless junkie killing another, because society has been deprived of more in one case than the other. Some of that is driven by the media, as the public demand satisfaction for a case they’ve heard and care about where they don’t for the junkie.

    Equally, the families of victims of murder here in the UK receive compensation from the Criminal Compensation Board which is based on how much the victim’s life was worth. Literally, how much income he or she would have generated had he or she not died. An unemployed victim is worth a few thousands in compensation, a rich man’s family, deprived of his economic value, are given more.

    Bah now I sound like a wacky fundy society apologist. I’m not, I just think it’s about the least black and white issue we can discuss.

    As to the question, Jen has it right. If we’re condemning one barbaric act, we must condemn them all. I know that’s the civilised answer, and the one I hold to. And yet there’s a little part of me that’s glad this guy got his face melted off. Sigh.

  11. “Will blinding one man who is the product of this society benefit anyone at all?”

    To answer the question directly: No.

    See my comment above, @2. I don’t see how a court ordering people to commit acts of barbarism in any way benefits anyone.

  12. Hmmm, when on the Barbary Coast should one act like a Barbarian??

    I’ll sit back and proclaim a blanket condemnation of their culture, laws and religion with regard to women and justice issues . In the UK the perpetrator would probable only get five years in prison, so I condemn the generally pathetic sentencing of serious criminals in the UK. In Canada probably ten years in a prison with amenities that would make the average Iranian excited at the prospect of serving time in Canada during their next holiday trip. So I also condemn my friends in the great white north. ;) Here in the US (depending on the state I suppose) this would be a serious first degree assault case and would likely get you twenty years of hard time at a minimum. While I would no doubt want (but shouldn’t get) an equivalent type of revenge or even more if the victim were my wife or daughter, I think the western legal practice of making the punishment reasonable and suitable to the crime is the only sustainable option if anarchy and vigilantism is to be avoided.

    That someone in Texas could get a similar twenty year sentence for possessing a small amount of pot is another topic for another day.

  13. There is at least one benefit to their society. If this particular creep ever wants to blind another woman, he’ll have to aim with his spider sense.

    That said, I agree with the sentiment that “an eye for an eye” isn’t productive. It’s really just a tribal blood feud, with government backing one particular clan.

    Of course the flip side is, if they just sent him to jail for a long time, what would prevent him from attacking another woman once he was released? Somehow I doubt that an extended stint in an Iranian prison is going to make him less antagonistic.

    Ah, the competing values of criminal justice. They do vex me so.

  14. @LOLkate: Ah, good point. I agree that we have to have reasonable expectations for how a society evolves.

    To that point, too, I’d like to clarify that in my OP’s final question, I didn’t mean to imply that any one act would necessarily be the savior of the society. However, I don’t think that blinding this man is even one step on the right path to a fair and compassionate society.

  15. While our enlightened minds recognize that the idea of eye for an eye is barbaric, our simian minds still feel happy about it, and we feel bad about feeling good.

  16. Anyone else notice a dark turn in the Skepchick questions recently? Which sense do I want to lose? Do I consider any eye for an eye just? They are good questions, but I feel a little traumatized by even thinking about the answers to them.

    I’m going to wuss out on both and say that I am eternally grateful that I do not have to make such decisions.

  17. @tkingdoll:

    “It’s all very well encouraging women to stand up to their oppressors, but if those oppressors think that murder is a solution then those women aren’t going to get very far. As Rebecca points out, it has to come from the top down. The Iranian government has to stop sanctioning the madness, then the general population will start to follow suit. Or overthrow the government, I don’t know.”

    Two points to the above statement. First while I agree that change needs to come from within Iran, there are things that other nations can do and have effectively worked in the past to help this trend along (The EU forcing Turkey to give up the death penalty as a condition of membership). Western nations (including our own) can lean into Iran and put pressure to their government to protect women who do stand up.

    You make an interesting point about change coming from the top down and the citizens will adjust or overthrow the government. Top down reform (including women’s suffrage) was attempted in Iran under the Shah. But then the Shah was overthrown, many believe because he did too many top-down cultural reforms to fast. I’m not sure top down culture change is effective. Rather the top needs to set an environment in which change can happen from within the culture.

    On a related note. The president of Iran was roundly mocked when he said there are no homosexuals in Iran. On NPR there was an interview with a translator who said that was raw translation, and that what the context was is that there is no homosexual culture or movement in Iran, which is true. The reason is not because of the government, but because the culture is so intolerant that the citizenry polices itself. Having the government say “It’s ok to be gay” wouldn’t fix anything. Rather the government would have to create and ENFORCE laws that protected freedom of speech and protected people from being physically assaulted or killed regardless of their beliefs.

  18. I’m the one that brought it up to Rebecca, and I’m conflicted as well. LOLKate put it well in her first post above. @PrimevilKneivel: “For me this is a conflict between my belief that vengeance is not the right way for societies to behave and my unwillingness to stand up for a dirtbag like this.” That sums it up well for me.

    My first reaction was “I hope you enjoy it as much as she did, you bastard!” Then I started thinking about the possible reactions of the Iranian society.

    Will this mean that Iranian men will be more likely to kill women outright over real or imagined dishonor? (Real or imagined honor is a discussion for another thread.) She has the right to demand his blinding under Islamic Law, but I find it interesting that the authorities at first tried to talk her out of it and indeed, are now taking her seriously enough to approve her demand.

    @tkingdoll: Are we sure that he actually was blinded as she demanded? Has it happened yet or does he have an appeal process?

  19. I can only imagine Iran is thinking “first your saying we have to protect our women, we do that and now your saying we can’t throw acid in peoples’ eyes, we just can’t make you happy, can we.”

  20. Intelligent, if not somewhat idealistic comments. I think the blinding will help, given it is in the context of a country where barbaric justice is the norm. This will, like a 2×4 to the back of the head get the attention of males who think they can do this. Perhaps, after a few men have suffered, they will begin rethinking their justice system altogether. I have always believed that prison reform always follows when a sufficient number of white collar criminals are sent to jail.

  21. Throwing acid on a woman who wants to become a better, more educated individual is totally barbaric. These people should, of course, be held to the higher western standard where women are simply expected to stay barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen where they belong, right? I mean isn’t there a rather large portion of our society that still thinks in those terms? I know several personally, don’t you?
    After the last eight years, I would think we should have a little more humility than to claim how civilized and sophisticated American and other western industrialized cultures are.
    Bottom line, maybe we need to get our own back yard in order before we should feel too smug about critisizing others.
    Are their cultural practices acceptable? Absolutely not. Have we earned the right to feel superior after Abu Gurab and Guantanamo? I wonder…

  22. In the second linked article, they mention that acid attacks are horribly common.

    Is strong acid not regulated? Why not?

  23. @MyNameIsTim: Because every Iranian know that acid is the only way to keep some uppity women in their place, this guy just went to far with a woman he didn’t own. Oh I mean wasn’t married to0.

  24. @James Fox: My dad worked at a maximum security prison and several of his stories indicated it was not pleasant for the inmates – this from a man who has nothing but contempt for the lot of them, which seemed to be the general attitude of the prison guards at large.

    Not that my little anecdote completely trumps what you said, but I thought I’d share an example that not all Canadian prisons are like a vacation. The things my dad would get “upset” about were the most basic of human rights or trivialities like Christmas candy from a charity group.

    I think it screws with the brain a little to see a rapist get Christmas candy when you think he should have his balls ripped off so it seems like prison is a vacation. To me, it’s treating people like humans despite their despicable acts and that is what makes us different from, say, Iran.

  25. I’m the queen of unclarity there above. To clarify:

    – max security prison can suck
    – the good things that happen to the inmates tend to be pretty small things

  26. Does this guy deserve to have his eyes out? Sure, probably

    But do the Iranian people deserve a government which is allowed to put people’s eyes out? I don’t think so.

  27. @MyNameIsTim: Acids are commonly used in industrial settings and for heavy duty cleaning. If you look at drain cleaner, for example, it’s frequently sulphuric acid or a mixture of acids. Car battery acid is also sulphuric acid. The stuff is is easy to get and very dangerous, as are many chemicals. It all depends on to what use they are put. The same acid that unstops your drain will destroy someone’s eyes.

    Denver7M brings up another point that has been on my mind. It’s much harder for the US to claim any moral high ground since Guantanamo.

    Perhaps Wallet55 is right – It takes a 2×4 across the head to get changes made.

  28. I’m torn on this one. On the one hand I completely agree with jtradke’s comment – very well put!

    On the other hand…previously I lived in a neighborhood where there was a kid suspected of torturing people’s pets. I’m very fond of my pets and didn’t want them hurt – so I sat this kid down and calmly explained that anything that happened to my pets – whether I could prove he did it or not – I was going to do to him. Burned, stabbed, beaten, whatever. I meant it, and he understood I meant it.
    And suddenly there were no more pets turning up with injuries.
    So…I dunno. If men in a culture that accepts horrendous abuse of women, clearly understand that whatever abuse they inflict will be inflicted on them – if that standard is applied consistently throughout the court system – barbaric or not, it might work.

  29. @Kimbo Jones: Oh I’m sure there are some appropriately restrictive and “hard” Canadian prisons. Up north of me in BC there have been a number of serious crimes where the perpetrator has received ridiculously mild sentences. One young man killed an elderly woman while street racing and only received probation and some home detention. And as for your fathers attitude…, good on ya pops!! Max prisons have the turds who do the max bad things after all.

  30. I think the real issue, that no one has pointed out yet, is that the punishment is being decided upon not based on any sense of “fairness” but on “What the koran says”.

    Which is a pretty poor way to go about working out Criminal Justice. Blinding this guy will in no way improve the lot of women in Iran, if anything it will strength the hold of Islam of their Judicial system as “Islamic Justice” is held up to be “better” than secular rivals.

    I’d bet the Mullahs are preying right now a Western feminist will go on TV saying she thinks this guy should have his eyes burnt out, propaganda coup.

  31. Although I’ve been reading for a while, I wasn’t motivated to join up until now. I’ve lived both in the Middle East and the US, and I’m an atheist from a mixed Muslim-Christian family. A few thoughts, if I may.

    Acid attacks are *not* common in the Middle East. Unless we’re now including places like Afghanistan and Bangladesh in “Middle East.” Iranian girls simply aren’t walking around fearing acid attacks like women in other places are. I mean, there are other methods of attacking women there, just like there are here. It’s just for the sake of accuracy.

    Also, you mention that the Constitution of Iran proscribes lashing as a punishment for not wearing hijab. Can you please direct me to the exact article in the Constitution that says this, as I have not been able to find it? Also, when you say “higher office,” do you mean president of the republic or do you mean other things as well, and which article specifies that women are banned from these offices? Thanks, I appreciate it.

    I don’t understand how this man-as-stalker is somehow worse than any American man-as-stalker. A guy does this in Iran and it’s because of his backwards culture and dumb religion, but he does it in the US and becomes the subject of an award-winning documentary film? (And gets the girl, so bonus points for that). See:

    I know that is just one example, but to me, as an observer on both sides of the fence, so to speak, it does highlight a difference in the way people perceive the same crime if perpetrated by someone whose racial, national, or religious background is not only different from theirs, but perceived as being completely opposed to one’s way of life.

    Having lived “over there”, I do not want to equate Western society’s issues with women – objectification, violence – with those of the Muslim or Middle Eastern countries. I will attest to the fact that it is much better here. I have much more freedom here than I did there. But at the same time, these discussions always take on a “We’re civilised, and they’re not” tone, and I think it serves us well to be reminded that we have a long way to go too.

    As another example, it is hard for me to really accept the notion that our American system of justice, for example, is so superior to that of Iran or any other Muslim country when we have children who can be tried as adults (like an 8 yr old boy who recently killed his father), and minors can get the death penalty. Both systems have problems, both have failures. Overall, I think a secular system of justice is always better, but I wouldn’t crow about it until we address our own shortcomings.

    That’s all I wanted to say; thank you for your time.

  32. @Mathurine:

    Also, you mention that the Constitution of Iran proscribes lashing as a punishment for not wearing hijab. Can you please direct me to the exact article in the Constitution that says this, as I have not been able to find it? Also, when you say “higher office,” do you mean president of the republic or do you mean other things as well, and which article specifies that women are banned from these offices? Thanks, I appreciate it.

    Sure, that came from a number of sources, like this PDF from WFAFI stating the following:

    Article 102 of Iran’s Constitution indicates: “Women who appear on streets and in public without the
    prescribed ‘Islamic Hejab’ will be condemned to 74 strokes of the lash.”

    On restricting higher office to men:

    Article 115 of Iran’s Constitution states the condition for the presidential candidates the law states that:

    “The President must come from among the religious and political statesmen (rejal).” The word rejal literally means men of high achievement.


    Article 162 of Iran’s Constitution states the condition for the attorney general. “The head of justice department and attorney general must be ‘mojtahed’ [a religious man who is able to issue decree], honest, and knowledgeable in legal subject matters.”

    However, I’m trying to find the basis for those quotes and am failing, so perhaps they’re all mistaken? I’ll keep trying to dig up the source.

  33. Thanks so much for those references. Having lived over there (where critical thinking is never at it’s finest), I am never sure what is actually enshrined in law and what is enforced by culture and tribe. I know there have been women in the Iranian cabinet, so I didn’t know what offices exactly they might be forbidden from by law, if anything. [In many parts of the Middle East, women view the Iranians as models because they *do* have a lot of freedom, are active in sports, and because there are so many female PhDs and t hings like that, which kind of illustrates the extent of the suckage in other countries.]

    If you find any more references, I’ll definitely want to see them so I can bookmark them for future reference.

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