Faezeh Maleki died in a hospital bed in northwestern Iran, days after she was admitted with burns to some 85 percent of her body.
Women’s rights activists allege that the 22-year-old, who recently divorced her husband, was the victim of a so-called "honor killing": the murder of women for allegedly dishonoring the family, such as eloping with men, committing adultery, or even getting divorced.
Activists accuse Maleki’s father of drenching her in petrol and setting her on fire in the family’s garden in the village of Dolatabad in Kurdistan Province.
Activists said Maleki had a boyfriend at the time of her death. In some conservative rural areas, Iranian girls and women who have relationships with men outside marriage are the target of violence and even death.
Maleki’s family insists that she suffered from depression and self-immolated, a claim that has been dismissed by her alleged boyfriend. The family has also claimed that Maleki’s father, Habibollah Maleki, sustained burns to his face and hands while trying to save his daughter.
Maleki’s death on October 3 triggered small but rare protests in cities in Kurdistan, with female demonstrators demanding that judicial authorities conduct a full investigation into her death.
Hundreds of women are estimated to be the victims of honor killings each year in Iran, a conservative and patriarchal country where violence against women is widespread.
Burned With 'Gasoline'
Authorities said they launched an investigation on October 4, a day after her death was revealed on social media by a man identifying himself as a doctor who works at the hospital where Maleki was admitted.
“They brought in a 22-year-old [to the hospital],” Iman Navabi wrote in a October 3 post on Instagram that was later deleted. “Her father had burned 85 percent of her body with gasoline just because she had a boyfriend. I won’t share her photos due to the severity of her injuries.”
In another post, Navabi said Maleki died despite attempts by doctors to save her.
Kurdistan’s Public Prosecutor Mohammad Jabari confirmed on October 4 that a 22-year-old woman in the province had died from burns. But he said it was not clear if the woman self-immolated or was set on fire by her father.
Jabari suggested that Navabi, who he did not name, will be referred to Iran’s Medical Board for possible disciplinary action.
“This individual should not have posted on social media when nothing has been determined yet,” Jabari was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
RFE/RL was unable to reach Navabi.
'Full Of Life'
Women’s rights activists in the region, who have little faith in the judicial system that they accuse of failing to protect women, are concerned that Maleki’s case could be hushed up.
Women have staged at least two separate protests in the cities of Sanandaj and Marivan in Kurdistan in recent days.
The female protesters demanded a “transparent” investigation into Maleki’s death and called for new laws that would better protect women from violence. The demonstrators also said they would launch their own probe into Maleki’s death.
One of the activists who participated in the protests, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said Maleki’s alleged boyfriend told her that the two wanted to get married but her father was against it.
The alleged boyfriend, according to the activist, said Maleki was “full of life” and not suicidal.
RFE/RL was not able to reach the alleged boyfriend.
One of Maleki’s sisters told the Rokna news site that her sister, who divorced from her husband about a month ago, had told her in the past that “she wanted to free herself from this life.”
She said that on the day of her death Maleki had slapped her younger sister following a dispute. Her father had protested. According to her account, an hour later, the family had heard Maleki screaming and saw that she had set herself on fire in a bathroom located in the garden of their home.
Activists have dismissed that version of events. They said Maleki’s father had locked her in the bathroom for two days before setting her on fire.
When RFE/RL contacted the family’s home, a woman who identified herself as Maleki’s sister insisted that the young woman had committed suicide.
“She did it herself,” the woman said on October 6, without providing details.
The Rudaw news outlet quoted the family’s neighbor as saying that on the afternoon of October 1 people in the area had rushed to the Maleki family’s garden after hearing screams. He added that neighbors had heard Maleki repeatedly saying: “My father set me on fire.”
“What is clear is that Faezeh and her father were in that garden and only her father knows what happened,” the unnamed neighbor was quoted as saying.
Despite the lack of evidence, activists interviewed by RFE/RL said they were convinced that Maleki was the victim of an honor killing.
There are no official statistics kept in Iran about honor killings, but according to academic articles and university-thesis estimates cited by the daily Ebtekar in 2020, every year between 375 and 450 such killings occur in Iran. In many cases, the women are killed by their male relatives -- including their husbands, fathers, and brothers -- in the name of preserving the family’s "honor."
“In many cases of femicide, [relatives] claim that victims had suffered from depression and committed suicide to change the narrative,” a well-known women’s rights activist in Sanandaj told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.
She said violence against women is widespread in the region due to factors such as patriarchy, forced and child marriages, and laws that fail to protect women against domestic violence.
Both self-immolation of women -- seen as acts of desperation committed by women suffering from domestic abuse or sexual violence -- and cases of femicide have been documented in the region.
Fatemeh Karimi, the head of the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network, told RFE/RL that her group has recorded 17 cases of murder of women in the province since March. She says a third are believed to have been "honor killings."
“The issue of so-called honor is very strong and laws have institutionalized violence against women by not punishing perpetrators,” Karimi said.
More importantly, she added, Kurdish women are increasingly resisting traditional roles reserved for them.
“These women are becoming aware of their rights and standing up against moral codes imposed on them,” she said. “But society is not ready to accept it so many of them pay a heavy price.”