Ethics Hero: Ameneh Bahrami

Ameneh Bahrami, now, and then

Ameneh Bahrami, the Iranian woman whom a spurned suitor blinded and hideously disfigured with acid,  had her long-awaited opportunity for both revenge and culturally-sanctioned justice today.  She watched a doctor prepare to put several drops of acid in one of Majid Movahedi’s eyes as his court-ordered punishment for maiming her. Then, at the last moment, she waived her right to have him blinded, as Movahedi, who had repeatedly asked her to marry him before responding to her rejections by throwing acid the young woman’s face, wept in gratitude.

The story of Banrani’s insistence on the full retribution available to her under Islamic law had spurred human rights protests around the globe. In the end, with all of Iran watching on live television, she decided on mercy instead of revenge.

It is easy, in the abstract, for us to insist that hate is never justified, that violence and vengeance are always wrong, that an unethical act does not become ethical because of the acts of another, no matter how terrible they may have been. Any of us, however, who looks at the photographs of Ameneh Bahrami before the attack on her, and the photographs of her now, must wonder what we would be feeling behind that ruined mask of a face.

She is blind. Her beauty is only a painful memory, her life is permanently diminished. The rationalizations she could embrace to validate a decision to allow the doctor to proceed to blind her assailant were many and persuasive. The pain and lasting injury Majid would suffer was nothing compared to what he had done to her: the Iranian court ruled that he had to pay with only the sight of one eye for robbing her of her vision entirely. In her country, religion and culture there is no crime in allowing such a barbaric punishment to go forward. Who would say, even among her critics, that he didn’t deserve every drop of that acid, and more?

In November 2008, after she received the ruling entitling her to have  Movahedi’s eye drenched in acid,  Bahrami told a radio station  that she was satisfied with the sentence. Later, she said she was less interested in revenge than in discouraging similar attacks. At some point since that time, perhaps at the very last second, she decided to send a very different message, one of mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.

It is even possible that she never intended to allow the doctor to go through with the sentence, that she wanted only to let her assailant live with the dread of the punishment for the last three years. This is a form of torture, surely, but it does not make her decision to suppress her hatred and  forgo her right to retribution any less admirable. If this woman can forgive what was done to her, we should be able to forgive just about anything and anyone. Some might have said, before her act of mercy, that this blind, disfigured woman had nothing left to live for. Yet with this single act, Ameneh Bahrami has made herself as powerful a role model for ethical conduct as anyone in the world.

8 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Ameneh Bahrami

  1. I could say that disfiguring someone is never proper punishment and that convincing someone you’re going to without any intention of doing it is still wrong, but I’ll leave that one alone when it applies to someone a little less vile.

    Something that bugs me is how the emphasize the beauty of someone before they were disfigured. What if they were plain? What if they were a 4 out of 10? If I was disfigured in some tragic way, would it be diminished because I wasn’t a dazzlingly handsome man before then?

    What if the tragedy was some ugly man was kidnapped by a plastic surgeon and he transformed his face into a perfect replica of Rachel Leigh Cook’s face? What would we do then?

    I don’t actually want to make light of this. The only appropriate punishment for willfully disfiguring a beautiful woman should be the same for disfiguring an ugly man: a lengthy prison sentence.

    One further question: where do you get acid for throwing in faces, anyway?

    • Without disagreeing with your conclusion, I think it’s fair to note when a beautiful woman’s (or man’s) face is ruined, it is a different kind of tragedy, just as it is for a great dancer to be crippled, or a great singer to lose her voice.

      In determining damages in tort law (as opposed to criminal law), the damage done to a beautiful woman’s face—an actress, or a model, perhaps—would result in a higher jury award, and I see nothing wrong with that. A woman who looks like a lizard before acid is thrown in her face simply is not as damaged, The pain would be the same.

      Beauty is an asset like any other, and has value.

      • There might be an appreciable difference with something that can be more directly linked to a talent (like singing) than regular pulchritude (unless the person was a model). Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say.

        I dunno. It’s just one of those things that bugged me.

        • It may be in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also a quantifiable asset, as lots of research has shown. We may not like the fact that beauty translates into money, happiness and power, but it does…more in third world counties even than here. Is a closed head injury that knocks someone to a 89 IQ more damaging to a genius or a shoeshiner?

  2. It is easy, in the abstract, for us to insist that hate is never justified, that violence and vengeance are always wrong, that an unethical act does not become ethical because of the acts of another, no matter how terrible they may have been.

    Is there any proof that violence and vengeance are always wrong?

    • Sloppily phrased by me. We know there are exceptions—self-defense; just wars; capital punishment. Better to say that “wrong” is the presumption with violence and vengeance, especially in personal, rather than international, disputes.

      • Better to say that “wrong” is the presumption with violence and vengeance, especially in personal, rather than international, disputes.

        And what is the proof?

        • What ethical contentions have “proof,” other than observation, deduction and experience? A society based on vengeance and violence is an unpleasant place to live for all but psychopaths and brutes. What is self-evident doesn’t need proof, but you can test it if you like. There are lots of societies around the world mired in Hobbesian Hells that have these values. I’ll pass: you can tell me about your experiences. If you survive.

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