Iranian women wearing face masks sit in a women-only train carriage at a metro station in the capital Tehran on June 10, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: AFP/Stringer

A tidal wave of shocking revelations made by Iranian women about their experiences with sexual abuse and harassment has overwhelmed social media platforms in recent days, as calls for busting taboos on speaking out about rape and abuse in a conservative society have given impetus to a Persian-language #MeToo moment.

The names of several prominent Iranian artists, university professors, TV personalities and even parliamentarians and government officials are implicated in the new disclosures, and allegations are floating around public figures who were long presumed to be decent individuals.

One of the first allegations was made by Sara Omatali, a former journalist and now an educator based in the United States, who shared on her Twitter handle an eyebrow-raising account of being molested by the noted Iranian painter and graphic designer Aydin Aghdashloo 14 years ago.

Aghdashloo, now 79, has represented Iran in several international exhibitions and was honored with a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor medal by the French government in 2016.

As Omatali’s story went viral, other young women also came forward, recounting similar experiences with Aydin Aghdashloo, claiming the veteran artist had made unwanted sexual advances on them in the context of painting training classes.

The New York Times’ Iran correspondent Farnaz Fassihi has put the number of these women at 22.

Aghdashloo has sent letters to several Iranian news agencies rebutting the allegations. He has also posted a note on his Instagram page, which has 110,000 followers, saying he unconditionally supports this “imperative movement of the contemporary women” and respects their demands. His statement was mocked by social media users.

Tweets are being posted with the hashtags reading “rape” and “let’s not be silent” in Persian and women are putting into words their traumatic experiences with rape and sexual assault in the preceding years.

‘A destroyed confidence’

Zahra, a 32-year-old language teacher in the city of Qom, is one of hundreds of Iranian women who have built on the momentum of the Persian #MeToo campaign to narrate their experiences.

She wrote on her Twitter page that she had been looking for an apartment to rent a couple of years ago, and upon noticing an advertisement on an online business directory, gave a call to the homeowner and made arrangements to visit the building.

On arrival at the site, she realized the homeowner was a young man. While guiding her to view different sections of the flat, the man offered her drinks and asked her a number of questions, including whether she was alone, and eventually, after taking her to the bedroom, locked her in, groped her and assaulted her sexually.

Zahra was able to salvage herself from the predicament with the help of a taxi driver who had taken her to the apartment and was waiting outside, and rushed upstairs after the waiting time took more than usual.

“It was one of the most appalling experiences of my lifetime. For a long period of time, I was struggling not to think about it. It made me fearful, destroyed my confidence and caused a feeling of insecurity to perpetually accompany me,” she told Asia Times.

“For me, the best treatment was working. I immersed myself in my job and studies, so that I won’t think about that sad day, and I was successful to some extent. However, it is like an old wound for me that can never be permanently cured, and watching a movie or reading a news story can easily take me back to those moments.

“I even didn’t consult a psychologist because I didn’t want to hear from anyone that I was to blame,” she said.

An Iranian-American sociologist at Santa Monica College believes the public reproduction of these accounts by Iranian women can function as the first step for them to be empowered and claim their rights.

“The women narrating their experiences with sexual assault will allow this issue to become culturally acceptable. It has long been a taboo for women and men to talk about sexual assault and harassment because it has been shameful to talk about these issues,” said Dr Elham Gheytanchi, who specializes in women’s rights in Iran.

“It brings awareness to other women as to how sexual assault can take place and it can be initiated by people in power, albeit culturally or religiously. [Also], the authorities will now have to make sure there are ways to address these complaints legally and ensure women’s safety,” she added.

However, as said by many of those who have shared their stories in the recent days, in a religiously conservative society where women are deemed to be inferior to men in many aspects of public life, women as the victims of sexual abuse are not always sympathized with, but are often faulted as the cause of the conundrum.

Gheytanchi acknowledged that although the problem of sexual abuse is a universal phenomenon, the publicizing of such incidents can be more sensitive in conservative Muslim societies.

“Part of it is because women are seen as sources of ‘fitna’ or the probable cause of men’s sexual desire. In Islam, usually women are responsible to make sure men are not provoked, by covering themselves properly and acting modestly. So, in cases of sexual abuse, women are treated as the provoker and not the victim,” she said.

Legal vacuums

Iran’s legal and law enforcement procedures in dealing with sexual assault cases are gravely complicated, riddled with an absence of transparency, lacking in clear-cut punishments, and bogged down by lengthy courses of action needed to be taken by the complainants.

“Overall, the investigation procedures in the judicial system for the cases of sexual assault are bureaucratic, sluggish and erosive for the complainants. When it comes to rape victims, proper training for special units qualified to follow up and investigate these cases are missing,” said Mozhdeh Pourmand, a senior attorney-at-law in Tehran.

“The absence of female police officers trained to deal with these cases would psychologically and culturally undermine the chances of victims showing up to lodge complaints. Moreover, repeatedly sketching out the details of a painful incident and responding to frequent questions of the police, inspector and judge who are normally all-male and usually consider the victims as the guilty due to lack of proper training is an added suffering,” she told Asia Times.

Dr Gheytanchi agrees that there is a legal vacuum in Iran when it comes to investigating and penalizing sexual harassment: “The law is not clear about the definition of sexual abuse so it is hard to punish the perpetrators and protect the victims. There are a lot of discrepancies when it comes to the legal age of girls for marriage, voting, and thereby reporting sexual assault.”

In the Islamic Penal Code that was initially ratified by the Iranian parliament in 1991 and revised in 2009, rape by the use of force is punishable by the death penalty. But other forms of sexual harassment including verbal transgressions, groping, unwelcome or inappropriate advances and exhibitionism are not dealt with and courts and the police are usually reluctant to scrutinize them.

“Iranian law is rather limited when it comes to the criminalization of sexual crimes, categorizing them into two broad categories of rape by force and unlawful sexual relationship,” said Pourmand.

“Evidently, with this inadequate perspective, proving the crimes is strictly subject to the availability of evidence such as CCTV footage or messages exchanged between individuals; otherwise, the statements of victims claiming being subjected to harassment are not considered.”

Now the online momentum driving more Iranian women to divulge their untold tribulations with sexual assault is providing an opening for unity against a social evil that blights almost all countries, but is camouflaged in many settings, including Iran, for cultural, religious and societal reasons.

It is also shifting attitudes toward the standing of victims and perpetrators in instances of sexual assault and paving the way for a more intelligent debate. Even some men have volunteered to share their experiences with sexual abuse in their childhood and teenage days.

“As soon as the MeToo movement emerged internationally, I was waiting for a similar action in Iran. I think it is time to change the status quo by helping each other, and the first step is to have the courage to speak out and listen, so that the victims can share their narratives without being judged and without being accused,” Zahra, the 32-year-old language teacher currently residing in Tehran, told Asia Times.

Despite the criticisms leveled against Iran’s law enforcement for its tardy response to sexual assault allegations, the online groundswell of disclosures has apparently forced its first response.

Keyvan Emamverdi, a former art student at the University of Tehran, accused by several young women on Twitter of sexual assault and misconduct, was arrested by Tehran police on Tuesday, August 25.