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Iranian women go online to break silence over sexual abuse

Iranian women riding a bus in Tehran.
Iranian women riding a bus in Tehran. © AFP file photo
Text by: Bahar MAKOOI
5 min

Dozens of Iranian women have taken to social media to share their stories of sexual harassment and rape, breaking years of silence and shedding light on a legal system that is weighted against the victims.

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For 14 years, Sara Omatali kept her personal trauma under wraps, unable to speak out about the ordeal she suffered in Tehran in the summer of 2006. The former journalist, who now lives in the United States, was sexually assaulted while interviewing a prominent artist in the Iranian capital. A week ago, she finally decided to break her silence on Twitter.

Omatali is among dozens of Iranian women who have recently taken to social media to denounce the sexual harassment and abuse they suffered. Some have used the #MeToo hashtag, coined in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Omatali was encouraged to speak out after reading the account of another young woman who said she was raped three years ago by a Tehran socialite. In her account posted on Instagram in mid-August, the woman said she woke up naked after her assailant had drugged and raped her. Her post soon went viral and more than a dozen women have since come forward to claim they were attacked by the same man.

Faced with the backlash, Tehran police arrested the suspect on August 25. In a rare twist, Iranian authorities have encouraged women to come forward and press charges.

"We assure the anonymity of all complaints," said Hossein Rahimi, Tehran's police chief, in remarks carried by the IRNA state news agency.

In recent weeks, other Iranian women have taken to Instagram and Twitter to name their alleged assailants. The accused include a university professor as well as prominent artists, actors and writers.

Several of the victims said they were minors at the time of the abuse. Some, mostly journalists, have dared to speak out without using a pseudonym.

Their accounts have elicited a wave of support on social media. In some cases, lawyers have offered legal advice, mindful that the accusations could turn against the plaintiffs. Some have offered to counsel victims pro bono.

“If you have been raped, you should tell the police you were a virgin before the assault,” read one comment on a victims’ post, according to French daily Le Monde.

Under Iranian law, sexual intercourse before marriage is punishable by 99 lashes and alcohol consumption is also banned.

A biased legal system

The flurry of accounts on social media has helped to crack a long-standing taboo and raise awareness of rampant sexual abuse, Omatali said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“In the absence of systematic education about sexual issues in Iran, this group movement improves the atmosphere for a public discussion and creates a precious opportunity for education,” she said.

"All these years I remained silent, as I was afraid of those who would tell me I had no evidence to prove my claim ... but now, I feel that it is below my dignity to stay silent out of fear," the Washington-based educator added on Twitter.

It is not only the personal trauma and the fear of social stigma that force victims into silence. The laws of the Islamic Republic also act as a deterrent for many victims, according to lawyer Mohammad Oliaeifard.

In remarks carried by Persian-language website IranWire, Oliaeifard stressed the difficulty of proving rape in an Iranian court. To be recognised as such, a rape must be confirmed by multiple eyewitnesses and involve penile penetration.

The severity of punishments meted out can also dissuade victims from pressing charges, with convicted rapists in Iran likely to be sentenced to capital punishment.

Le Monde spoke to one accuser of the alleged serial rapist who was arrested in late August and recounted her qualms about the possible consequences of a lawsuit.

“It troubles me that he might end up being executed,” she told the French daily. “I’m against the death penalty, even in cases of rape.”

Iran’s vice-president for women and family affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, praised women on Friday for speaking out on sexual assault and called on the judiciary to “forcefully confront” rapists.

“The fact that our girls talk seriously and with intensity about the issue is very valuable, even if it is painful,” Ebtekar was quoted as saying by Borna news agency. The government is currently working on new legislation against sexual violence to present to parliament, she added. 

The article was translated from the original in French.

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