It all began with a tweet from an anonymous male user smacking of sexual perversion.
A “Me Too” wave is taking the online world in Iran by storm, with thousands of women breaking years of silence on sexual harassment and rape in a movement that has initiated conversation about what remains a taboo topic in the Islamic Republic
For almost two months, dozens of Iranian women, and some men, have taken to social media to share stories of sexual abuse while publicly exposing their abusers, including well-connected and high-profile figures. They are also demanding accountability. Hashtags have been pouring out: they name names and speak out against #rape, #assault and #perpetrators. All of this has sparked public outrage in Iran and abroad.
It all began with a tweet in early August by an anonymous male user who advised how to convince a woman to engage in sexual activity on a first date. It involved kissing without permission and pretending to be “overwhelmed by her beauty”.
Within a few hours, a young Iranian woman (@Yegooneh) started a thread to tell the story of when she had personally met the user in real life. He had made unwanted advances and groped her. Many other women followed, sharing similar incidents about the same man. He was soon identified as Morteza Sayidi, a translator of many literary works to Persian. He subsequently had to deactivate his account after facing a huge backlash.
The tweet in question triggered a whole discussion on issues that are barely discussed: consent versus coercion, harassment and rape.
“It was as if the shame was suddenly gone and people should speak out. It marked a real cultural change for our country”, Tehran-based senior attorney, Mozhdeh Pourmand, commented. “That was the beginning of the conversation”.
A few days later, a group of Iranian female journalists recorded a video in which they shared personal experiences of harassment by male colleagues, or influential individuals, they had interviewed. The video created more momentum as other women, mostly with anonymised accounts on Twitter, started posting their stories and naming or using the initials of alleged perpetrators, including men in positions of power.
In one allegation, Sara Omatali, a former journalist and now educator based in the US, tweeted how a well-known Iranian painter, Aydin Aghdashloo, had assaulted her in the summer of 2006, after she had been in his office for an interview. Back then, naked under a brown cloak, the artist held her tightly trying to kiss her lips before she managed to get rid of him and escape into the street.
“For years and years, I felt shame, guilt and disgrace. I blamed myself!” Omatali said, recalling how she had felt before the Me Too movement kickoff in the United States in 2017. Then, she started dreaming of an Iranian version: “I promised myself that if and when a woman was to open up about her experience, I would support her and tell my story”, the former reporter said, “I hope that way more women can find the strength to come forward and heal their wounds”.
Omatali’s account went viral prompting other young women to step up recounting similar experiences with Aghdashloo. He rebutted the allegations.
A hashtag storm quickly ignited a movement as more Iranians came to the fore to tell their own stories of sexual harassment, assault and abuse, posting under the global #MeToo and the Farsi نه-یعنی-نه# (no means no) and نه-به-تجاوز# (no to rape).
“It was really astounding to see the breadth and range of experiences that women have endured, how prevalent these incidents are, and how they are willing to give their accounts”, Sussan Tahmasebi, an Iranian feminist and women’s rights advocate, observed.
In late August, several girls, many of them university students, used Twitter to expose Keyvan Emamverdi, a former art student and bookshop owner, as their assailant. They claimed he had drugged and raped them after he had pressured them to meet at his home.
In an uncommon and swift move, Tehran police arrested a suspect with the initials KE on 25 August, and invited others to lodge complaints against the alleged rapist, promising to respect their anonymity. The police also assured that the women would not be charged for drinking alcohol or having extramarital affairs, both of which are illegal in Iran.
According to Tahmasebi, legal experts and scholars have explained in articles, TV interviews and on social media, that in the KE case, the fact that multiple women, all unrelated to each other, made very similar accusations, turned out to be “sufficient proof” even though the incidents were not necessarily violent, and there were no physical bruises, for example, through which women could prove their claims.
Law enforcement, prosecutors and judges in Iran require high-standard evidence to prove coercion, such as bodily harm or attempts to flee.
It was the first time Iranian authorities responded to rape allegations in a public fashion, as such cases would be typically presented as if sexual assault happened rarely or it was the fault of the victim.
“Seeing the police intervention was something very new”, noted Pourmand who also offers free legal advice to victims of rape and sexual assault, “it showed the power of social media that pushed the authorities take action”.
Over the past several weeks, an unprecedented support of Twitter users has encouraged women and men to break their silence on their traumatic experiences in the preceding years – many of them have wanted to remain anonymous. A number of off-line reports have also been reported.
Allegations have been levelled against a range of attackers, from teachers and professors, to doctors, stars of the sporting world, media and the arts, a manager of a start-up and even a sociologist working on women’s rights issues.
Tahmasebi, who is also the director of FEMENA, remarked that while initially the confessions where sexual abusers were not named were well received, once prominent personalities were singled out as harassers, there was “some resistance” in the public in showing understanding toward survivors.
She added that keeping anonymity on social networks enabled victims to come forward with their revelations in the hope of avoiding judgement or further suffering. Also, in her opinion, growing awareness and anger among Iranian women over male privilege and power, as well as impunity for sexual predators, motivated them to talk about such taboo subjects publicly.
On the other hand, the FEMENA director noticed in the early stages of the Twitter storm in Iran, that there was “little understanding” among its users on the notion of consent. Nor was there much understanding over the differences between sexual harassment, abuse or rape in the narratives circulated.
For the veteran women’s rights militant, the women’s movement inside Iran has been successful at leading the discussion in a very “responsible” and “reflected” way through securing a space where women’s voices are heard, raising awareness, providing information and knowledge, designing protocols to address workplace harassment etc.
Yet, societal and cultural barriers continue to prevent a lot of people from joining the brave few who have been commended for their honesty. In a highly conservative environment, with victim-blaming and the social stigma attached to sexual harassment, Iranians often find themselves vulnerable or unwilling to tell anyone they had a forced sexual encounter, or seek justice.
Moreover, attempts to hold offenders accountable through the judiciary can be very difficult. Legal and law enforcement procedures, in dealing with sexual abuse cases, lack clear-cut punishments, thus making victims reluctant to file complaints.
Iran’s criminal law has a limited and problematic definition of rape that does not recognise marital rape and other forms of sexual assault. Instead, the legal system criminalises consensual sexual relations outside of marriage, which are punishable by flogging. Consequently, a victim who reports rape potentially risks being prosecuted for engaging in extramarital sexual activity if the authorities do not believe her, especially if there is a pre-existing relationship.
Other shortfalls, according to Pourmand, include the lack of proper training for special units suited to handle cases of sexual assault, and the absence of female police officers. There are very few who are trained to deal with these cases, and this tends to culturally undermine the chance of assault survivors making formal complaints. As a result, the lawyer explained, victims end up being put through “repeated detailing” over their painful stories and “frequent questioning” from practically all-male, untrained police officers, prosecutors and judges, who usually deem those speaking out, guilty. It only causes more harm.
To make matters tougher, the legal punishment of rape in Iran is execution. This discourages some of the women who exposed their rapists from pressing charges, all driven by their not agreeing with the death penalty.
“There is now a big concern about the fate of the arrested offender [Keyvan Emamverdi] who remains in custody. Because it’s a very public case, the court could opt for the harshest punishment to attract publicity”, the attorney warned.
Omatali pointed to the absence of systematic education over gender and sexual issues, as well as the lack of free, independent investigative journalism in Iran. These have been highlighted as two major problems that may hinder the efforts of the new anti-harassment movement. However, she acknowledged the educational potential the Iranian #MeToo campaign has in the social media sphere, after all, it provides a “proper space” for public discussion, and increases awareness among people about sexual abuse and power imbalances between men and women in the society.
“I got a lot of messages from friends and strangers on Twitter and Instagram saying how my publicised story motivated them to bring up harassment with their families”, the educator said.
The Iranian #MeToo drive has helped refocus the conversation in the public space on sexual abuse, generating a new empathetic and supportive stance in the society vis-à-vis those who have experienced behaviour of this kind.
“The women’s movement in Iran is guiding this discussion. I expect it to continue and evolve in a deeper way that will allow for greater prevention but also for healing”, Tahmasebi concluded, in a hopeful tone.
Although there are no official statistics on the number of reported sex crimes, sexual abuse is thought to be widespread in Iranian society.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Iranian sociologist, Saeed Madani, said that the highest incidents of rape are in Tehran, with some 1,600 sexual crimes being recorded annually. However, it is estimated that about 80 percent of rape cases are not being reported.