The #metoo campaign has made it all the way to Iran, which is significant for several reasons.
It’s rare that popular global causes have such an immediate impact in Iran, but it’s especially rare this has caused Iranian women to be open about what has long been a taboo subject.
Traditionally even the closest friends and family members of sexual assault victims would look for ways to find fault in a female accuser’s own behavior. Victim blaming has been the norm for centuries.
But the #metoo campaign has taken hold.
Many Iranian women feel empowered by sharing their personal experiences on social media for the first time. They seem to not be worried about being judged anymore and are using the #metoo in their public profiles just like women in more open societies.
A hashtag translated into Farsi also evolved, #من_هم. (Man Ham or “me too.”)
Some didn’t share personal details, but still participated. One of those women is Iranian actress Anahita Hemmati, who posted a smiling selfie on Oct.18 accompanied by the hashtag. She didn’t offer additional comments.
After Iran’s 1979 revolution, women became more vulnerable to victim-blaming as the Islamic Republic’s official interpretation of Islam deems uncovered women to be unfairly tempting to men.
One Twitter user, @mansourh_mo, who dresses in the most conservative form of Islamic dress in Iran known as the chador“I have been sexually assaulted several times, even wearing chador, although I have never been quiet about. Not having ‘appropriate dress’ is nothing more than a patriarchal excuse.”, (literal translation: “tent”) wrote:
Iranian women most commonly experience sexual assault in public places like the metro, bus or street in the form of groping. Being assaulted in the workplace is also common.
There is no systemic protection, support or training around sexual assault in Iran. Even raising public awareness around the issue carries a stigma post-revolution. Women have long been forced to deal with this on their own.
Some women also used #metoo to talk about their methods of self-defense against predators, such as quietly using a hair pin to stab abusive men in a taxi to push them away.
Revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior caused a resurgence around this movement, but actresses in Iran have complained about incidences of sexual assault in the domestic film industry for years.
But in a country where Islamic rules prevent people from publicly talking about sex, actresses often have to resort to using veiled terms like “immoral,” “corrupt,” or “ugly” behavior to explain their traumas.
Saba Kamali, an Iranian actress who hasn’t appeared in a film in the past five years said recently “every time I said no, they pushed me to the sideline for five years. The corrupt individuals in this industry are the decision makers, not the actors. Seventy percent of people in our industry are corrupt. They make us think women are bad, but that is not true.”
She added that she had to fend off a “highly connected producer” who tried to force himself into her home at 3 a.m.
The plague of sexual assault appears within Iranian families as well. In the past few months, several mothers have come forward publicly to talk about their daughters being raped or sexually assaulted by their stepfathers, the women’s husbands.
In one case, a 7-year-old girl was raped more than 70 times by her stepfather before her mother discovered it. The story got so much attention on social media that Iran’s state television finally covered it.
Last week, a 12-year-old girl was assaulted in her school by the school janitor in the northwestern Iranian city of Urmia. The city officials initially denied the occurrence of any sexual harassment but finally arrested the janitor.
Although it remains a difficult subject for women in Iran to speak about publicly, Iranian artists have helped bring light to the issue.
Hush! Girls Don’t Scream, a drama made in 2013 by Pouran Derakhshandeh, a prominent Iranian female director, depicted a woman named Shirin, who is sentenced to death for killing a man in defense of a younger girl who was being sexually abused by the man. Shirin’s character was frequently abused by a different man in her childhood.
While access to social media has created an opportunity to hear about similar stories of survivors of sexual assault, including American women, is empowering Iranian women to finally share their own experiences more openly, this won’t be the end to their pain.
A survivor, Rana, 23 told one of Iran’s reformist publication Donya-e-Eqtesad, of her many symptoms that followed the night she was sexually assaulted. She spoke of wetting her bed, nightmares and washing herself with alcohol to cleanse herself. But nothing works to undo the damage that has been done.