Iran’s #MeToo Moment: First Steps of a “Long March”

It all started with a cringe-worthy tweet.

“Kiss her lips on the first date and if she didn’t protest that means she’ll let you fuck her,” an Iranian man tweeted in Persian on August 6. “If she did protest, tell her ‘I was lost in your beauty and didn’t know what I was doing.’ This way, she’ll still let you fuck her.”

The crude sexual violence promoted by @emovm, whose account has since been deleted, is far from unique. In fact, it is typical of misogynist banter often seen on social media. But the man seemed to have forgotten the magical quality of Twitter: with millions on the platform, your tweet is likely to be read by someone who can relate to it personally.

A few hours later, @Yegooneh quoted the crude tweet and started a thread to tell her story. She said she wanted “people to know, once and for all, that these tweets aren’t just for fun and you shouldn’t simply ignore them.” Yegooneh told a story of meeting @emovm in real life after getting to know him online. He took her to a friend’s house after giving her an excuse and then kept pressuring her to take her clothes off. He said he hadn’t had sex for a long time and badly needed this. Following a good deal of touching without consent, she was able to leave.

The young Iranian woman had inadvertently opened the floodgates. Just like the global #MeToo campaign started in 2017 with a social media post, one brave act of truth-telling on Twitter has now ignited a movement. Many other women came to tell their stories of @emovm’s predatory moves. His real-life identity was soon revealed. The man behind the account was Morteza Sayidi, translator of many literary works to Persian. After thousands tweeted at him in disgust, he had to deactivate his account. Users had already collected a history of his other awful tweets. In 2018, he had tweeted: “I prefer to have a rabid animal near me than a homosexual.” In 2019, he had quipped: “When you don’t find a husband, you go become a women’s rights activist or a feminist.”

But this was clearly about more than one person. On August 20 and 21, many people on Twitter revealed harrowing facts about Keyvan Emamverdi, a former student of archaeology at the University of Tehran who appeared to have raped dozens of women following a standard pattern. Many women said he had taken them home, given them “homemade wine,” which ended up being a spiked drink, before raping them. By August 25, he was arrested by the Tehran police.

But the flood continued. Well-known celebrities were soon implicated too.

Sara Omatali, an Iranian journalist, wrote about the sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of Aydin Aghdashloo, one of Iran’s best-known artists, whose many awards include the French government’s Legion of Honour. According to Omatali’s account, 14 years ago, when the journalist went to interview Aghdashloo, the painter lured her into his office and tried to forcibly kiss her. In an interview with IranWire’s sister project, Journalism is Not a Crime (JINC), Omatali said her decision to go public had been years in the making.

“When the Me Too movement broke out in the US, I read and learned more about sexual harassment,” she told JINC’s Pouyan Khoshhal. “The incident of years ago, which I had deliberately tried to forget, came back to life.”

The reaction from Aghdashloo’s influential family was swift. His daughter, Tara Aghdashloo, a journalist in her own right, attacked outlets who had run the story and said they practiced “immoral and illegal journalism.”

The painter’s son Takin brought outrage upon himself when he republished a message on his Instagram that touted the royal blood of Aydin Aghdashloo’s mother.  Reached by IranWire via a messaging app, Takin said he didn’t endorse the message he had re-published on Instagram and treated it like a re-tweet which, in Twitter’s unofficial rules of the game, is considered to not equal endorsement. Omatali also found many supporters. A primetime show on the London-based Persian-language broadcaster Iran International ran a 15-minute interview with her. Fahime Khezr Heidari, a journalist based in Washington DC, said Omatali was “one of the most ethical people” she knew and added that she had heard “dozens” of similar cases against Aghdashloo. Khezr Heidari went on to narrate stories of some of the abuse she had gone through herself.

Khezr Heidari spoke of the late Bahman Jalali, a celebrated Iranian photographer who had taught her in Iran. “One of the first things he told me was: “Do you know you have such beautiful boobs?” He then went on to touch my body,” she tweeted.

Numerous allegations were also aired about Nima Rasoolzadeh, a former manager at Digikala, Iran’s best-known e-commerce platform. About a dozen women came forward to say Rasoolzadeh, who is married, has harassed them in various ways, using his position at the company (which he left last year). Digikala’s founder and CEO, Hamid Mohammadi, publicly thanked the women who had came forward and promised to accept responsibility. “We admire your bravery and are very sorry,” he tweeted.

Some of the most brutal stories of abuse shared online related to children. Ali Zohrian, a high school biology teacher, was accused by many of having sexually assaulted them.

 

Sexual Violence Under Theocracy 

Iran’s strict code of repressive rules and lack of rule of law complicates the work of activists calling for accountability. On Twitter, some women said they didn’t want to bring lawsuits against their rapists since they deeply disagreed with the punishment meted out to them by law: execution by hanging. Out of hundreds of executions that Iran carries out every year, rape is one of the top convictions. Also, when allegations against Emamverdi first surfaced, many women were worried that they might be prosecuted for having drunk alcohol in the first place.

Most of the recent allegations involve the artsy and intellectual crowds, which are usually secular. As activists have pointed out, this doesn’t mean that rape is less rampant among the religious or governmental circles — but that it is much harder for the word about those to get out. Those attempting to report on such cases often pay a very high price. In 2007, Zanan Magazine, a focal publication for women’s rights activists and Muslim feminists, published a report about three young men raping a housewife in northern Iran. The men were from the Basij, the volunteer force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Arms (IRCG), a powerful militia close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A month later, Zanan was shut down.

The good thing about Twitter is that it can’t be shut down. Brave women like Omatali and @Yegooneh have broken taboos by sharing their stories of abuse. The collective power of hearing so many stories has given the movement new force.

Omatali says public cases of sexual abuse in the US, like that around the comedian Louis C.K., taught her what should have been obvious: “That no man should allow himself to violate a woman’s personal space due to his status as a celebrity, artist, filmmaker or musician.”

“I believe something very good has happened,” she says. Fahime Khezr Heidari, who has a controversial radio show on US-funded Persian-language outlet Radio Farda, encouraged Iranians to talk about matters considered taboo.

“I’ve been in the women’s movement since I was 20 years old,” adds Khezr Heidari in a phone interview with IranWire from Washington DC. “I’ve seen how we were always silent on these issues. We never had a space to talk. When we did, in our closed and small circles, we would still do so only implicitly and indirectly, without calling a spade a spade.”

Khezr Heidari sees a connection between Iran’s enforced compulsory hijab code and the rampant sexual abuse that goes on in the country.

“Women are told that they have to cover themselves up as soon as they leave their personal space,” she says. “They are taught to be sexual objects.”

The new wave of an Iranian #MeToo has given Khezr Heidari new hopes for future.

“I am much more hopeful now than I was 10 years ago,” she says. “For the first time we are speaking out. It is a long march but we’ve taken the first steps.

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