#MeToo in the Middle East

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“I lift up my eyes to the mountains.
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.”

— Psalm 121:1-2

The #MeToo movement, which started three years ago, has finally found its way to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation of more than 80 million. In late August 2019, allegations against 100 men aired on Iranian social media. However, this movement faces significant challenges. How the authorities treat the victims and perpetrators of sexual misconduct has become a test of the #MeToo movement’s durability in Iran.

In this nation, the media tries to avoid publishing sexual assault stories or data due to strict censorship. Statistics are difficult to come by and compile since people avoid reporting sexual assaults as they fear it jeopardizes the families’ honor and reputation. Even some forms of sexual assaults, such as verbal abuse, have become socially accepted. In order to protect public morality, the government does not publish reports on sexual assault cases. Therefore, there are no official statistics.

Defining Sexual Assault

In Iran, the term sexual assault does not even exist in the Islamic Penal Law. The closest definitions are adultery or physical assault. However, neither of these includes sexual harassment or sexual verbal abuse. Also, the idea of consent is missing in the latter definition. In the absence of a definition, sexual groping, touching and sexual verbal abuse are not recognized as sexual assault. This inconsistency can leave women wondering whether the definitions would qualify them as a victim.

“A woman who is a victim can quickly turn into a criminal if she can’t prove rape,” said Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian lawyer and human rights advocate based in London. “When she testifies that there was sex, she is testifying against herself as well.” If an accuser fails to meet the high standard of proof for rape, she can then be accused of adultery.

The fact that women are willing to say they were victims and share their stories is a groundbreaking change in Iran’s conservative society. Discussing sex is culturally prohibited, sex outside marriage is illegal, and the burden of proof for victims of sexual crimes is arduous. A raped woman often gets the blame.

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“You cannot hide this crime happening over and over in our country. Both for women and men, silence does not improve things.

Leila Rahimi, a Tehran lawyer offering women free consultations and representation, states that more women are asking how to bring charges. “You cannot hide this crime happening over and over in our society,” Rahimi said. “Both for women and men, silence does not improve things.”

The Beginning of Female Empowerment

Even with all these challenges, the fallout in Iran is beginning with signs that the male-controlled power structure has started to respond to sexual abuse accusations. On October 12, 2019, Tehran’s police chief announced that after 30 women took the brave step of filing legal complaints against Keyvan Emamverdi, the owner of a popular bookstore, he confessed to raping 300 women. The police said he would be charged with “corruption on earth,” which is a capital offense.

Digikala, an e-commerce company, investigated its former star manager and issued an apology to female employees. An accused prominent sociology professor was expelled. As a result, universities have called for a zero-tolerance policy. But the highest-profile male facing accusations is internationally acclaimed artist Aydin Aghdashloo who has ties to the ruling elite. Thirteen women, mostly former students and some journalists in interviews with The New York Times, accused the artist of sexual misconduct over a 30-year span.

Recently social workers, woman activists and Iranian filmmakers have taken aim at sexual assault, which are seen as major turning points. In the Iranian film industry, two movies have broken the taboo—I Am A Mother and Hush! Girls Don’t Scream—, showing the consequences of rape and sexual assault. These movies were produced and funded by the private sectors.

PRAY WITH US

As the #MeToo movement begins in this nation, please join us in praying for families and children to be educated, reports and cases to be published in newspapers and magazines and public discussions to be held so victims can talk about their experiences, helping to break the stigma associated with sexual assault. And let’s pray that our disciple makers have more opportunities to share the love and hope of Jesus Christ with women across this nation, bringing them to salvation in the one true God.

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“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.””

— Jeremiah 29:11

References

A #MeToo Awakening Stirs in Iran by Farnaz Fassihi

The Hidden Reality of Sexual Assault in Iran by Atlas Torbati

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