Azar wore a long manteaux and a full headscarf. She organized it so she could take a few hours off work to go to the funeral of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and had to get back to the office by noon. Despite being properly dressed, Azar was repeatedly sexually harassed during the funeral. “I felt hands on my body all the time,” she told me. “They were doing it very brazenly.”
Azar had participated in Green Movement marches back in 2009, but she says had she never experienced as much harassment as she did on the day of the funeral. And she’s not alone. Many women who were there report being shocked by the magnitude of the abuse. “Today was strange,” tweeted the journalist Ameneh Shirafkan. “So much sexual harassment on the streets did not happen before. It seemed as if morality had packed its bags and left.”
Many women said that at various times throughout the funeral procession people could not help but push up against one another. “There was a lot of push and shove,” said one woman, “I myself almost crushed a woman who then complained. But people were really pushing.” But there were also tweets that acknowledged intentional acts of violation — in other words, much more than an inescapable crush of the crowd.
There were tweets like the one from Ameneh Shirafkan. “We five women had to be guarded by three men just to walk a few blocks.” Another tweet from her said: “They joined hands around us to guard us against harassment.”
Many of these experiences were widely shared on social media networks, including a video by a woman who wrote that she had been physically attacked by the man who appears in her clip. In the video, a man is seen with clenched fists, shouting: “All the people are here out of their love for the leader,” and then kicks at the camera.
“No Place For Women”
But Azar and other women were also shocked by something else. When they turned around to shout at the people harassing them, they saw that some of the perpetrators were actually people who should have been protecting them, at least in theory. “The people behind me looked like the [paramilitary] Basijis and plainclothes agents,” she said. “They were strongly-built guys with beards and shirts hanging over their trousers. Once when I objected, one of them answered: ‘This is no place for women. You should not have come if you didn’t want to be bothered.’”
Many women on social networks described the appearance of the people who harassed them. Their posts suggest some of the attacks were carried out in a systematic manner, giving rise to speculation that they were organized, and that they were targeting anyone who might be seen as being critical of the regime. “My friends who participated in the funeral yesterday told me that there was a lot of sexual harassment,” posted one person.
“Is this a new kind of repression? In the 2009 rallies, I personally did not experience even once case of it,” said another. “Considering the number of reported sexual harassment incidents, the evidence is piling up that it was organized by plainclothes agents,” wrote another person. “We must get to the bottom of this.”
Some people were convinced that this was the case, saying that wherever there were chants supporting the Green Movement or any other signs of dissent, the attacks increased. “If a group were wearing green or violet and chanted about the house arrests, suddenly a group of men rushed in, pushed people out of the way and got into the crowd,” wrote one eyewitness. “They created disorder and harassed people.”
Thugs For the Regime
“It is quite possible that the sexual harassment was organized,” a sociologist who lives in Tehran told IranWire. She herself did not go to the funeral, but she says that in rallies during Arab Spring, many female protesters were sexually harassed and it is conceivable that the Islamic Republic has learned from this example. “Since the participants have reported many cases of groping and say that the harassers looked like they were Basijis and plainclothes agents it is not unlikely that it was organized,” she said, “especially because so many people have pointed this out.”
She also pointed out that some of the perpetrators were simply out to cause trouble. She further said that the Revolutionary Guards had in the past launched operations to train these kinds of thugs for military operations. General Hossein Hamedani, who was killed in 2015 by ISIS forces near Aleppo, had previously talked about training trouble-causing protesters as “mojaheds” or warriors in the service of the Islamic Republic. “We identified 5,000 individuals who were present in protests [in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election]. These people were thugs, not members of political parties or any movement,” Hamedani said in an interview. “We kept their homes under surveillance. On the days that the call [for participating in protests] was issued we confined them to their homes and they were not allowed to leave. Afterward I conscripted them into battalions. Later these three battalions proved that if we want to train mojaheds, we had to bring in individuals like these — people experienced using blades and cutlasses.”
But others say the harassment was a result of something else: so-called “bad hijab,” or women not wearing headscarves in line with strict Islamic moral codes. “Whoever goes into such a crowd wearing tights and a short manteau will expect such behavior,” said Sadegh, a Basiji whose phone number I got from a friend. “I participated in the funeral only out of love for my leader, who was reciting the Prayer for the Dead.” When I told him about the sexual harassment that went on during the funeral he became angry. “This talk comes from the seditionists,” he snapped. “Their only concern is to smear the image of the Basij. Damn those who make up stories — even when they come for a funeral. Aren’t they afraid about the afterlife? They come with open manteaux and fabricate lies, too.” He paused for a few seconds. “I don’t know what they are trying to do, but may God not forgive them!” And then he hung up.