For those who have been following Iran’s domestic #MeToo movement, and for the fans of singer, songwriter, composer and musician Mohsen Namjoo, the days from April 9 to April 18 were a grueling voyage through the world of violence against women.
The story had begun eight months earlier on social media, but it was missed in the midst of the tsunami of other revelations. Various women accused Mohsen Namjoo, an artist called Iran’s Bob Dylan by the New York Times in 2007 (a name that stuck), of sexual assault – which he denies – and harassment.
Then, however, a nail was driven into the coffin of his artistic life in the form of a leaked 17-minute audio recording in which Namjoo was heard to procleim: “I say this with all humility: one hour of my breathing equals six months in the life of any one of you.”
This was his apparent response to the allegations that had publicly been made against him, alongside other homophobic and misogynistic statements. In the same diatribe, the artist called rape victims “crazy”, ridiculed the #MeToo movement and in sum, reaffirmed the bullying male culture Iranian women are presently fighting against.
Disclosures and Denials
On August 27, 2020, as the Iranian #MeToo movement was gathering pace, an anonymous Twitter account with the handle Mahi (Fish) accused Namjoo of sexual assault and attempted rape.
Many journalists, artists and people close to Namjoo confirmed that they had been told about the alleged assault after it happened. Namjoo himself denied the accusation, although in the 17-minute audio recording he went on to ridicule the necessity of sexual consent.
Mahi claimed that she had spoken to lawyers and police about the incident. She wrote that one night, Namjoo had “stayed at my friend’s home with the excuse that he was too drunk to drive to his place of residence and my friend generously asked him to stay. I was a guest there for a few days and while I was sleeping he attacked me.” She went on to say that he had eventually relented and she and her friend had “thrown him out of the house”.
The same poster claimed other people had had similar experiences but remained silent about it. In turn, she said, “some people who had not talked to me for years were now calling me from everywhere in the world to pressure me to be silent.
“For a few years I struggled with the consequences... I paid a high price that he should have paid. In all this, I was astonished and doubly hurt by the crowd who, because of his fame, continued to be his friends and to collaborate with him.”
Then on August 28, 2020, the Iranian singer Panida, in a live Instagram interview with Faravaz, another female Iranian singer, also claimed that she had been assaulted by Namjoo. Depicting the alleged incident with movements of her body, she said: “I couldn’t believe it. I pushed him away. Perhaps he thought he could do anything that he wanted because he was famous.”
A number of journalists and artists have come forward to corroborate Mahi’s and Panida’s stories. But Namjoo continues to insist he has not assaulted anyone. “I strongly deny these rumors,” said Namjoo on August 29, 2020. “These allegations were made several years ago and I had denied them at the time as well.”
In a statement published on April 20, 2021, his lawyer wrote: “Allegations of rape, attempted rape, sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, sexual battery are categorically and unequivocally false.” They added that there were no open criminal cases against him and he had not been charged with any offence.
Eight Months Later: The Marathon of Accusations
This spring, further allegations against Namjoo surfaced. On April 9, the MBC Persia channel on YouTube aired a program under the title of Replay with Mohsen Namjoo as its guest, in which he sang and talked.
The video attracted a great deal attention on social media. But amid the positive comments, other women came forward to complain about his alleged past behavior. In a post on Instagram on April 12, Boshra Dastournezhad, an Iranian model and actress, claimed that she had been the object of what she called Namjoo’s “sexual violence”. The pair had worked together on a movie in 2014. She added that Namjoo had since apologized to her.
On April 13, a petition was posted online asking the media to “stop Mohsen Namjoo’s media presence until sexual harassment allegations against him are cleared up.” That same night a Clubhouse chat room discussed the allegations against Namjoo, in which Faravaz and Panida gave their version of events.
The next day, another Clubhouse room was formed to discuss the same issue. Luna Shad, a producer and former TV host, also described multiple encounters with Namjoo in which she said she had been assaulted. Panida also recounted her own story in tears to more than 1,000 participants.
“One night he again sent a message,” she said, “asking me to have dinner with him. I didn’t answer. The day after, while we were filming, he abused and insulted me. ‘You are a nobody and somebody ought to shut your mouth,’ he said. ‘You thought I wouldn’t hear about what you’ve been saying.’”
On the same day another Clubhouse room was launched where artists such as the singers Shadi Amini and Kimia Ghorbani and the actress Shabnam Tolouei also spoke out.
At this point, fans of Mohsen Namjoo intensified their public support of the singer. In private and public messages to some of the activists and artists involved, various fans demanded to see the legally-permissible evidence for their claims or else doubted their stories. Many also pled for “art” and “the artist” to be seen as separate entities.
An Apology, And Then...
On April 16, Namjoo posted a video on his own YouTube channel in which he offered his apologies to those who had accused him of harassment. “Yours truly, Mohsen Namjoo, sincerely, honestly and with humility, apologizes to you for whatever words or deeds that might have been wrong or have hurt you. I express my regrets to both you and your respected and noble families.”
The video roused both positive and negative reactions. Some saw it as a step forward for the Iranian #MeToo movement while many said it did not meet the criteria of a sincere apology.
In recent years, with the internationalization of the #MeToo movement, many articles and studies on appropriate ways to apologize for sexual harassment have been published. According to these studies, an apology only help the victims if it refers accurately and clearly to the incident at hand.
In late 2017, the comedian Louis CK became a rare exemplar for how to do this. In a statement he confirmed the allegations against him, described each incident, and apologized for each one before undertaking to seek treatment. “There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for,” he wrote.
Mohsen Namjoo’s message did not do this. And less than 24 hours after the video was post, the shocking 17-minute audio recording surfaced.
He later told BBC Persian: “People say things in their homes that can be explosive...Those who published these recording definitely do not care about women’s movement...Perhaps this is the first time that a celebrity man publicly apologizes. I have apologized to women and I am not sorry that I did.”
On Guard for Life
In the recording Namjoo also mentioned Aydin Aghdashloo, an internationally-acclaimed painter who was accused of sexual abuse over the past 30 years by 13 women interviewed by the New York Times. These revelations were sparked by the journalist Sara Omatali stating that Aghdashloo had sexually assaulted her in 2006 when she went to interview him.
Namjoo said of the case: “This has turned into a settling of accounts between students and their painting master. Whenever the master sets up an exhibition [they gang up on him] without any evidence... What is the result? What do women gain if I am canceled?
“Yes, the harasser must be afraid for the rest of his life. We believe that there is no other way to punish and restrain offending men. This movement is meant to shatter [their] minds and say ‘No means no’, and women are not here for you to abuse and rape.
“In our culture men are brought up in such a way that they pull down their pants any time they want. For centuries women were told to keep their skirts spotless and keep their eyes under control. Gentlemen, it is now you who must be careful about how you behave, so that there will be no revelations against you.”
Insult Upon Insult
In the audio recording, Namjoo went on to cast doubt on the basic axiom “No means no”. Describing his former sexual relations with a friend, he said: “I told her ‘Do you remember that night when we were together, it was ‘No means no’ until five in the morning, when it turned into a yes? At 9 in the morning I said ‘Let me go, I have things to do,’ but you were offended, and the level of your hormones made me wretched.”
In the audio recording, Namjoo also declares that he is better than all women singers and, as an expert, claims that all young Iranian woman singers sing “off-key”. Many female singers responded to this on social media by posting videos of their singing. Under the Islamic Republic women are not allowed to sing solo for male audiences and Namjoo had specifically targeted Faravaz and her the “Right to Sing” campaign with insults and humiliating words in response to her revelations about his harassment.
Namjoo also expressed overt homophobia in the recording by targeting lesbians: “The only way she can attract attention is to say she is a lesbian because she knows that if she says she is straight... there some things that are God-given, and her appeal is so below-average that nothing has been able to compensate for it.”
In the 17-minute recording, Namjoo asked “Who am dealing with?” on three separate occasions. Of the #MeToo movement, he said: “They are just making a racket. Not one of the veterans of women’s rights has tweeted anything. Most have chosen to stay silent because the scene is occupied by noisy people with psychological problems... How come one year after the movement started, I [still] cannot see a worthy person among them?”
Exaggerated Harassment Stories?
Some people believe, rightly or wrongly, that stories about rape, sexual abuse and harassment are occasionally exaggerated for personal gain. IranWire spoke to Dr. Rabe'e Movahed, a psychiatrist living in Iran who has worked with many such victims – including those in artistic circles – about this notion.
Dr. Movahed conceded that such things are possible. But she added: “Which movement has been managed from the start in a way that would make it flawless? There are abuses in any mass movement but staying silent is like the Islamic Republic telling people ‘Don’t make a sound, so as not to please the Americans.’”
Some of her own patients, she said, had been badly psychologically damaged not only by the original incident, but the perpetrator’s lack of accountability. “I believe we must encourage women to talk more about this so the stigma associated with talking about rape and sexual harassment goes away. On the other hand, we need concrete action as well.”
The Emergence of the Recording
BBC Persian writes that the audio file was recorded before Namjoo’s “apology” video, and some people close to him have told IranWire the same thing. It has been claimed that it dates back to last August, around the time of the first allegations made against him. Others, though, suggest the conversation happened in late March of this year or more recently still.
In the recording, Namjoo refers to what has been said about him in “rooms” in April. Last August, Clubhouse “rooms” did not exist. He also mentions Shadi Amini’s allegations made in a Clubhouse room. This points to the nights of April 14 and April 15, after Arash Sobhani’s interview.
Many people who had not known Namjoo intimately might have expected that the Iranian Bob Dylan would behave differently to others accused of sexual misconduct that they deny. In this recording, however, he said discussion of these topics should “remain in the home” and that “friendship is more important than the truth”.
Not everyone agrees. Both the actor and journalist Kambiz Hosseini and the actress and producer Shabnam Tolouei have apologized for their previous support for Namjoo. “The truth is above friendship,” wrote Tolouei.
Namjoo continues to deny all accusations against him except for those of sexual harassment, which was not mentioned in his lawyer’s statement this week. They claimed there had been a “smear campaign” against him that had led him to suffer “severe and irreparable harm”.
On April 18, in his latest response to the allegations, he again refused to show remorse for what he had said in the recording. He then dismissed his critics by quoting a famous verse from the Persian poet Hafez: “Forgive the wars amongst the seventy-two nations/They set out on the road to myths since they could not see the truth.”