Society & Culture

Iranian TV Star Sparks National Debate on Domestic Violence

March 27, 2015
Shima Shahrabi
10 min read
Farzad Hassani and Azadeh Namdari
Farzad Hassani and Azadeh Namdari
The Couple with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Grandson, Hassan Khomeini
The Couple with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Grandson, Hassan Khomeini
Farzad Hassani and his mother
Farzad Hassani and his mother
Azadeh Namdari with IRIB colleagues
Azadeh Namdari with IRIB colleagues
Farzad Hassani and Azadeh Namdari's photograph on Instagram
Farzad Hassani and Azadeh Namdari's photograph on Instagram
Azadeh’s Eyes by Mana Neyestani
Azadeh’s Eyes by Mana Neyestani

When television stars Farzad Hassani and Azadeh Namdari married last year, it was big news. Photographs of them taking their vows – he in a stylish formal suit, she in a white chador – were all over the news, and shared widely on social media. Following the ceremony, which was performed by Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, the couple enjoyed renewed popularity, appearing on TV often, smiling and reciting love poems to one another. For the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), it was a great opportunity to promote religion and present itself as a champion of family values.

But this week, as Iranians began their Nowruz holidays, a photograph of Azadeh Namdari with a swollen, bruised eye emerged, painting quite a different picture of the marriage. The photograph was originally posted on Namdari’s Instagram page, along with a short note saying that she had been the victim of domestic violence. Though she removed the post not long after, it had already been circulated on a number of websites. A few months earlier, just nine months after their wedding day, Namdari announced on Istagram that the couple had separated.

Azadeh Namdari rose to fame in the early 2000s with her program “The New,” broadcast on IRIB. The first woman on Iranian television to wear colorful, shapely chadors and fashionable scarves, she has often been criticized by hardliners, and, in 2011, there were rumors that she might be sacked. But for many, she symbolized the modern, chador-wearing woman, respectable but stylish.

Controversial talk show host Farzad Hassani regularly showed off his knowledge of the Koran by challenging guests on his IRIB TV program “Backpack.” He is probably best known for his 2007 verbal attack on the deputy commander of the Iranian security forces, Ahmad-Reza Radan. Radan, he said, should admonish the morality police for the disrespectful way they treated women when singling them out for not observing Islamic dress codes. Shortly afterwards, Hassani and his program were taken off air.

After that, the IRIB gave him occasional radio slots, but he was rarely seen on TV, and he was never given steady work with the broadcaster. On one of his radio shows, Radio Javan (“The Youth”), he interpreted Koranic verses, probably to remind his listeners of his religious devotion.


Domestic Violence as a Public Matter

In the past, Namdari has been criticized, often in connection with her 2011 interview of a man and his three wives — at the time he came across as ridiculous and arrogant. But now she is being hailed as courageous, and praised for speaking out. “She showed courage,” women’s rights activist Asieh Amini told Iranwire. “There are many cases of domestic violence in Iranian courts,” she says. “Iranian culture has always chosen to cover up domestic violence and hide it away. We not only respond to domestic violence with silence — we also promote this silence. For example, families often say that whatever happens between man and wife is their own affair and not the neighbors’ business.” So Namdari going public is significant, she says, helping to rid society of violence.

Domestic violence, Amini says, should never be regarded as a private affair. “We must be able to talk about the issue of domestic violence and then teach people how to confront it. An issue that remains unseen cannot be solved.”

In a survey conducted this week, more than 57 percent of IranWire’s Persian-language readers — most of whom live in Iran — said that domestic violence was a public matter and must be given media coverage. A quarter of those polled said media coverage and appropriate punishment for such crimes would help prevent repeat offences. Overall, over 83 percent of those polled said publicizing domestic violence stories was crucial, suggesting it is an issue that affects a large number of women in Iran.

But 16.3 percent said it was only appropriate to publicize such stories once both parties involved in the incident were given the opportunity to present their sides of the story. Even among this group, there was a suggestion that publicizing domestic violence was not an inherently bad thing to do – but that conditions applied. Of those polled, only 1.4 percent said it was wrong to publish such news because it violates a person’s right to privacy.

Women and civil rights activist Narges Mohammadi has worked with the Women’s Committee of Iran’s Defenders of Human Rights Center for many years. She has come across many cases of violence against women during her time there. “Any kind of violence against women, especially domestic violence, must be made public.”

“In some cultures, hiding domestic violence is considered praiseworthy because it is a sign of a woman’s modesty,” she says, but this is extremely damaging. Mohammadi says current Iranian laws do not protect women against violence. One reason for this is because the country’s civil law considers the man to be the head of the family. “If the laws and the rules of the Islamic republic are anti-woman and if we see that violence against women is legally approved by the regime — which creates a culture favorable to domestic violence — then women must take advantage of the only option available to us,” she says. “We must engage public opinion, present violence up for public judgment and make violence abhorrent.”

Iranian parliament has passed a number of anti-women laws, Mohammadi says.  Women must talk about laws that protect those who commit violence rather than those who are victims of it. They must respond publicly to violent incidents such as last year’s acid attacks against women, and to domestic violence.

Mohammadi says the Iranian government's response to the acid attacks in Isfahan last year was disappointing, and telling. “There is no reason to hide violence against women,” she says, “and the fight against it can only begin when it is openly presented to the judgment of public opinion.


A Witness Comes Forward

Shortly after the photograph of Namdari was published and discussed widely in the media, a woman contacted IranWire and said she had had a relationship with Farzad Hassani some years ago. She lives in Iran and, in order to protect herself, asked that we use a pseudonym, “Bita,” when telling her story, which IranWire checked and confirmed.

When Bita was involved with Farzad Hassani, she says he was very unstable and strange. “He wanted to control my relationships with my friends and the young men I knew,” she says. “He was checking on me all the time. He was not morally faithful. He expressed his love for me and recited love poems to me, but he had a steady relationship with one woman and had asked the hand of yet another young woman in marriage. He managed all these relationships so well that for a long time I didn't know about them. It came to me as a surprise.”

Bita, whose sexual relations with Hassani lasted less than a year, describes him as narcissistic. “His duplicity made me break off my relationship with him. He continued to plead with me to go back to him. He repeatedly called me and sent me text messages. He wouldn’t stop, even when I told him that I knew about his other relationships. Eventually, my family helped me and I got rid of him." Bita believes that by going public on domestic violence, women can help other women, and inform society about this important and prevalent issue.


A Culture and Tradition of Sexism

Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, a lawyer who lives in Iran, told IranWire that the majority of his clients are women who have been the victims of domestic violence or social discrimination. “In smaller societies and more closed environments, part of this violence comes from a patriarchal culture and part from tradition and customs, especially in villages and small towns,” he says. “In the end, the two meet where both the law and tradition declare the man as the head of the family and the owner of the women in the family. Of course, this patriarchal view is not limited to traditional and village societies. It can be found among educated people as well — and this is what promotes violence against women.” Laws in Iran must be reformed to deal with this issue, he says.

“Many men do not recognize even discriminatory laws for women,” Khorramshahi says. “Some of our traditional beliefs can be summed up by one common saying — that ‘a woman goes to her husband’s home in a white gown and leaves it in a white shroud.’ Again, these beliefs promote violence.”


“You are shaming your family!”

Up to now, Hassani has not reacted to the statements by Bita, but a day after Namdari’s picture was published, he contacted news sites and denied that he had assaulted his wife. “Enough is enough!” he was quoted as saying. “I strongly believe that what is private must remain private. Even if these false claims could possibly be true, is this the right way to express them? At what price do you subject others and even your family to shame? At the price of putting our pictures on TV? You can figure out the true character of individuals by the means by which they choose to achieve their goals.”

He claimed the photographs were fake, and accused Namdari of playing the victim. He also said he planned to pursue the matter through the courts. And he tried to distract the media by posing two further questions that had nothing to do with domestic violence. “What are her views about political groups?” he asked. And: “what are her views about motherly love?”

He said Namdari had accused him of a number of crimes – the physical attack, but also “libel, death threats, breaking her mobile phone” — which she included in her legal complaint against him. “In each and every case, the court sent her back empty-handed,” he says.

Namdari’s lawyer Hassan Agha-Khani disputes this claim. “My client gave up her complaint regarding domestic violence in exchange for her divorce,” he told IranWire. Once the police and the law got involved, he says, “Farzad Hassani pleaded with my client to forgo her complaint.” He agreed to a divorce. According to Agha-Khani, the defamation case is ongoing and Hassani is out on bail.

He believes that Hassani posed the questions about politics and motherhood to put political pressure on his client. “Mr. Hassani wants to get the support of public opinion, but he won’t get anywhere,” says Agha-Khani.


The story continues

But Azadeh Namdari did not disregard Hassani’s note. “Hello,” she said on Instagram. “I am Azadeh Namdari. It is necessary to point out a few things. First of all, your letter was so violent and angry that it gave me further cause to carry on — without meaning to. Second, as always, you are hiding behind a woman; this time, your mother. Thirdly, your delusional questions are similar to the delusions that destroyed our nine-month-long life together. There is a God and God is our guardian. I am not afraid and wish you serenity. With a smile...”

Hassani’s lawyer Abbas Tadayon has since been in touch with Namdari’s lawyer. He claims the photograph was taken after an accident; this is supported, he said, by hospital records and Namdari’s own statements. “It is worth pondering as to why my esteemed colleague, who knows well about libel and defamation, has permitted the publication of [this] photograph,” he writes. He accuses Namdari of putting his client on trial in the court of public opinion instead of a court of law as a means of damaging his reputation. Removing it, he warned, did not remove the legal culpability that came with posting it. In conclusion, he wrote, “My client will follow the matter up with qualified legal authorities.”