close button
Switch to Iranwire Light?
It looks like you’re having trouble loading the content on this page. Switch to Iranwire Light instead.
Society & Culture

Blame the Woman: Sexual Harassment in Iran

June 11, 2015
Hana Khosravi
9 min read
Blame the Woman: Sexual Harassment in Iran

When Afghani artist Kobra Khademi dressed up in medieval armor and went out on to the street to protest against the physical harassment of women, she was unsure how the public would react. Khademi was forced to stop her protest after only eight minutes, when a group of people pelted her with stones and she was forced to flee in a taxi. She is currently in hiding and fears for her safety.

But despite the short duration of her protest, she did get a reaction, with some praising it as a brave act and others highlighting the inappropriateness of her social display.

One view, which was repeated over and over again in a variety of ways, was that the society was not ready to hear this type of protest — and especially in the way that Khademi had done it. Still, there was ample support, with one person posting: “If the Taliban killed people for their beliefs, was it the fault of people who did not obey their laws? It is our laws and norms which are wrong, not the protests against them or the manner of the protest.”


A Changing Society

Kobra Khademi was four when she was first sexually harassed. She recalls thinking at the time, “I wish my underwear was made of iron.” Later, she experienced street harassment, not only in her home country Afghanistan, but also in Iran and Pakistan.

Some psychologists argue that people who harass women in public spaces suffer from a range of mental disorders, and that often, the affected individual cannot distinguish between his own beliefs and the realities of society. The person’s internalized beliefs are constantly being challenged by an ever-changing society.

For example, a man might hold the traditional belief that the education of girls and women, especially higher education, is against the interests of society. This belief can then become a source for the increased harassment of female students.

Solmaz, a student who moved from Shiraz to Tehran to go to university, experienced harassment the first time she decided to go for a walk in the neighborhood of Tajrish in northern Tehran. “I was taking a walk and wanted to call my mother,” she said. “Like always, I talked on the phone with a Shirazi accent, telling my mother about university and my classes. A few minutes into the conversation, I had to go into an alley to get away from the noise so that I could hear her better. Right away, I noticed that a man who had been walking in front of me had followed me into the alley and was approaching me. I got scared, turned off the phone and started for the street, but he stood in front of me and pinched my leg.” When she told this story, Solmaz admitted that when she talked about her “leg” being touch, she actually meant something else, but was too shy to discuss it.

“I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t,” Solmaz said. “My voice was gone. He had me trapped between himself and the wall, and started to unzip his pants. At just that moment, someone opened a garage door nearby. He ran away without zipping up. I don’t remember how long it took. Perhaps a few seconds, but for me, it seemed like hours.” When she told the story, she was somewhere between laughing and crying. “Perhaps if he had not heard me talking to my mother, he would have assumed I was from the neighborhood, and then perhaps he would have left me alone.”


Bad hejab is not a good reason

For years now, some clerics have asserted that “bad hejab” — going against guidelines on Islamic headscarf set out by an elite group of hardliners — helps weaken men’s religious devotion. In their view, the philosophy behind Islamic covering is to “prevent deviation among the young” and “prevent the spread of corruption in Islamic society.” But the fact is, most men who harass women on the street pay little attention to hejab. As it happens, these men target women fully covered in chadors just as much as they harass other women.

A young woman named Farzaneh told me a story about her mother. “She put on her chador and went out shopping. No more than a few minutes later, the doorbell rang — not once, but continuously. Then I heard my mother shouting, ‘Open up. Hurry; open up!’ I hurried and opened the door. Her face was chalk-white and she threw herself into the house. I brought her sweetened water, but she picked up the phone and called the police. She shouted to them, ‘you don’t have a booth near the alley? Then what good are your officers? A motorcyclist just harassed me. He did something that he shouldn’t have done.”

 “Well, it’s a very strange feeling to hear that your mother has been molested,” said Farzaneh with an uncomfortable laugh. “It’s really shocking. My mother was 55 years old when it happened. She always wore her chador. I have no idea what that man was thinking!”

Hedieh witnessed a disturbing incident at Tehran Bazaar. “In the middle of all the hustle and bustle in the bazaar, a young man had one hand on a woman wearing a chador — and with the other hand he was...busy doing it...!” Hedieh said she was unsure whether the woman was aware that the man was masturbating while talking to her, but, she said the woman “showed no reaction whatsoever. Perhaps she was afraid that people would notice if she reacted.”

 “The phenomenon of street harassment and rape is the negative consequence of bad hejab,” said General Mohammad Ebrahim Noroozian of Gilan Security Forces during a workshop on “hejab and chastity” in summer 2012. “Individuals who do not dress properly face harassment from evil men and opportunists. The police are doing their best to provide a safe and calm environments for citizens.” But the message was clear: wear “good hejab” or face the consequences.

Noroozian said nothing about the culpability of the offenders, or how to tackle the problem. He also offered no advice for women on how they might protect themselves and prevent their basic rights being violated.  

“In my view, hejab is neither the cause of street harassment nor a justification,” said a psychologist named Omid in response to Noroozian’s statements. “Often, intentionally or not, officials give the offenders excuses by blaming women and how they choose to dress. Instead of dealing with the men who harass women, they put pressure on women — but this is a danger to women, not men.”


Punishing the Victim and Silent Witnesses

In countries that strictly follow the law, a woman’s first response upon facing harassment may be to report the violation to the police. “Depending on the nature of harassment and whether it is verbal or physical, the law provides for various punishments,” says Masoumeh, who lives in the United States. “At the very least, these men can lose their jobs or be expelled from university. I have not been the victim of harassment, but I know I would be supported if something like did happen.”

In Iran, however, it is a different story. One example is the story of Baran, who is 39 years old and married. After she had an altercation with a young man who had touched her inappropriately, Baran was summoned to court — not as the plaintiff but as the accused.

“I was in front of my house and was about to lock my car when two men on a motorcycle stopped behind me and molested me,” she said. “The street was empty. Without giving it much though, I picked up the lock for my steering wheel and began hitting their bike with it. At the same time, I shouted for help. When the men saw my reaction, they quickly sped away.”

“A few days after I received the summons, a verdict was issued – in favor of the man whose bike I had damaged. The incident was classified as a traffic accident. As hard as I tried to explain it to the judge, all he said was: ‘Then why didn’t you file a complaint? You can file a complaint now at the police station so we can pursue it.’ How could I have filed a complaint against somebody I did not know? They knew where I lived. But what about me?”

In Iran, sexual taboos apply more to women than men, so much so that that reactions against physical harassment are often directed towards the woman rather than the assailant.

Mahsa was leaving a metro station when she got into scuffle with a young man who had attempted to grab her. “Before he could touch me, I grabbed his wrist and twisted it. I started shouting so that perhaps somebody would hear me or, at least notify the transit cops,” she says. “When we were struggling, two people were passing by. The first, a young man, gave us a glance and continued on his way without paying much attention. I was so angry that I felt I no longer wanted help. I was cursing as the second man passed. He was a middle-aged man who, after a short pause, looked at me angrily, shook his head in admonition, and went away mumbling. When I realized that nobody was going to help me, I let go of my attacker’s wrist. He took the opportunity and ran away.”

When it comes to responses to physical – and specifically sexual – harassment, Iranian men and women tend to think completely differently. On the whole, women think that silence only further encourages harassment. “When I was younger I used to believe that silence was the answer,” says Darsa. “But a few years ago, I decided that silence only encourages this ugly act. It is better to react strongly and ask for help.”

But many men believe that a woman should only ask for help as a secondary solution. They believe that women must first try to prevent harassment — by themselves. The usual justifications are that, in the first place, the law does not support people who intervene and, second, that shouting in the street is unacceptable, whatever the reason.

Since the law does not effectively support women when they are physically assaulted on the streets of Iran, women have resorted to their own devices to reduce risks — whether it is altering the time they travel to and from home, their decisions regarding how and when to use public transport instead of walking, and even when and how they decide to share their experiences online. 


Society & Culture

101 Journalists Protest Exile of Ahmad Zeidabadi

June 11, 2015
2 min read
101 Journalists Protest Exile of Ahmad Zeidabadi