On Thursday, March 31, some 300 of women working in Iranian cinema published a joint letter of protest against behind-the-scenes violence and sexual harassment by members of the decades-old House of Cinema, also known as the Alliance of Iranian Motion Picture Guilds.
Laying out a set of prescriptions needed for the institution to change, they wrote: "We consider it our right to work in a safe environment free from bullying, violence and sexual extortion. And their job is to investigate crimes in this area.”
What Did the Letter Say?
Last month Somayeh Mirshamsi, a well-known assistant film director, wrote on Twitter that she had been "sexually harassed" and "treated violently" onset by the film star Farhad Aslani. She had been inspired to come forward, she wrote, by previous push-backs against abuse by other “anonymous women” in Iranian cinema.
On March 28, the Tehran Association of Film Assistant Directors issued a statement of its own affirming Mirshamsi's "honesty". It added: "This is not the first time that psychological insecurity and even physical threats and confrontations have taken place behind the scenes of the Iranian film industry. To eradicate this subhuman behaviour, radical, serious and inter-union coordination will be needed.”
The newly-published letter enumerated a list of aggravations women had faced at work. They included “sexually offensive insults”, “holding wages hostage”, “sexual violence and threatening the victim’s job”, “unwanted physical contact”, “insistence on sexual acts” and rape.
The letter further stated that in their world, “any powerful and famous man” could “use his position to bully, threaten, insult, humiliate and harass women and the law and order agencies. The House of Cinema’s guilds, filmmakers and critics do not hold them accountable and do not force them to take responsibility for their actions.”
What Are These Men Afraid of?
It took several days for the House of Cinema’s all-male board to issue a tepid response. In the meantime, some figures close to the ruling class in Iran tried to intimidate and silence the women who signed the letter.
One of them was Mohsen Mahdian, CEO of the Hamshahri Institute, which publishes the Iranian daily paper Hamshahri. He branded the signatories “domestic neo-liberal parrots” taking their cues from the global #MeToo movement, which happened to have its origins in Hollywood.
Mohsen Mahdian has deep roots in the propaganda establishment of the Islamic Republic. Before he took over Hamshahri by appointment of the Mayor of Tehran last October, he had held down managerial roles at IRGC-affilated Fars and Mehr News Agencies.
Nozhat Badi, a film critic, women’s affairs analyst and signatory of the March 31 letter, told IranWire: “Mohsen Mahdian and like-minded people in the Islamic Republic feel afraid and helpless vis-à-vis today’s Iranian women, who are well-informed, independent, daring and progressive. They know they can no longer restrain them.
“They therefore cast doubt on women’s efforts by morally stigmatizing and belittling them, trying to present women’s fight for their rights as something vulgar and imitative.”
Iranian women’s domestic push for equality in social, economic and political domains, Badi believes, is “one of the most progressive in recent decades”. She added: “Unfortunately, a large number of men are used to be in the forefront even when they are supporting women, and expect women to listen to what they say. The best thing these men can do is withdraw a little bit.”
The #MeToo movement did take root in Iran, just as it did in countries the world over. Several famous male faces in the arts were publicly named by ex-colleagues and contacts on social media, as well as some relative unknowns. In many cases, they defended themselves by framing the complainants as jealous, or in hock to “the West”.
Badi believes there should be little surprise in the fact that the #MeToo campaign was seized on by Iranian women. The political structure, she says, is based on “violence against the people… I hope these protests lead to public awareness, and change the culture of male-female relations in our society. But the next important step must be holding the harassers accountable.”
The House of Cinema Responds
Several embarassing days of silence later, on the evening of April 3, the House of Cinema issued its own statement in response to the protests. It “unequivocally” condemned any violence within the industry, including sexual violence, and announced that an independent “Protection Council” would be set up to investigate “any behavior that violates the professional standards of ethics of people working in cinema”.
The council, it added, was to consist of “trustworthy” people in Iranian cinema, as well as a lawyer and a representative from the Ministry of Culture. Complaints and reports submitted to the council, it said, would be treated as confidential but could be referred to the judicial authorities in necessary.
The House of Cinema, it concluded, “firmly stands with the plaintiffs with everything in its power until the culprits are punished.”
The central committee of the Society of Iranian Movie Actors also issued a statement calling on actresses to submit their complaints to the Protection Council “without fear of that person’s name or position”. The judiciary’s so-called High Council for Human Rights announced that it was ready to receive and investigate complaints.
Several of the letter’s co-signatories have rejected the idea of an in-house “Protection Council” given that several prominent members of the House of Cinema are already the subject of serious allegations. The interests of decision-making members, they said, would be “bound up in power relations within cinema”.