Social Media Becomes a Loudspeaker for the Iranian #MeToo Movement

Editor’s note: This article mentions allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment.

Social media has become a launchpad for Irani women to share their stories of sexual assault and abuse, creating their own #MeToo movement. Iranian authorities are taking these accounts seriously and have already arrested one of the alleged abusers. 

Prior to the movement, Iran’s state-run media was turning a blind eye to allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment. The legal system does little help to rape survivorsaccording to Iranian law, authorities only take action when four witnesses confirm the incident. 

One of the most prominent tweets came from Sara Omatali, an Iranian journalist who is based in Washington, D.C. In a long thread, she accused an artist of assaulting her when she had gone to his house to interview him about his most recent art exhibition. This prompted an outpouring of survivors to publish their stories on Instagram and Twitter as well, many of whom also accused the same artist, Keivan Emamverdi, of assault. 

After a number of posts, written by survivors who used pseudonyms, Tehran police arrested Emamverdi in late August. Emamverdi, who was also a professor at Tehran University, lured many of his students to his home and proceeded to drug and rape them, according to the complaints. 

Before the movement, complaints of rape and assault would often go unreported due to the taboo nature of sex and abuse in the country. There are few statistics that document the true rate of rape cases in Iran because survivors are often shamed or do not receive adequate support. The government also suppresses rape statistics in order to maintain a clean image, feeding into the overall lack of knowledge on the subject.  

“Discourses such as shame and honour play a key role in the subservience of victims of violence,” Atlas Torbati, a lecturer at the University of London wrote in a blog post in September 2018. “These discourses are entrenched in individuals’ everyday lives and preclude the victims of violence to talk about or report sexual assault since it is considered as a private matter and must be kept at home. 

The 2018 Human Rights Report on Iran states that 32 percent of women in urban areas and 64 percent of women in rural areas have been victims of domestic violence. The law does not prohibit marital rape, as “authorities consider abuse in the family a private matter and seldom discuss it publicly.” 

In light of the new movement, Iranian authorities are now encouraging women to come forward and file official complaints, ensuring women that their accounts would be kept anonymous. Police also assured women that they would not be prosecuted, according to CBS News. 

“[Prosecution of women survivors] was a real concern as, technically, the women had broken the law by voluntarily going into the home of a man and consuming alcohol (allegedly laced with tranquilizers),” CBS reported. 

“Iranian law bans all alcohol consumption, and women are forbidden from entering the home of a man who is not a close family member without a husband, brother or other male escort,” the article continued. “Both crimes can carry a punishment of flogging.”

Iran’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, praised women who are coming out to share their stories on Twitter. Soon after Emamverdi was arrested, she said that the lack of education on sex “prepares an environment for sexual violence and harassment.” 

“Ebtekar also called on the judiciary to ‘forcefully confront’ rapists and said the government is working on legislation against sexual violence to present to parliament,” Agence France Presse (AFP) reported last month.

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