By a member of Amnesty International’s Iran team
As a human rights worker I am used to hearing shocking stories. However, a recent spate of gang-rapes and sexual assaults in Iran highlights increasing violence against women in a country where women’s rights are already under extreme pressure.
Most disturbing of all is the response of Iranian officials to a series of up to six separate, brutal attacks over the past few months.
One senior official even suggested that some of these crimes could have been avoided if the women targeted had adhered to Iran’s strict dress code, or hijab.
In one incident, in April 2011, a woman was gang-raped by at least 10 men in a field outside the village of Ghoojd in western Iran. The suspects were initially released. At one stage, the woman herself was reported to have been arrested.
Another incident occurred in May, when fourteen men allegedly raided a party in Khomeini Shahr, near Esfahan, locking the male party-goers in one room and raping the female guests.
Instead of speaking out forcefully against this crime, the Chief of the Police Detectives Bureau in Esfahan, Colonel Hossein Hosseinzadeh, appeared to condone it, saying :“If the women at the party had worn their hijab properly, they might not have been sexually assaulted”.
This is a classic case of blaming the victim. Rather than underlining the seriousness of this offence, the Colonel’s comments appear to be aimed at justifying the restrictive dress codes imposed on Iranian women, which violate their right to choose what they wear.
Iran’s women already face a host of discriminatory laws which limit their rights in marriage, divorce and child custody. In some cases, their testimony in court is already regarded as less than half that of a man’s.
Given these circumstances, such statements by Iranian officials risk perpetuating – and even escalating – the cycle of violence against them.
The six men who later abducted and gang-raped a woman in the city of Karaj on 22 July may have taken such comments as a signal that rape is acceptable under certain circumstances. And female rape victims may also take it as a signal that their complaints may not be taken seriously
The response of the Iranian authorities appears to be an attempt to discourage such attacks by the public execution of convicted rapists – even though rape is not one of the “most serious crimes” for which the death penalty may be applied under international law.
International human rights experts have also called on Iran not to execute people in public, highlighting the brutalising effect of such spectacles. Executing people publicly after speedy, unfair trials is unlikely to stop these attacks, and indeed may increase people’s acceptance of high levels of violence throughout society.
Meanwhile the authorities are continuing to persecute Iranian women who speak up against such violence and injustice.
Two women from the One Million Signatures Campaign, also known as the Campaign for Equality, a grass roots initiative which campaigns for the repeal of discriminatory laws against women, have recently been arrested.
One of them, Maryam Bahreman, was detained after speaking at the United Nations in New York in February. Although a regional prosecutor’s office has ordered her release, she remains in custody and there are fears that fresh charges may be brought against her.
The second, Maryam Bidgoli, has begun serving a six month sentence for collecting signatures for the Campaign’s petition. Amnesty regards both women as prisoners of conscience and is calling for their immediate and unconditional release.
These arrests are part of a wider crackdown against women’s rights activists. If their voices continue to be silenced, there will be fewer people to speak up against such brutal incidents as these gang-rapes.
Five hundred courageous Iranian women recently signed a statement denouncing state violence against women. They called for urgent action to address the recent spate of rapes, as well as rapes in prison, along with other violence against women. They affirmed their solidarity with women everywhere, and with global campaigns for ending sexual, physical, gender-based and police violence, such as those spearheaded by Amnesty International.
Let’s hope their words are heeded, rather than acting as a passport to prison for “propaganda against the system” as has happened in similar cases. If not, the many Iranian women who are victims of individual acts of violence will face a future with little confidence that the justice system can either protect them or provide redress for the harm done to them.