In an unprecedented move, conservative Iranian women joined forces with women’s rights activists and even local religious leaders to hold demonstrations after a local imam alleged that 41 women had been sexually assaulted in Iranshahr, a small, conservative town in southeastern Iran. The protests called on survivors to file charges against perpetrators. This was a remarkable break from tradition-- previously social taboos have prevented people from speaking out about sexual violence and many people blame victims.
The province of Sistan and Baluchestan lies on the border with Afghanistan. Iranshahr, which has around 100,000 residents, is a Sunni town. Most people there are Iranian Baloch and follow the Sunni branch of Islam.
On June 15, Mowlavi Mollazehi, a local imam, alleged during a sermon that a group of local men had raped 41 local women. He pointed at the first row of the congregation, where many important local figures were sitting, and proclaimed: “The rapists were your sons who sit here in the first row.”
This revelation sparked a series of protests in the town. Demonstrators called for capital punishment for the perpetrators of these rapes-- even though none of the perpetrators had been officially identified and, moreover, no one even really knew how many of them there were.
The imam said that he had gotten his information from “a local government official", without identifying him. According to this man, the assaults had taken place over the “last few months”. He didn’t say why he had decided to speak out.
When interviewed on Iranian public television, the local public prosecutor Movahedi Rad said that only four women had filed complaints.
"The culprits are a group of four men and, so far, we’ve arrested one,” he said.
But several local religious leaders backed up Imam Mollazehi and said that there were many more victims who had not filed complaints.
Mowlavi Abdolhamid, a Sunni imam from Zahdan, the capital of the province, encouraged women to go to the authorities.
"Don’t be afraid,” he said. “The women need to step forward. This isn’t your fault, it is the fault of criminals. Take them to court so that they are forced to confront what they’ve done.”
These revelations sparked several different protests, bringing together local women, activists and religious leaders. In a culture where many women are blamed for the sexual harassment or abuse that they endure, our Observers in the region say that these protests are an important step for women’s rights.
“We realised that the silence around these matters probably allowed for dozens of other rapes and sexual assaults to occur”
Sahra, age 30, lives in Iranshahr:
We are all in shock. I still can’t believe that 41 women were raped here in this small town. Here, we women feel safe. We have strong traditions and a strong moral code. We never could have imagined that women here could be assaulted.
I studied in Ispahan, which is a much more liberal town. I felt much more vulnerable there. For example, I experienced street harassment for the first time. Here, that almost never happens. Things won’t ever be the same and that terrifies us.
I think that the reason why this scandal has shocked people so much is because there is such a high number of victims. We also realised that the silence around these matters probably allowed for dozens of other rapes and sexual assaults to occur in Iranshahr in total impunity.
Here, it is considered shameful for a woman to be raped or harassed. Female victims are thought to dishonour their families. So, victims suffer in silence.
The father of one of the victims told the imam that he’d rather die than experience the shame if everyone knew that his daughter had been raped. We really need to undergo a cultural revolution.
"Conservative imams no longer look at these women as sinners and that is very positive”
Right now, many people are trying to convince the survivors to take the perpetrators to court. They want to create a strong popular mobilisation to give these women the confidence and courage that they will need to confront their abusers.
The prosecutor questioned the total number of victims.
In these protests, we saw many people say loud and clear that the women are the victims and it is important not to criticise them for their suffering.
The fact that influential conservative imams like Mowlavi Abdolhamid-- who are not usually champions for women’s rights-- don’t see these women as sinners and that they are speaking out loudly and clearly against what these women have endured is very positive.
But we aren’t deluding ourselves. The question of honour is so ingrained in the local culture that it will require an enormous effort to give the victims the courage to speak out.
But no matter what happens, the messages of these religious leaders could help inspire longterm change as to how local families perceive rape victims. Currently, however-- the risk of honour killings remains. Some families might kill their daughters if they learn that they have been raped.
On June 18, local authorities announced that they would press charges against "the people who spread rumours about the 41 rapes in Iranshahr", including Imam Mollazeh. For the time being, however, he has not been taken in for questioning.