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Acid Attacks on Women in Iran


By Denis MacEoin

November 4, 2014

News reports are coming in of massive demonstrations in Iran on October 25, throughout the northern half of the country -- Saqqez, Tehran, Mashhad, Rasht, Shahr-e Kord, and Isfahan. The protests all focused on the issue of acid-throwing. At each event, the regime's Revolutionary Guards, the police and their supporters moved in hard with tear gas and pepper spray. They were shooting in the air, and battering women.

In the days of Shah Abbas the Great, his capital city, the beautiful Isfahan, was celebrated in the rhyming couplet "Isfahan, Nesf-e Jehan": "Isfahan is half the world." Today, however, in Shah Abbas's Isfahan, acid attacks on "badly veiled" girls have grown frequent. In early October 2014 alone, there were as many as 14 acid attacks on young women in Isfahan.[1]

One woman died from injuries sustained in the attack. The others have seen their futures destroyed within moments. Here is what acid can do:

"What Dano threw at her was sulfuric acid that melted her eyes to the sockets and left little of her face. Her nose and lips also disintegrated and one of her ears was severely disfigured. At the time, she was only fifteen, and her life would be changed forever."[2]

There is a record of the victims of acid attacks being taken to the city's Imam Sajjad, Imam Musa, and Fayd hospitals, yet their families have been ordered by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security's Isfahan office to say nothing about these attacks and not to publish photographs in the social media of the horrendous mutilations inflicted.

According to the same source, one victim has said it is obvious that the culprits belong to the notorious Ansar-e Hezbollah (Supporters of the Party of God), a gangsterish organization affiliated with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The Ansar are a long-standing group of religious hardliners who started life in the 1979 revolution by beating and killing opponents of the emerging regime. Affiliated with the Hezbollah terror organization in southern Lebanon, the Ansar has cells throughout Iran. It also has a long history of assaults on women riding bicycles while wearing "improper" clothes and who are "badly veiled." They are financed and partly controlled by high-level conservative religious leaders within the government, including Ayatollahs Khamenei and Mesbah-Yzadi. In other words, they carry out government policy in both the political and social spheres.

Why so much emphasis on public morality, and why such a harsh imposition of what seem like petty rules?

Acid Violence in General

Acid attacks take place all round the world. There are records of high levels of attacks in Third World and Western countries, from Africa to the Far East, from South America to the Middle East, from the United States to Canada, and the UK to Australia. According to a 2006 report that reviewed chemical assaults worldwide:

We reviewed 24 studies of chemical burns by means of assault in the last 40 years. We describe 771 cases of chemical assault in total. Jamaica had the largest absolute number of cases. Bangladesh had the highest reported incidence. Male victims were more common, with the exception of Bangladesh and Taiwan. The youngest cohort was from Bangladesh. The role of gender, agents used and legislation were discussed. We identified two broad motives; increases in violent crime and use as a crime of passion in disputes between men and women. [3]

But the majority of these incidents seem to occur in South Asia — in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the last of which has the highest reported incidence of attacks in the world.[4]


The Acid Survivors Trust, a charity based in London, describes motivation as follows: "Victims of acid violence are attacked for many reasons, and the patterns of attack vary from country to country. Sometimes they result from domestic or land disputes, dowry demands or revenge. In many cases they are a form of gender based violence, perhaps because a young girl or woman spurned sexual advances or rejected a marriage proposal."

Although the majority of attacks are directed at women and children, men are attacked in large numbers as well.

Acid attacks, as they are doubtless intended to do, inflict suffering on victims: destroying lives, ruining families, causing both physical and psychological harm, disfiguring, reducing men and women to lives of isolation and loneliness, creating poverty, and marking sufferers out for social ostracism.

Iranian Motivations

The Iranian attacks cause all of these things -- but their motivation is quite different.

The acid attacks in Isfahan are a perfect testimony to the grave distortions the Islamic regime has created in Iranian society, turning a land of love poetry, exquisite music, and those lovely Qajar portraits of dancing girls[5] into a Sauronian landscape of drab citizens forced to bow their heads before the theocratic ideals of stern clerics and joyless morality patrols. In his erudite and profound study of the sacred and the sexual in Islam, the Tunisian sociologist, Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, writes, "The whole of life, according to Islamic teaching, bathes in an atmosphere of sexuality. Sometimes this is carried to the point of obsession."[6] But once things proceed to social practice, puritanism takes over. The serious, as opposed to the ludic, or playful, attitude found in tradition, dominates. Women are thrust into veils. This act is, of course, also sexual -- pushing the temptation away as hard as one can, while making sure one's "virgins" stay "pure," hidden, kept at home. Many men, unable to control their desires, seem to make life as difficult as possible for the female sex.

The Iranian revolution took a partly-modernized society and thrust it back to the Middle Ages (albeit a Middle Ages searching for nuclear weapons). This time-warped regime attempts to control its people in a totalitarian manner, so that nothing escapes its dead hand. In May, a group of six young Iranians made a video of themselves dancing to Pharell Williams's song "Happy" and put it on YouTube -- a jolly thing that many young people have done elsewhere. For this unseemly act, they were arrested, tried, and sentenced to six months in jail and 91 lashes each, suspended for three years on condition they behave properly in future. Their video, which featured three unveiled women dancing with three men, was condemned as "obscene" and a "vulgar clip which hurt public chastity." Playing music, dancing, unmarried men and women together, and unveiled women "hurt" something mysteriously called "public chastity".

As in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Afghanistan, the happy lands on which the Islamic State has imposed itself, and elsewhere throughout the Muslim world, Iran's Islamic public chastity focuses on the control of female behavior. For young women in Iran, this means strict regulations on what is and what is not acceptable dress; the condemnation of make-up and nail varnish; being in public with men who are not their close relatives, and constantly being stopped and questioned by morality patrols made up of women dressed in all-enfolding black chadors, who will drag them to a police station and fine them for infringements.

And the infringements are numerous. In 2010, the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences circulated a 23-point directive, which stipulated that "men must wear loose, long-sleeved shirts and women must have their 'manteau' coats completely buttoned up at all times. With the exception of wedding bands, all gold rings and bracelets are banned for both sexes. Fingernails must be kept short, clean and free of nail polish. Shoes must not have high heels or pointed toes. Chewing gum in class and laughing out loud in public places are also prohibited."

In 2010, the Chief Prosecutor of Mashhad, Mahmud Zoghli, launched a drive to crack down on "bad Hijab," imposing a fine of approximately $1,300 for each breach of the law. This was confirmed nationally by the Interior Minister and Chief of Police, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar. Behind this clampdown lies the conservative parliament and the clerical institutions that overshadow it. Although only some 14% of Majlis members are now clerics, parliament itself is heavily overshadowed by 'ulama [religious scholars] in all other branches of government. These branches include the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, the Assembly of Experts, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the judiciary, as well as outside powers such as the Revolutionary Guards.

The clergy are institutionally neurotic about the observance of Islamic law, as they interpret it, and place the highest value on the regulation of the appearance and actions of women as a symbol of the country's Islamicity -- for it is, first and foremost an "Islamic" Republic.

Does this sound far-fetched? The "Hijab problem" has been described as part of a wide threat to the Iranian nation. Hojatoleslam 'Ali-Reza Panahian, a leading cleric closely linked to arch-conservative Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, stated that "the hejab is no longer [just] a moral value. It is a strategic and political matter and... Security issue".

To reduce their own fear, the clerics -- aided and abetted by hard-line women, thugs, and a supine media -- try to raise fear levels among the public. This form of "persuasion" is underscored by executions (for political crimes, homosexuality, adultery, and simple defiance of the regime), long-term imprisonment under brutal conditions, and, for women, by rape and acid attack.

Further, government propaganda and the content of the trials stress that such crimes are the fault of women who flaunt their female attractions, let a single strand of hair fall loose, or dance to stimulating music, driving innocent men to rape or disfigure them.

Rape is not uncommon in Iran, both by serial rapists and gangs who abduct and rape women at gunpoint.

It is not as physically disfiguring and handicapping as acid attack, but the psychological trauma after ambush or abduction can be horrendous, made even greater in Iran, where a rape victim is most often accused of having provoked her attacker through "bad Hijab" or some other departure from the Islamic norm. According to a BBC report, after a gang rape of several women in Khomeinishahr, near Isfahan, in May 2011, local clergy and authorities took the side of the rapists:

"Those who were raped were not praiseworthy," said the imam of Khomeinishahr, Musa Salemi, in his Friday sermon. "Only two out of the 14 were related. They had come to our town to party and provoked the others [the rapists] by their wine drinking and dancing."

His sentiments were echoed in comments made by the town's police commander, Revolutionary Guards Col. Hossein Yardoosti. "I believe," he was quoted as saying, "that the raped women's families are to blame, because if they had proper clothing and if the sound of their music were not so loud, the rapist would not have imagined it as a depraved get-together."

Reports said that he was considering legal action against the rape victims for their behavior.

Raping and acid attacks are not just linked to a conservative obsession with the minutiae of Shari’a law. Underneath it all seems to lie a deep-seated misogyny that betrays contempt for women and a presumption of male superiority that permits men to treat women as their property.

The Ansar-e Hezbollah publish a newspaper and website called Yalasarat, which has printed large amounts of anti-female material. A recent page of the website, from October 23, 2014, for example, runs a feature on the immorality of mannequins in shop windows. And another gives lurid details of how a woman without a hejab walked from one side to another of Revolution Square in Tehran, leading the article to a long discourse about applying the law that forbids such behavior.[7]

This misogyny appears to have deep roots. Here is Imam 'Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and the first of the twelve Shi'ite imams -- men who, in the terms of Iran's remarkable Ishraqi philosophy, are considered to be all but God on earth:

Woman is wholly evil; and the worst thing about her is that she's a necessary evil![8]

And again:

Men, never obey your women in any way whatsoever... We see them without religion... they are lacking in both pity and virtue when their carnal desires are at stake. It is easy to enjoy them, but they cause anxiety…. [9]

Imam 'Ali is not alone. Here is a famous and "sound" tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad:

The majority of the inhabitants of hell are women. [10]

In Iran, the clerical regime, waiting for the return of the hidden Twelfth Imam and the final war against infidelity, has built a society that guarantees sin. If a woman's wearing lipstick or smiling at a man or being raped by a gang of men can be a sin in the spirit and a crime in the flesh, then Iran is a hotbed of immorality.

Acid attacks take place everywhere, but in Iran, and perhaps in Iran alone, the motive is religious. Women are disfigured to satisfy a craving for purity and supposedly the love of God. Similar motives may be identified in other Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait -- but not to the extent of attacks in Iran. In those last three countries, victims are not only condemned for provoking assaults, but are psychologically persecuted afterwards. Rare as they are, media accounts of attacks are minimized; victims are blamed, women's voices are omitted, and the attackers are regarded sympathetically.[11]

There is an irony in all this. In Iran, acid throwing is a capital crime. But "hardliners within Iran's conservative-dominated parliament have been trying for the past few months to pass a bill that would protect vigilantes trying to enforce Islamic law." The hardliners want to protect the vigilantes, but moderates want to keep acid attacks as a capital crime. The authorities are trying to encourage Western tourism, so letting acid attacks go on will gain the country a bad reputation. Isfahan is the heart of the tourism industry, so it is essential for the regime to stop the attacks at least there.

Like Islamic authorities elsewhere, Iran's clerical elite needs to frighten its population into submission. A young woman with two inches of hair showing is the small "hole in the dyke" that can, with time, break the dam and flood the country with all the things the revolution was carried out to prevent: liberalism, individual freedoms, religious and political tolerance, liberal democracy, free speech, equal rights for women, and on and on. Democracy scares them witless. One curly lock in the open air convulses the totalitarian with fear, the fear that he may be shown to be, in the last analysis, irrelevant.

 [1] "Woman dies of acid attack in Esfahan, former top Iranian tourist attraction," Iran News, 20 October 2014; "Iran Investigates Acid Attacks on Women," Radio Free Europe/Radio Farda, 19 October 2014; "'Bad hijab' link to acid attacks on Iranian women," al-Arabiyya News, 21 October 2014.; "Iran: Acid attack in Isfahan by organized gangs linked to the mullahs' regime," Iran News, 20 October 2014.

[2] L. M. Taylor, "Saving Face: Acid Attack Laws After the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women," Ga. Journal Int'l & Comp. Law 29 (2000), pp 395-419.

[3] Mannan, Ashim; Samuel Ghani; Alex Clarke; Peter E.M. Butler, "Cases of chemical assault worldwide: A literature review," Burns 19 May 2006, 33 (2): 149–154.

[4] L. M. Taylor, "Saving Face: Acid Attack Laws After the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women," Ga. Journal Int'l & Comp. Law 29 (2000), pp 395-419; "Acid Attack Trend (1999-2013)," UN Women, United Nations, 2014; Sheikh Mohammad Farshid, "Acid Violence as a Social Crisis In Bangladesh".

[5] See Julian Raby, Qajar Portraits: Figure Paintings from Nineteenth-Century Persia, London, 1999

[6] Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, Sexuality in Islam, trans. Alan Sheridan, London, 2004, 2012, p. 95

[7] See Yalasarat (Persian text).

[8] Cited in Abdellatif Sharara, Falsfat al-hubb 'ind al-'Arab, Beirut, 1960, p. 59

[9] Cited in Mas'ud al-Qanawi, Fath al-Rahman, p. 14, from Bouhdiba, Sexuality in Islam, p. 118

[10] Sahih al-Bukhari, official ed., Cairo, 1312/1894-95, vol. 4, p. 91

[11] Sarah Halim and Marian Meyers, "News Coverage of Violence Against Muslim Women: A View From the Arabian Gulf," Communication, Culture & Critique, volume 3, issue 1, pages 85–104, March 2010.


Dr. Denis MacEoin is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute. His PhD (Cambridge 1979) is in Persian Studies