By Majid Rafizadeh
24 October 2014
The unprecedented series of acid assaults against Iranian women in Iran’s third-largest city, the traditional province of Esfahan, has taken the nation by surprise and has imposed a considerable amount of fear and terror among women. The number of attacks has been reported to be as high as eleven victims. “I was never more scared than I am now. I am scared of going to class, doing normal chores, driving a car, and even walking in the street. I am really afraid of motorcycles. Do you know what will happen to my life if one of these people throws acid in my face?” Azita, a university student in Esfahan, anxiously told me on the phone.
According to BBC Persian, Nasser Jowrkesh, father of Soheila, one of the acid victims, stated, “The attack caused extensive acid burns on her face, forehead, both hands and legs. She has lost her complete eyesight on her right eye. Regarding her left eye an ophthalmologist and surgeon in Labbafi Nejad hospital believes that there is a narrow hope to save some 25-30% of her eyesight.”
Accordingly, some women do not feel safe in their cars, as the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reported that in October 15 witnesses saw an incident of acid assault by a motorcyclist on a 27-year-old woman who was in the car with the window left window open. According to the Daily Beast, some motorcyclist are attempting to impose fear in women by throwing a mixture of water and cleansers into their faces which leads to a sensation of burning.
The Unprecedented Assaults
The Islamic Republic has rarely been in the spotlight when it comes to the issue of acid attacks against women. Socially, historically and culturally speaking, this act has been an unacceptable one in the society.
Generally, countries such as India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have drawn more attention, been in the center of the debate and have experienced a rise in the acid assault against women. Secondly the reasons behind the assaults against women, who had been victims in these societies, were normally characterized and linked to issues such as honor. In addition, such cases were part of inter-family issues.
On the other hand, the recent wave of acid assault against women in Esfahan contradicts the aforementioned conventions. Reportedly, the Iranian women have been targeted due to the notion that they do not wear the appropriate clothes and they are not veiled well. In addition, so far, the aggressors appear to be strangers, motorcyclists, with conservative dress codes rather than members of victims’ families.
What is known is that without a doubt, the recent and unprecedented wave of acid attacks in the Islamic Republic has imposed a considerable amount of fear among Iranian women. Although it appears to be difficult to identify who the aggressors are at this point, it is crucial to point out that the tension between educated Iranian women and hardliners has ratcheted up in recent years. The increasing power of women in public life is posing a tremendous challenge to hardliners who prefer the traditional function for women in the society.
Hardliners, vigilante groups, and patrol police have been criticizing the modern role of educated Iranian women. Improper dress code has also been one of the arguments that hardliners use to buttress their argument. Iranian parliament, which is dominated by hardliners, passed a law just a few months ago criminalizing any kind of permanent contraception such as vasectomies, as well as abortions and sterilizations.
In addition, the Iranian parliament has recently passed legislations that grant more power to vigilante groups as well as patrol police. Some of the powerful vigilante groups are Basij and Ansar-e-Hezbollah (the Supporters of the Party of God).
The Unintended Consequences of the Islamic Republic’s Policies
Iranian women have long played a crucial role socially, politically and culturally. In addition they were instrumental in the 1979 revolution. Nevertheless, soon after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, some women movements believed that their rights have been curtailed in family, social and political affairs.
On the other hand, since the Islamic Republic instituted conservative legislations, these policies encouraged many conservative families, particularly those in the villages, to feel confident to send their girls to universities, or allow them work outside home. For example, currently, the number of female university students surpasses those of men in Iran. As a result, women took a greater role in the society and demanded jobs, civil liberties, and individual freedom.
One of the prominent examples of the unintended consequences of the Islamic Republic’s policies is the case of Faezeh Rafsanjani, daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Faezeh Rafsanjani has become a symbol of resistance against the government by participating in an opposition rallies, particularly during the 2009 debated elections, and giving speeches to banned political demonstrators. She has been criticized by the hardliners, and has been arrested, detained on several occasions, charged for spreading anti governmental propaganda, taken to the political Evin prison and banned from leaving the Islamic Republic.
Since the number of young women resisting the government has ratcheted up, the Islamic Republic has found it more difficult to control them. As a result, the larger challenge for the government is the increasing tension between hard-line elements and modern educated Iranian women who are demanding a different role in the society.
Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University and Harvard scholar. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship.