By: Ally Q.
The leash that has been suffocating most Iranian women for decades has gradually started to disintegrate, piece by piece. More women continue to join the #MeToo Movement on popular social media platform Twitter, as they speak out about the one topic that has been considered a taboo in Iran: sexual abuse. Specifically, their own sexual abuse stories. Sarah Omatali, an educator in Washington D.C and former Iranian journalist, is one of many women who has finally taken back her voice when she shared her story through a series of now-viral tweets-- a story that she’s been keeping concealed for 14 years.
“For many years I was worried about the consequences, and more importantly, about the reactions I will get from people around me,” she told The World. Living in a country where speaking about sexual abuse/harassment is a taboo, survivors are not only afraid to speak out in fear of losing their job and being blamed for what happened to them, but also told to stay quiet for their family’s honor.
However, Omatli was inspired to speak up after seeing other Iranian women posting their experiences online, and she wrote on Twitter, “All these years I remained silent, as I was afraid of those who would tell me I had no evidence to prove my claim ... but now, I feel that it is below my dignity to stay silent out of fear."
Omatali stated in her Tweets that she was going to interview a prominent artist about his exhibition at the National Museum in Tehran. He had requested that Omatali meet him at his office first before heading the exhibition. She was hesitant to go and had arrived at the artist’s office to see that he was naked under a brown coat. He then proceeded to assault her. Luckily, Omatli was able to escape before the situation escalated; however, the assaulter met her outside as if nothing had happened. “It was as if I had no will of my own,” Omatali stated in an article from RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty, and adding that she is still filled with “hatred, fear, and helplessness” when haunted by that day.
More women have started to share their sexual harassment and abuse stories on Twitter, gaining attention and sparking outrage internationally. “Some women’s rights activists see an opening to normalize public discussion around sexual harassment and abuse. And some of the posts have prompted officials in Iran to take action — in a way that is more public than ever before.”(Jaafari).
Providing a safe environment and normalizing sexual abuse/harassment discussions for women to share their stories is a major step towards one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals: gender equality. Iran currently ranks 148 out of 153 countries and has a score of 0.584 (1.00 equates to parity and 0.00 equates to imparity) concerning the Global Gender Gap stated by the report that the World Economic Forum published. Just like other countries, Iran still has a long way to go until gender equality is achieved.
However, just as suggested above, providing a safe environment and normalizing these discussions encourages other women, and even officials to take action. The #MeToo Movement itself proves that it’s imperative to share and provide this safe place for women especially on social media where millions around the world can spread it like wildfire. Even in one case, shared by an article from The World, several women accused a bookstore owner in Tehran of drugging and sexually assaulting them. Then, at the beginning of September, the bookstore owner was apprehended and confessed to his crimes. Additionally, Tehran’s police chief urged other survivors to come forward. Many women have listened and have filed complaints to Leila Rahimi, a lawyer in Tehran, and she is offering pro bono legal help to those in need of it. Even Rahimi states, “the recent Twitter posts show that attitudes toward reporting sexual abuse are slowly changing in Iran,”(Jaafari) showing how much of a difference providing an online sanctuary is for encouraging further discussions.
The future generations are responsible and accountable for keeping the fight for gender equality alive, and legal expert Pegah Banihashemi thinks that starting with teaching sex education in schools is a way Iran can improve their situation. Furthermore, eliminating stereotypes and gender norms such as blaming women for their sexual harassment/abuse, emphasizing that boys are stronger and less emotional than girls, alienize period talk in the classroom, etc, are ways to attain gender equality.
Iranian women’s rights activist Mahboubeh Hosseindeh told ABC News, "It takes time until the taboo of disclosing sexual assaults breaks down in a wider scale." Like Hosseindeh said, this will not be a short fight, nor will it be an easy one, but with the first few steps already taken, a foundation has been laid and the leash has started to dissipate. Let us take this foundation and use it to our advantage, and fight for a better future for women not just in Iran, but globally.