Global Migration & Politics
Analysis and commentary on the politics of the Middle East, of the power games that defines the region, and the economic, religious and ethnic problems the region is often facing.

The #MeToo movement in Iran

Middle East // Analysis//Women´s rights //the #MeToo movement// the Iranian MeToo movement is the platform for Iranian women to verbalise their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual violations in the workplace. Although the authorities have been responsive to women’s protests, it is naive to assume their support is a heartfelt matter. Rather, it is a political strategy to divert attention from other pressing issues the country is struggling with.  

Women in Iran have been busy these days sharing their experiences on Twitter of sexual harassment and rape. This has led to an open debate on sexual harassment and abusive behaviour by men in workplaces and in the public space.

In August, Iranian women started to share their experiences of sexual violations at work via Twitter. A woman, Mahzad Elyassi, wrote back in 2018 about her own experiences of sexual aggressive behaviour from a famous Iranian film director. At the time, her writing did not give rise to a reaction.

However, the story gained new momentum  this year when two women wrote on the basis of the original article about their experiences of sex violations. After that, more women started writing on Twitter about their own experiences of sexual violations at work. As a result, the phenomenon was moved from one particular segment — the film industry — to become a community of women, regardless of their economic and professional background.

Women from both larger and smaller cities with a wide variety of life experiences started to share their experiences of sex violations in the workplace and in private life.

Iranian women are not unfamiliar with protest movements. On the contrary; they have a long and proud tradition of protesting. They have protested against the veil requirement since the Islamic revolution of 1979. They have protested against child marriages, violations in public spaces, violence against women, women’s rights and demands for gender equality.

In 2006, women led the ‘One Million Signature Campaign’ protest against discrimination against women in Iranian society. As late as 2018, women were once again behind a protest movement, White Wednesday, which the authorities cracked down hard on, with 25 people killed and hundreds arrested. The wave of protest also triggered a Twitter campaign with women taking images of themselves in various situations in the public space without a veil. An act which is in itself a criminal offence.

‘MeToo’ — the movement creates intimate public spaces via Twitter.

The point of using Twitter for such protest movements for women creates the unique mix of new the private and the public sphere. An intimate public space based on a community, and a shared experience with like-minded people.

This will also create a link between the personal experience and its political element — the desire to change the outdated structures that allow the sexual harassment to flourish.

So, as well as verbalising the sexual harassment itself; Twitter, as a social media platform, provides a voice to a large number of women who have not previously wished to share their experiences.

However, there is a big difference between previous protest movements and the  current #MeToo Twitter storm. While previous protests had a political element, such as criticisms against the regime, this time the protests are different, with a specific focus on criticising men and structures that prevent women from complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace.

This is probably why the Iranian authorities have not cracked down on this protest movement. This is, of course, part of the explanation. First and foremost, it is a virtual movement that only takes place on social media. And because the protest, in its form, targets specific men and not the regime, the authorities have been responsive to the reports of many women on Twitter.

Slightly cynically put, the authorities would rather support women in their protests against sexual harassment than in their protests against the veil requirement. The latter being a symbolic struggle. Where sexual harassment can be directed specifically at named and unnamed men and workplaces, the fight against the veil requirement is a much stronger criticism against the regime itself, of the performance and thus of the State itself.

Shortly after the arrest of a man who had reportedly been behind many of the rapes of women, the Head of Tehran police made a public announcement of his arrest.  

In addition, the police also promised women who wanted to report such abuses, that they would not be in risk of impunity. The latter part is especially interesting given the fact that both alcohol consumption and sex outside marriage are criminal offences for which women would normally be prosecuted.

The mere fact that the authorities promised impunity in these cases gave rise to considerable debate because the authorities thus departed from a cardinal point in the identity of the Iranian State itself.

The art of hijacking a movement

In the aftermath of the women’s Twitter storm, some newspapers wrote that the ‘MeToo’ movement in Iran has forced the Iranian authorities to act. As mentioned above, fairly quickly, the police arrested a man believed to be behind a large number of the attacks on women.

In addition, the female Deputy Minister for Women and Family Affairs quickly went out, expressing official support for the case and the women who had started the campaign. Furthermore, the same Minister promised to draft, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, a wide range of laws aimed at improving the legal position of women in relation to sex violations.

Supporting women in their struggle for the right to drive or the right to speak of sexual harassment is only supported by authorities insofar it fits into their own narrative.

This cause can act as a political vent instead of other more heavier political issues that could be outright criticism of the regime itself.

This all sounds well and good, and can at first sight be taken as an expression of the authorities’ support for women’s fight against sexual harassment. However, the cynical observer may point out that this was easy and obvious case for the authorities to support. When women protest to secure their own rights, such as the right to speak up against sexual harassment, the authorities will choose to support the case as long as this fits into their own political agenda.

As a result, the MeToo movement in Iran risks being hijacked as a political vent, thus removing the focus from any other legitimate criticism of the regime.

Any capable spin-doctor would recommend an unpopular government to support the women in their cause, as an obvious chance of scoring cheap political points.

Iran is not really in for a smooth ride these days. To support this wave of protest in Iran, which is directed at men, and not the regime, is an obvious political opportunity for the regime to act in a responsive, proactive way and to stand up as a support for women in their fight against sexual harassment

In January 2020 the Iranian General Qasem Suleimani was assassinated in Iraq. Shortly after, the country was hit by the region’s highest number of recorded cases corona virus cases. Further tightening of US economic sanctions only made matters worse from an Iranian perspective.

Supporting this wave of protest, which is not directed at the regime but against men, is thus an obvious political opportunity for the regime to be responsive, proactive and to stand out as a support for women in their fight against sexual harassment.

Interestingly, the same pattern can be seen in other states in the Middle East which, like Iran, have a somewhat harsh relationship with fundamental freedoms. When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman introduced women’s right to drive, the Western world was in awe of the so-called modern women’s vision of the Crown Prince.

The fact that there were heavy economic considerations behind women’s freedom was a fact that most seemed oblivious to. The fact that the Crown Prince was presented as a women’s advocate, but at the same time placed women’s rights defenders in prison, was not apparent from the usual coverage of his actions and policies.

The same pattern is also seen in Egypt, which has introduced various whistle-blowing schemes to enable women to make their anonymous reports of sexual assault. At the same time, the same state is not holding back from arresting women for having published videos purportingly threathing family values of Egyptian society.

In other words, supporting women in their struggle for the right to drive, or the right to report sexual harassment, is supported by authorities as long as it fits into their own narrative. Because it can act as a political vent and divert focus from heavier political issues that could be outright criticism of the regime itself.

Having said that, the authorities’ support for the protest movement of Iranian women is obviously a positive step forward. But one should be aware that the MeToo movement in Iran gets the support of the authorities insofar it is convenient and easy.

As a result, the government has managed to hijacked a protest movement –  just because they can, and for no other reason than that. 

Top photo: Wikimedia Commons

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