No Justice for Survivors of Acid Attacks in Iran

On today, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, WLUML networker Elahe Amani reflects on the recent spate of acid attacks on women in Isfahan, Iran.

25th November 2014 -

On November 13, Tanya St.Arnauld a victim of acid attack appeared in the courthouse of Longueuil courthouse in Quebec Canada. Her face, back, neck and arms, suffered from a second and third degree burn in the 2012 attack of her ex-boyfriend Nikolas Stefanatos.  He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and according to prosecutor will get a “significant “sentence.  He said he was very sorry of he did and said “he would hug her if he were allowed to”. Tanya now has the skin of a 70 years old woman.  

While the case of Tanya and the victims of spate acid attacks in Iran are violence against women and perpetuators intend to exercise their power and control over the victims/survivors, there is a significant difference between these cases.  The perpetuator of the crime in the case of Tanya is a person, it is an isolated case cause by jealousy and anger. However, for a whole host of reasons, the spate acid attacks in Isfahan is an organized, serial and premeditated crimes by non-state actors protected by the Islamists in position of power in Iran.  The offenders in Iran will never express that they are “sorry “for the harm they caused to their victims nor they like to “hug” them and most importantly based on the history of similar crimes in Iran organized by non-state actors, they will NOT receive a “significant” sentence.  

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The story of Tania in Quebec and thousands of women who are victims of acid attack are the unique narratives of gender-based violence in public space and one of the many forms of violence against women that are the main barrier to women and girls’ human rights and dignity.  Violence against women which acid attack is just one form of it is the cause and consequences of gender inequality in our troubled world.

Neda M, 27 years old is another victim of the serial Isfahan acid attacks.  She is a younger woman of Islamic faith.  The victim’s father told “While in her car, Neda had pulled over in order to answer her mother’s call,    “Two men riding a motorbike threw acid in her face and ran away, leaving her burnt in different areas such as her eyes, her left ear, neck, hands and legs.”

“What was her fault?” he asked. “She had not committed a single crime, she had always lived with her head kept high and never had a spat with anyone.”

Her father said that she was a responsible person and compassionate toward those less fortunate than her.  The Trunk of her car still had the bag with her cloths that she packed to take to a girl that her father is in prison. Father also stated that they accuse his daughter that her hijab was not good and she was wearing   “bad hijab”.  He stated that she never missed her prayers and always dressed modestly.  Neda lost the sight on one eyes and the other eye only have about 30% sight.

Another victim of serial acid attacks in Isfahan is Maryam, a mother and also a student at university.  She came home from university and asked her son to go out with her to do shopping for his birthday party and he was not up to it. So, she left home for shopping and she was also driving with her windows pulled down to enjoy the fresh cool weather of Isfahan’s autumn, when a similar assault took place. “A rider threw nearly two liters of acid through the driver’s window towards me, which affected my face, hands and my body,” Maryam told.  “I did not know about the serial acid attacks in Isfahan, I think I was one of the early victims.”

Sara F, 25 years old and married is another victim of Acid attack in Isfahan.  She was parking her car to go to dentist that her face and body felt burn. Her husband said, his wife was accused of “bad hijab” and does not want the name of his wife to be disclosed, as he fears her safety be compromised more in future.

There were four confirmed cases of Acid attack by authorities in Iran but according to confirmed community sources and social media the incidents of these serial attacks are at least 13 cases and perhaps even more.  These women were all drivers and were attacked while in their car.  They were accused of being “bad hijab”, claiming they were “sullying” their family “honor” by committing “indecent” behavior.  Families don’t wanted to come forward and hold the government, state and non state actors causing these crimes accountable as they fear more violent acts against them and their loved ones.

In response to the mounting pressure from people of Isfahan, on November 12, the police chief was compelled to react.    In a hideous statement, Ahmadi-Moghaddam, the head of the State Security Forces said, “There have been 380 cases of acid attacks reported since March of this year.”  He continues that “the motives in most cases have been ’revenge’ or ’psychological problems’, but in Isfahan due to propaganda and media coverage, this case received lots of attention,” 

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Protest in Isfahan in response to the acid attacks.

In the history of acid attacks it is noted that “people began using it (acid attack ) for violent purposes in Western Europe and the United States once it became easily obtainable. “ and “ In addition to being favored asa weapon in labor clashes, sulfuric acid was a common weapon in domestic disputes. For instance, in 1865, the New York Times reported that a jealous husband was arrested for disfiguring his wife with acid after threatening to “spoil her figure.” In other 19th- and early 20th-century cases, women threw acid on the men who impregnated them outside of marriage, on former lovers who spurned them, or on their husbands’ mistresses. Throwing vitriol was a way not only of causing someone immense pain, but also of rendering him or her unattractive, which goes partway toward explaining its use in sexually charged disputes.  

Acid fell (mostly) out of favor as a weapon of domestic assault in the United States and Western Europe by the mid-20th century, thanks both to “ better regulation of potentially dangerous chemicals”.   “But throwing acid gained prevalence in other parts of the world in the late 20th and early 21st century. In particular, reports of acid violence have increased since the 1960s in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.”  Human rights scholars note that acid violence is correlated with gender inequality, acid’s cheapness and accessibility, and the failure of courts to convict perpetrators. “

 Iran also has had cases of acid attacks although it is not as widespread as Cambodia or Bangladesh.  Ahmadi-Moghaddam, the head of the State Security Forces in an argument who intended to rule out the role of authorities in Iran recently mentioned that there have been 380 cases of acid attacks reported since March of this year (Persian New Year).  However, What significantly differentiate the acid attacks in Isfahan  with other cases in Iran and even with cases in other countries such as  India, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Quebec is that the recent spate of acid attacks in Isfahan were NOT driven and caused by personal jealously, anger, settling financial conflicts, family feuds and personal hostile feelings.  The serial incidents seems to be organized and staged by religious fundamentalists in position of power along with  members of the Parliament to create an state of fear and insecurity and target women’s bodies and psyche.  There are common thread with the acid attacks in Isfahan such as in all cases the victims (all female) were behind the wheel, all the incidents occurred between 7:00-7:30 p.m. and Shargh Newspaper, major daily paper in Iran wrote that according to the evaluation of the acid traces left on the clothes and cars of the victims, the same acid was used in all of the incidents.   

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Acid attack survivors took part in the recent protests in Isfahan.

Plans such as the ‘Plan on Protection of Promoters of Virtue and Preventers of Vice’ and the ‘Plan to Protect Chastity and Hijab’ are creating an encouraging environment and “justification” for such crimes.  These premeditated, organized crimes are carried out following the regime leaders' emphasis on the need for further suppression of women and the youth. Cleric Alam al-Hoda, regime's Friday prayer leader in Mashhad, said: "Confronting mal-veiling and lovers of the West and Western culture is the duty of the State Security Forces".

The offenders of the acid attacks in Isfahan, similar to other serial crimes in Islamic Republic of Iran, will not be brought to justice as the perpetuators of these crimes are being protected.  The infuriating aspect of these injustices for Iranian people is that the perpetuators of these crimes are still at large and not facing any sentence while the people who are exercising their rights to protest these crimes and holding state accountable for putting an end to these acts of violence are being arrested and detained. The Iranian authorities have also been threatening and accusing the news media of “excessive “coverage of the attacks and stating that "Questioning the role of organizations that monitor compliance with correct women's dress standards [Islamic Hijab]."  Islamic Republic prosecutor-general Ebrahim Raissi said on 27 October "we cannot close our eyes to the media crime of disturbing public opinion." Ali Younessi, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, said, "an Iranian cannot have committed such a violent act" but "if the person responsible turns out to be Iranian, he must be under the influence of counter-revolutionary groups based abroad."

In an article published by Reports Beyond Boarders, it is stated that Tehran's Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami, an ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said on October 26th that "media that accuse the people who monitor observance of proper social behavior, blaming them for the acid attacks, must be prosecuted."

Mohammad Javad Larijani, Iran's representative at the UN Human Rights Council, referred in an interview for Iranian national TV to "the possibility of a foreign state's support in the acid attacks affair."

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi announced on 25 October that, "as certain media reports disturbed public opinion, the editors of several newspapers have been summoned for possible prosecution."

Also, according to the information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, several journalists in Tehran and Isfahan have been threatened, some of them by phone, and have been "forbidden to follow or write about this issue."  It should be noted that Iran ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and Iran is one of the world's five biggest prisons for news providers, with a total of 48 journalists and netizens detained.

However, despite these threats, brave Iranian men and women demonstrators gathered outside the courts in Isfahan and the parliament building in Tehran on October 22nd and demanded an "end to violence against women." In the protest in Isfahan, at least two acid attack survivors attended.

The slogans in the protests in Isfahan and Tehran are an important discourse which should be noted.  Some of these slogans are:

"Where is my face?"

"A secure street is my right"

"Death to the Daesh School of Thought"

"The silence of authorities, is support of Daesh"

"You can not force compulsory Hijab"

"Isfahan is our city and security is our right"

"Security and freedom is our right"

"Acid attack is a crime and the judicial system is supporting it"

In recent years, other than the recent cases of hijab related incidents in Isfahan, Iran, there has been hijab instigated cases of acid attacks reported in Afghanistan to prevent girls from attending schools in 2008 and also one case of acid attack in  Gaza that a group called “ Justice Sward of Islam “ took the responsibility for it.  However, the incidents of acid attacks in Isfahan, is the most organized, serial and ideological case conducted by religious extremists, Islamist plain clothes non-state actors with the intention of creating an environment of fear and intimidation for women who  are not observing the “True” Islamic Hijab. 

The gender reengineering policies of Islamic Republic of Iran which is reflected in imposing limitation of presence of women in higher educational institutions, providing incentive for women who are part of the work force to stay at home and have more children, ban of women from certain professions such as real estate agent and even most recently working in coffee shops and performing music on stage, and other challenges aim at making public spaces an unwelcome and unsafe environment for women and girls.    

Iranian women and forward looking men will not remain silent to the human rights violations of Iranian women.  They demand safety and security of women and girls in public spaces, they value and support women’s active role to the livelihood of their family and community.  They demand the prosecution and punishment of the primary organizers and perpetrators of the acid attacks in Isfahan. Safety and security of women in public is a key rights of women and girls.

For further reading:

Acid Survivors Trust International

“Without a Face”: portraits of women survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan

Acid throwing