Iran has been experiencing a disturbing uptick in the incidence of gang rapes of women recently. A public outcry has gone up over the number of such attacks that have occurred in the last few months. The Iranian government has responded by, first of all, suggesting that the women’s clothing and behavior could have encouraged the attackers; and second of all, by carrying out executions of those accused of rape.
However, if the Iranian authorities really wanted to end violence against women in their society, the best thing they could do would be to stop perpetrating it themselves. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have extensively documented the widespread and prevalent incidence of rape and sexual assault in Iran’s prisons and detention centers. The use of rape and sexual torture is a uniquely effective means of breaking the spirit and terrorizing people into submission. An untold number of people– even casual protestors– were subjected to particularly brutal sexual assaults in the wake of the post-2009 presidential election unrest.
In June a video was released in which a young woman relates a horrific account of abuse after she was arrested in the summer of 2009. The young woman, whose name was not revealed and whose appearance was blurred to protect her identity, described in vivid detail her sickening and heartbreaking ordeal. Detained for several weeks, she was subjected to brutal and vicious torture, including being repeatedly raped, having her head forcibly shaved, and being burned with cigarettes.
The Iranian government has not made any serious effort to end these types of violations; Iranian law does not even define rape in custody by public officials as torture. However, the Iranian government also does not want the dirty secret to be publicized; it is particularly sensitive to allegations about sexual assault in detention and has attempted to stifle the reporting of such incidents by using threats and intimidation against those who speak out. In September 2009, judiciary officials raided and closed down the offices of a committee set up by presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi to collect and collate information about torture and other abuses committed against post-election detainees. The documents and other items seized identified the victims who had the courage to complain, placing them at further risk.
Meanwhile the Iranian government is busily arresting, convicting and harassing women’s rights activists simply for exercising their right to peacefully advocate for equitable treatment of women in Iranian law. For instance, Campaign for Equality activist Maryam Bahreman traveled to New York to speak at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2011. Two months later, she was arrested and remains in detention in Shiraz Prison, despite an order to release her on bail. She apparently faces charges including “acting against state security,” “propaganda against the system,” “dissemination of false Information,” “participating in protests” and “insulting the Supreme Leader.”
Carrying out public executions of alleged rapists and blaming rape victims is not the way to combat violence against women in Iranian society. By brutalizing its citizens and by glorifying brutality the Iranian authorities only contribute to the culture of violence.