Iran uses rape to enforce women’s modesty

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch independently verify allegations

One gauge of the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is that there are credible reports that it is enforcing its supposedly strict moral code by arresting women and girls accused of advocating immodesty, and then sexually assaulting them.

In a searing report about the rape of protesters by security forces, CNN recounted how a 20-year-old woman was arrested for supposedly leading protests and later was brought by police to a hospital in Karaj, shaking violently, head shaven, her rectum haemorrhaging. The woman is now back in prison.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have independently documented multiple cases of sexual assault. Hadi Ghaemi of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a watchdog organisation in New York, told me of a 14-year-old girl from a poor neighbourhood in Tehran who protested by taking off her headscarf at school.

The girl, Masooumeh, was identified by school cameras and detained; soon afterward, she was taken to the hospital to be treated for severe vaginal tears. The girl died and her mother, after initially saying she wanted to go public, has disappeared.


Accounts of sexual violence are difficult to verify because of the victims’ feelings of shame and fear, and CNN reported that authorities sometimes film assaults to blackmail protesters into silence. What’s absolutely clear is that protesters keep turning up dead.

Consider Nika Shahkarami, a 16-year-old girl who burned her headscarf in public. Security forces closed in on her. Days later, authorities announced she had died. An autopsy reportedly found that her skull, pelvis, hip, arms and legs had been fractured.

So, the uprising across Iran isn’t just about head coverings. It’s about toppling a regime that is incompetent, corrupt, repressive and brutal.

“Should there be a government doing something wrong, the nation should punch it in the mouth,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared in 1979 after the revolution he led established the Islamic Republic. That’s what Iranians are now trying to do.

I’m surprised and disappointed that today’s grassroots Iranian revolution hasn’t received more support in America and around the world. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

First, Iran has barred most foreign reporters, so we don’t have television crews on the streets to record schoolkids risking their lives to take on regime thugs. Because we aren’t on the ground, I think we journalists collectively haven’t given this story the importance that it deserves.

Second, there is some American sourness toward Iranians, a misperception that they are fanatics chanting, “Death to America.” In fact, at the people-to-people level, Iran may be the most pro-American country in the Middle East.

On one trip, I brought my daughter, who was 14 at the time. A family photo of her being embraced by women reflects how thrilled ordinary Iranians are to meet Americans.

I chatted once with a young Revolutionary Guard protecting an anti-American museum. Surrounded by huge banners denouncing America as the “Great Satan,” he asked me for advice about how to emigrate to the United States. “To hell with the mullahs,” he told me.

Fearless young girls are at the forefront of today’s protests. When a member of the Basij paramilitary force spoke at one school, the girls pulled off their hijabs and heckled him. At a girls school in Karaj, students threw water bottles at an official and chased him out.

The United States and other governments are speaking up, and Iranians are grateful. Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer now on medical furlough from a 10-year prison sentence (reduced from 38-and-a-half years and 148 lashes), told me that she particularly appreciated the ejection of Iran from a United Nations commission on women’s rights. But Sotoudeh and others would like the Biden administration to do more to delegitimise the Iranian government and criticise executions, and she calls on western governments that have embassies in Iran to recall their ambassadors.

“The Biden administration hasn’t done enough,” said Tala Raassi, an Iranian American fashion designer who knows first-hand the brutality of the regime: At 16, she was arrested and given 40 lashes for wearing a T-shirt and miniskirt at a private party.

I’d like to see Biden work with other countries to raise the volume of international, top-level outrage at the repression.

“Just as Kennedy delivered his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech and Reagan his ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ speech, Biden could signal American resolve with an ‘Ayatollah, open the gates of Evin prison, free Iran’ speech,” suggested Amir Soltani, an Iranian American writer.

The West can also try to ramp up targeted sanctions on officials and their family members who party abroad or funnel assets overseas. Meanwhile, the intelligence community should be spying more on Iran’s mass repression – and leaking information, where possible, to hold the country’s authorities accountable.

Pressuring Iran is difficult, for it is already isolated and heavy sanctions have already been imposed on it. But we must try because Iran is now beginning its next phase: It has begun executing protesters to try to terrify the population into surrender. Two protesters are known to have been hanged so far, and at least 35 others have either been sentenced to death or are being held on capital charges.

In 1978, as Khomeini’s revolution gathered steam, The New York Times quoted an Iranian lawyer with prescient misgivings: “I hope we don’t climb out of a ditch,” he said, “only to fall into a well.”

More than four decades later, Iranians are desperately trying to pull themselves out of that well, led by schoolgirls who persevere despite the threat of arrests, torture and execution. They understand that gross immorality lies not in a girl’s uncovered hair but in the government that rapes her for it, and they should receive far more international support. - This article was first published in the New York Times