Atlas Torbati explores what sexual assault means in Iranian society and how discursive practices influence individuals’ perceptions and definitions towards sexual assault.
“Every time I go to the bazar I’m concerned about my outfit. I make sure that I wear something loose and conservative and not to wear too much make up”. Said Bahareh, 25, a student inTehran.
Sexual assault is a hidden phenomenon in Iran. There is hardly any academic research or official data or report on the number of victims and conviction rates. Media tries to avoid publishing reports and cases of sexual assault due to the strict censorship existed in Iranian society. Research into the prevalence of sexual assault is difficult for various reasons. Firstly, people avoid reporting such incidents to the police since they fear it jeopardises the honour and reputation of the family. Secondly, some forms of sexual assaults such as verbal abuse have become socially accepted to the extent that some women turn the blind eye towards it, resulting in an increase its acceptance and its frequency. Thirdly, in order to protect public morality, the government does not publish reports on sexual assault cases. Therefore, there are no official statistics on the number of reported incidents or related conviction rates.
On the other hand, the media and government try to relate sexual assault to women’s own behaviour and lack of observing cultural and religious norms and practices. In Iran, women are expected to conform with cultural and social norms such as wearing manteau – the medium-length light jacket and scarf,and are expected to be modest in order to protect the family honour. Therefore those who become the victims of sexual assault are blamed for lack of observance of these norms. Culturally any form of sexual assault, harm, or abuse to a woman’s reputation is considered disgraceful and shameful. This is due to the deep-rooted cultural and religious concept of honour and its related ethical values embedded in society.
Discourses such as shame and honour play a key role in the subservience of victims of violence. These discourses are entrenched in individuals’ everyday lives and preclude the victims of violence to talk about or report sexual assault since it is considered as a private matter and must be kept at home. The existence of such norms and practices results in ignoring the abuse and the creation of silence among the witnesses and the victims.
The term sexual assault does not exist in the Islamic Penal Law in Iran. The closest definitions to sexual assault are adultery (1) or physical assault (2). However, none of these definitions include sexual harassment or sexual verbal abuse. Also the notion of consent is missing in the later definition. The absence of a legal definition and the related guidelines have resulted in increasing the power of judges to use their personal view and their attitudes towards victims in determining the seriousness of sexual assault cases. The absence of a definition also has resulted in acts such as sexual groping, touching and sexual verbal abuse not being recognised as a form of sexual assault. The consequence of this inconsistency is that many women might be unsure whether the definitions would lead them to be qualified as a victim or not although it is against the public morality For instance, some women who participated in this study did not categorise themselves as victims and perceived groping, sexual touching and sexual verbal abuse as normal behaviours. The Islamic Penal Law does not therefore provide any protection for the victims of sexual assault. The paradoxical approach to sexual assault has resulted in repetition and hence normalisation of this form of violence.
Recently, sexual assault has been the focus of social workers, woman activists and Iranian filmmakers. Movies such as, ‘I am a mother’ and ‘Hush! Girls don’t scream’ have broken the taboo in Iranian film industry and showed the sensitivity and consequences of the subject. These movies that were produced and funded by the private sectors, mainly focused on issue of rape and the second one directed was about a girl who was continuously sexually assaulted by the security man in their residential building during her childhood. Therefore, more attention still needs to be paid to this issue through educating families and children, publishing the reports and cases in news papers and magazines, creating space in the media to break the stigma associated with sexual assault and holding public discussion where the victims can freely come and talk about their experience. Policy makers must provide high quality provision of counselling and advocacy and commit themselves to design the policies that promote gender equality and addressing shortfalls in criminal justice system. They must attempt to design a rigorous law that clearly defines what sexual assault is. The law must not only sanction discrimination by gender, but also must protect women instead of accusing them and define specific punishment for the perpetrators.
Atlas Torbati is currently studying for a PhD in Social Work at the School for Policy Studies.
 Adultery or ‘zena be onf va ekrah ‘ is defined as forcible male penile insertion into the female’s vagina or anus. If someone has sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent and when she is drowsy, unconscious or drunk he is convicted of adultery and death penalty (Islamic Penal Law 2000)
 Verbal assault is defined as any verbal offence or indecent language towards women and children in public and a person who commits verbal assault in public is punished by three to six months of imprisonment or 74 lashes (Act 608, Islamic Penal Law 2000).