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Iran’s #MeToo moment: Women’s tweets highlight alleged sexual abuse, rape by prominent figures

By Golnaz Esfandiari


RFE/RL (25.08.2020) – https://bit.ly/32EJNGV – For 14 years, former Iranian journalist Sara Omatali kept quiet about the time she says a prominent painter sexually assaulted her.


Last week, the U.S.-based educator broke her silence on Twitter, detailing the alleged abuse that took place in the summer of 2006.


Omatali is one of many Iranian women who have in recent days taken to social media to tell their stories of sexual harassment and rape, breaking years of silence about an issue that remains taboo and is often swept under the rug in Iran.


Omatali said she had decided to interview the painter about an exhibition at the National Museum in Tehran. He insisted that she came to his office first, saying they would go to the exhibition together. After hesitating, she went to his office to find him naked under a brown cloak.


He then assaulted her, she said.


“He held me tightly, squeezing my body and trying to kiss my lips; I struggled as hard as I could to get rid of him,” she wrote on Twitter.


Omatali managed to escape into the street. The painter later came out and acted as if nothing had happened.


“He came toward me and said: ‘Shall we?’”


“It was as if I had no will of my own. I went,” Omatali said, adding that she still becomes full of “hatred, fear, and helplessness” when she recalls that day.


Spotlight on abuse


The outpouring of accounts about alleged sexual abuse, rape, and unwanted sexual advances and the number of women who have joined the movement, some anonymously, appears to be unprecedented in Iran, leading to comparisons with the global #metoo movement that has occurred around the world in recent years and putting a spotlight on such abuse.


One woman said she was raped by a friend after she visited him at his apartment. She had a glass of wine and woke up the next morning in his bed, naked, she said.


Others came forward claiming they had been raped by the same man, accusing him of drugging them beforehand.


Tehran police chief Hossein Rahimi said on August 25 that the man identified by the initials “KE” had been arrested after several women said they were raped by him.


Several others accused a known visual artist, as well as a popular writer, while at least one spoke of past sexual misconduct by a prominent filmmaker.


Some named their abusers publicly, others alluded to their identities. Several men also joined the campaign, tweeting about their experience with sexual abuse.


Fashion photographer Reihaneh Taravati said she had been sexually harassed by “one of the pioneers of Iranian photography” when she was 19, while artist Leva Zand wrote how her friend had been raped by a man whom she described as a well-known, New York-based, Iranian human rights activist.


At least one woman recounted how she sought legal action against her perpetrator that resulted in the punishment of her offender.


Several lawyers offered tips and legal advice to Iranian women who face discriminatory Islamic laws enforced following the 1979 Islamic Revolution that often favor men.


The global #metoo movement led to the downfall of a number of prominent figures, including the famous Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, who is now in prison in New York.


The Iranian #metoo movement, which has resulted at this time in the arrest of one alleged rapist, appears to have empowered abuse survivors who had remained silent for years and, in some cases, blamed themselves for the predatory behavior of their abusers.


Omatali told RFE/RL she decided to publicize her alleged sexual harassment after reading some of the anonymous accounts of abuse that have been posted on social media in the past two weeks.


“I thought to myself, ‘you’re in the United States and have more freedom and protection than those in Iran to raise the issue publicly, why are you silent?'”


“I didn’t find an answer that would satisfy me, and so despite the pressure and anxiety I knew I would face, I decided to write about my experience, hoping that it would be a starting point for the publicizing of similar incidents,” Omatali said.


Absence of education


She expressed hope that the ongoing campaign will lead to increased awareness among people about the problems of sexual abuse and harassment.


“In the absence of systematic education about sexual issues in Iran, this group movement improves the atmosphere for a public discussion and creates a precious opportunity for education,” Omatali said.


Sexual abuse is believed to be widespread in Iranian society, where women often complain about being sexually harassed on the streets in the form of catcalling and groping.


Many women have also recounted in past days about being sexually assaulted at work while having no choice than to stay in contact with the offender, who is quite often the boss or a colleague.


Tehran-based sociologist Saeed Madani told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that in Iran, like other countries, many victims of sexual abuse and rape are reluctant to speak out.


“They aren’t usually inclined to seek legal action, therefore the number of cases that are referred to the [authorities] is very limited and those very limited cases are not publicized,” he said.


Madani referred to rape figures reported by the media as “the tip of the iceberg,” saying the majority of the cases are not being reported.


“One report said that the highest incidents of rape are in Tehran, with about 1,600 sexual crimes being registered annually, but it is estimated that some 80 percent of rape cases are not being reported,” he said.


One reason is the taboo surrounding the issue while victim blaming is also preventing women from coming forward.


“In a patriarchal society, it is assumed primarily that the woman has done something wrong,” Madani said.


Veteran women’s rights advocate Susan Tahmasebi told RFE/RL that the current movement against sexual abuse and rape is likely to encourage more survivors of abuse to seek legal action.


“Already we see that the recounting of these stories has brought about change,” Tahmasebi said. “Besides raising awareness among women survivors of rape and sexual assault, sending them the message that they are not to blame and that they will be safe in coming forward.”


“It tells men that they can no longer continue their violent behavior against women with full impunity,” she added. “At least in the eyes of the community they will lose face and this has already happened in the case of some high-profile men.”

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Kazakh women demand financial support

RFE/RL (09.06.2020) – https://bit.ly/3egDBJW – Women from lower-income families are continuing to demand government assistance as coronavirus restrictions in the Central Asian state are eased.


Some 20 women on June 9 resumed their so-called “silent protest” after spending the night in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Support.


The women were wearing sanitary masks marked with an “X” on them, which they said symbolized “the fact that we are not allowed to speak up.”


They also held posters saying: “Cheap mortgages for families in need,” “Financial support for each child,” “Amnesty for poor families’ bank credits,” and “We are on a hunger strike.”


Rallies and pickets by poor women have been held regularly in Nur-Sultan and other Kazakh cities since February 2019, after five children from a single family died in a fire at night when their parents were working.


The tragedy triggered anger across the country and demonstrations where protesters demanded increased government support for families that have several children.


The protests were held periodically until restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus were introduced in mid-March.


Dauren Babamuratov, an adviser to Nur-Sultan’s mayor, and Arman Qurbanov, a representative of the city’s health authorities, met with the women on June 9 and attempted to persuade them to leave the site, but the women refused.


Since the protests began last year, the government has announced a special program to support families with more than three children.


Initially, such families were provided with an additional monthly allowance of 21,000 tenges ($50) per child. However, the sum has since been cut twice. From January, the allowances were given only to families officially recognized as living in poverty.


The protesters are demanding a return of the benefits to initial levels, as well as for more benefits to be given to all families with more than three children.

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Several injured as conservatives throw stones at Women’s Day March in Pakistan

RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal (08.03.2020) – https://bit.ly/3cJf9Aj – Several people were reportedly injured as social and religious conservatives clashed with International Women’s Day demonstrators in Islamabad on March 8.


RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal reported that participants in a conservative demonstration called Modesty Walk threw stones at demonstrators holding a march to mark International Women’s Day.


Ismat Shahjahan, head of the Women’s Democratic Front, which organized the march, said four participants suffered head injuries, while three others were less seriously hurt.


Police intervened to stop the violence.


About 1,000 people participated in the Islamabad Women’s March.


The Women’s March was being held under the slogan, “My body, my choice.” Conservative groups, including the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, criticized the initiative as threatening traditional Muslim values.


Many women participating in the rival Modesty Walk wore burqas and chanted, “Our bodies, Allah’s choice.”


Women’s March events were also held in Quetta, Lahore, Karachi, and other cities.


Much of Pakistani society is strictly patriarchal and dominated by strict codes of “honor” that control women’s choices regarding marriage, reproduction, education, and other issues.


About 1,000 Pakistani women each year are murdered in so-called “honor” killings, often by their own relatives.

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New push to pass domestic-violence law angers Russia’s ‘traditional values’ conservatives

By Maria Karnaukh & Robert Coalson


RFE/RL (20.11.2019) – https://bit.ly/2QVG43D – At a time when alarming cases are drawing attention to domestic violence in Russia, activists are pushing — again — for a law that would criminalize it. Conservative groups are pushing back.


Russia is the only country in the Council of Europe that has no criminal statute on domestic violence. Of the 47 member states, only Russia and Azerbaijan have failed to sign the 2011 Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence.


More than 40 times over the last decade, bills on domestic violence have been introduced in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, but none of them has passed even the first reading.


In each instance, the efforts have met staunch resistance from socially conservative organizations and self-professed advocates of so-called traditional values. That history is now repeating itself as activists and their allies in the Duma prepare yet another bill seeking to address the persistent problem.


“They have tried to foist this law on us several times already,” said Olga Letkova, an activist with the Association of Parents’ Committees and Societies (ARKS), which has organized demonstrations against the draft bill. “The last time we fought them was in 2016 – back then, experts and the public and the Russian Orthodox Church came out against it. We hope that this time we will again be able to beat back this assault.”


In 2016, a section on “domestic battery” was added to a broader article of the Russian Criminal Code – but it was removed six months later. Under amendments to the Administrative Code in 2017, a first instance of domestic battery that does not result in lasting harm is punishable by a fine of 5,000 to 30,000 rubles ($80 to $480), and a second offense within one year by a fine up to 40,000 rubles or up to three months in jail.


At the time, Amnesty International called the decriminalization “a sickening attempt to further trivialize domestic violence” in Russia.


Now, Oksana Pushkina, a Duma member from the ruling United Russia party and deputy chairwoman of the legislature’s Committee on Families, Women, and Children who is a co-author of the latest bill, has complained to law enforcement authorities that she and her co-authors have been targeted by threats on social media.


Pushkina also alleged that a “well organized and financed campaign” had been launched against the nascent proposal, which she compared to a sometimes-violent campaign conducted in 2017 against the film Matilda, which social conservatives said demeaned Crown Prince Nicholas – later, Tsar Nicholas II – by detailing his affair with a half-Polish ballerina.


‘Gender ideology’


In October, more than 180 “traditional values” organizations and their regional branches signed an open letter denouncing the proposed bill as a purported product of “gender ideology” and an “instrument for the fundamental and forcible alteration of the basic foundations of Russian society and the destruction of our traditional family and moral values.”


“In many countries where they have such a law, single-sex marriages and gay parades are allowed,” said Andrei Kormukhin, the leader of a Russian Orthodox public movement called Forty Forties (Sorok Sorokov), named after the legendary number of churches in Moscow before the 1917 revolution. “Why should our conservative-traditional country — which, according to our leader, has its own, unique civilization — adopt foreign values?”


Kormukhin, who has been advocating against the proposed bill, added that the very term “family violence” casts aspersions on the image of the family, “the safest and most peaceful space within our society.”


But the government’s own, incomplete information offers a counterpoint to Kormukhin’s characterization of the Russian family. In 2012, the state statistics agency Roskomstat and the Health Ministry issued a study that found at least 20 percent of Russian women had experienced physical violence on the part of a husband or partner during their lives. In 2008, the Interior Ministry estimated that up to 40 percent of all serious violent crimes in Russia are committed within the family.


In 2016, the Interior Ministry reported that 64,421 violent offenses were committed within the family, with 29,465 of them committed against a spouse or partner. In the vast majority of those cases, the victim was a woman.


Underreported crimes


Activists add that the actual figures on domestic violence are likely much higher because such crimes are significantly underreported — and when they are reported, police often refuse to file a complaint.


The problem of domestic violence has broken into Russian headlines in several stunning cases in recent months. In St. Petersburg, a prominent historian has confessed to killing his girlfriend – a former student of his – and dismembering her body.


In Moscow, three teenage sisters are currently facing premeditated murder charges for killing their father in July 2018 after what they say was years of domestic abuse, including sexual abuse and humiliation.

In July, a man in the Moscow suburb of Ramenskoye killed his partner, Natalya Basova, by stabbing her 20 times at a playground in front of a group of children, including her own 5-year-old daughter. The accused man reportedly committed suicide while being held in pretrial detention.


In Moscow, 27-year-old Dmitry Grachyov was sentenced to 14 years in prison in November 2018 after being convicted of abducting his wife, taking her into a forest outside the capital, and cutting off both her hands with an ax. He was also ordered to pay his now ex-wife 30,000 rubles ($480) in compensation for “moral damages.”


The Russian Orthodox opposition to the proposed law is organized around a website called CitizenGo, where more than 18,000 people have signed an online petition against the law, saying it is “based on the radical ideology of feminism.”


The website – which also features material opposing abortion, vaccinations, and rights for sexual minorities – is part of a network of similar websites across the European Union and the United States that originated in Spain. The Russian platform is financially supported by Konstantin Malofeyev, the so-called Orthodox oligarch who is also the founder of the nationalist-monarchist Internet television channel Tsargrad.


Malofeyev has also worked actively throughout the former Soviet Union with the World Congress of Families (WCF), a U.S.-based organization that campaigns internationally against same-sex marriage, pornography, and abortion. In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center added the WCF and several affiliated groups in the United States to its list of “anti-gay hate groups.”


Conservatives object to the draft bill’s inclusion of several forms of domestic violence — including physical, psychological, economic, and sexual.


“Under ‘economic’ violence, they include failure to give money or things,” Letkova said. “For example, taking away a device from a child or not allowing him to go online. Not to mention making children do household chores, which is considered ‘exploitation.'”


False claims


Supporters of the bill categorically reject such arguments, which they say are intended to frighten and mislead the public.


“[The law is written to prevent] someone from tormenting a child with hunger or taking away a pensioner’s pension,” said Alyona Popova, a lawyer and activist who is helping draft the bill. “If your child is fed and healthy and properly clothed but you refuse to buy him a toy, that is not violence.”


Lawyer Mari Davtyan added that opponents of the bill are spreading false claims that the measure includes provisions allowing the state to take children away from their families for spurious reasons. She emphasized the law does not include any changes to the current Family Code of Russia.


Letkova also claims the bill institutionalizes “free sex.”


“According to the authors of the law, married people preserve the right to have sex with anyone they want and no one has the right to interfere or criticize them,” she told Current Time. “And this includes children. If they want to start an early and reckless sex life, the parents have no right to interfere.”


Davtyan says that Letkova was misinterpreting the law, quipping that “everyone understands sexual freedom within the context of their own depravity.”


“Sexual freedom is the right of every person who has reached adulthood to independently decide whether to have sex,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if we are talking about within marriage or outside it, sexual relations must be consensual.”


Letkova also alleges that activists are pushing the law in order to make money for themselves. She said if the law is passed, NGO representatives will go “door-to-door” looking for cases of domestic violence and offering their services.


“These organizations will force rehabilitation, consulting, and other services on these families to resolve the problems that they uncover,” Letkova said. “It is obviously a type of business, a new niche that they want to create and exploit.”


On November 17 hard-line conservative and staunchly anti-Western television commentator Dmitry Kiselyov ended his weekly news round-up with an unsparing attack on those who argue that domestic violence is somehow essential to Russian culture.


“Can it be that we are so spiritually helpless that we justify violence toward those who are clearly weaker?” he said. “We ourselves choose the emotional world in which we want to live, so what is our choice?”


However, Kiselyov stopped short of endorsing the proposed law, saying the state of “the morals inside us” was “much more important” than any law. He cited the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, as saying that “external laws do not work if there are no internal laws.”


ECHR ruling


The authors of the bill say they have submitted the draft to various legal bodies within the Federation Council and the Duma and are now in the process of adopting their suggested changes. They plan to submit the measure formally by the end of the year.


“All of us – those who support the bill and those who have come out against it – want the same thing,” lawyer Valeria Dergunova, a co-author of the bill, told Current Time, a Russian-language television network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “We want there to be no violence in the home. We want for women, children, and the elderly not to be beaten. Let’s work out a mechanism together to really make this impossible.”


Pressure on Russia to adopt a law was increased in July when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian authorities do not react adequately to allegations of domestic violence and instructed Moscow to adopt legal changes to prevent rights violations.


However, on November 19, Kommersant and other Russian media outlets reported that the Justice Ministry had responded to the ECHR by saying the scope of the domestic violence problem in Russia had been “rather exaggerated” and arguing that Russia’s Criminal and Administrative codes already “contain more than 40 criminal and at least five administrative articles dealing with acts of violence against individuals.”

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