An inside perspective on a high-risk attempt by Iranian activists to address an endemic issue with violence against women
If you are a victim of domestic violence in Iran, you have nowhere to turn, no laws to protect you and few institutions to support you. Still, out of shame or the fear of the consequences, few women dare to break the silence. Defying the obstacles, a network of activists resolved to address the issue. This project is about their fight – a hopeful but perilous undertaking in a repressive regime. It offers an intimate perspective on a society the West often sees through the lens of crisis and conflict reporting.
While the scale of the problem is unclear, it seems enormous. Every woman has a story to tell from her own life or that of someone close to her, it seems. The last major investigation into domestic violence, conducted in 2004 by the Iranian government, indicated that 66 percent of women had experienced violence from their partner at some point. Our investigation suggests that the problem is endemic.
When we started this investigation, international pressure on Iran was growing again. As a result, the repression of civil society also peaked. The activists we work with faced resistance not only from traditional elements within the society but also from the state. It was a setback for the women’s rights movement, which can easily be portrayed as a western-funded destabilizing effort by such regimes.
Nonetheless, with the help of a network of activists, we gathered 400 personal stories about domestic violence. The stories were often hand-written and came from all over the country, from women of all ages, from cities and rural areas. These intimate and intense accounts conveyed the full impact of the anguish and trauma suffered by victims of violence in Iranian homes. We translated them all in a bid to ensure that the evidence reaches a broader public and the problem evolves from a taboo in Iran to a global topic of discussion.
Based on these testimonies and additional research we produced a series of stories, including a podcast series in Farsi and Dutch. The three-part series, produced by podcast maker Misha Melita, went online on March 8, 2020, International Women’s Day. Its aim was to provide listeners with an inside perspective to the struggle of Iranian women facing violence in a country that offers them virtually no recourse for respite or justice.
The last time he nearly beat her to death. He locked the door, unplugged the phone, and started hitting Bita. It had happened before, but this time he didn’t stop. He hit her until she passed out and blood flowed from her mouth.
Bita is one of the characters we followed for this project. She married a friend of her brother’s at the age of 21. A man with a postgraduate education, a middle-class upbringing and a good job. The abuse started on day 2 of her wedding. Still, she tolerated it for eight years.
The neighbor must have heard her regularly, Bita thinks. But she never intervened. “That’s normal in Iran: we are afraid of the police and we see domestic violence as a private problem. Some may also have thought: this Bita is a modern woman, she will be fine. ”
This time, however, her husband was shocked when he saw what he had done to her. He called a friend, who took Bita to the hospital. There, a doctor said she was lucky to be alive. She decided not to go home but to recover with her parents. This time, she didn’t return.
Bita joined a network of female activists. They believe telling stories about domestic violence is a way to protect women against a violent fate, like Scheherazade, the narrator in the One Thousand and One Nights, who ultimately won the sympathy of her oppressor.
With the help of some lawyers, the activists also lobbied for a new bill. Their aim: to make domestic violence a criminal offense. Several members of parliament had tried this in 2013, but their efforts ended up diluted into a broad law on family matters which did not address the urgency of tackling domestic violence and gave little weight to the perspective of the victims.