Iran Moves to Outlaw Sexual Violence and Harassment of Women

After a decade of deliberation, Iran’s government approved a bill on Sunday that criminalizes violence and sexual misconduct against women and specifies punishments for perpetrators.

The decision to move ahead with the bill — which, if approved, will be the first law of its kind in Iran’s penal code — comes in the aftermath of a groundbreaking #MeToo movement and shocking reports of so-called honor killings that have gripped the public over the past six months.

The bill, which has been passed by the Cabinet, must now be adopted by the country’s conservative Parliament to become law, but women’s advocates are hopeful of success.

“The events of last year, both ‘honor killings’ that got national attention and the #MeToo movement in Iran, have increased the pressure on the government to push this bill that was in the making for almost a decade,” said Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in New York, referring to the murders of women by male relatives for supposedly shaming their families, even if the women themselves were victims of sexual violence.

Ms. Sepehri Far said that the bill still fell short of international standards and did not address all the aspects of violence that women face. It did not address child marriage and marital rape, she said, and did not properly define domestic violence.

Still, many Iranian rights activists and lawyers said it marked a step forward and reflected the shifting dynamics of Iranian society, which they describe as steps ahead of the government on issues of violence against women.

The complete draft of the bill has not yet been made public, but a summary posted on the government’s website states that “any act that causes physical or emotional or reputational harm” to a woman or results in curbing her freedom and social rights is considered a crime.

It also addresses sexual harassment and coercing women into sexual acts short of intercourse as crimes. Sending a woman an unsolicited sexual message, text or photograph, demanding sexual relations or forcing sexual acts could bring penalties of six months to two years in prison and up to 99 lashes, as well as monetary fines.

The judiciary is required to create and sponsor centers that provide support for victims of violence and women vulnerable to violence, the bill summary said. Security forces are also obliged to create a special female police unit to protect women.

“We have been waiting for this for 10 years,” said Shima Ghoosheh, a lawyer based in Tehran who specializes in representing women and who said she was one of the attorneys the government consulted. “I think this is a step forward because it gives us a general law for protecting women that we can build on and amend.”

The bill still faces a big test in Parliament, which has a conservative majority often at odds with the more centrist government.

Ms. Ghoosheh and two other legal experts in Iran said they expected Parliament to pass the bill because it had been watered down and altered to reflect the views of the judiciary and lawmakers.

Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president for women’s and family affairs, tweeted that the measure was the result of hundreds of hours of deliberation by legal and government experts and “dedicated to the deserving and patient women of Iran.”

In May, Romina Ashrafi, 14 years old, was beheaded by her father for running away with her boyfriend. The incident drew national attention because the father had consulted a lawyer and committed the crime after knowing he would face a maximum 10 years in prison. In the aftermath, a law that had been stalled for 11 years to protect children against violence was nicknamed “Romina’s law” and passed.

Credit…Farhad Irani

In August, Iranian women broke their silence and voiced allegations of sexual misconduct against more than 130 men, including a prominent artist, Aydin Aghdashloo. Thirteen women accused Mr. Aghdashloo, who is a dual Iranian-Canadian citizen, of sexual misconduct over a span of 30 years. He has denied the allegations but has faced a backlash in the art world, with an exhibition in Iran canceled and a documentary about his life withdrawn from consideration by two international film festivals.

Two other men who faced allegations of rape and sexual misconduct are now in prison. Keivan Imamvardi, a bookseller accused of raping 300 young college students, was sentenced to “corruption on earth,” the highest crime in Iran’s penal code, and could face capital punishment, according to a report by Hamshahri newspaper on Monday.

An Iranian-British sociologist, Kameel Ahmady, who also faces multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, was sentenced in December to eight years in prison for an unrelated charge of “working for a hostile government.”

Mr. Ahmady’s lawyer did not respond to questions on whether the sexual allegations had weighed on the judiciary’s sentencing or been discussed during court hearings.

Leila Rahimi, a Tehran-based lawyer who has been representing #MeToo cases pro bono, said at the very least the new bill will help bolster women who are coming forward with their stories and taking legal action. Ms. Rahimi said the number of women contacting her with #MeToo cases has steadily increased since August.

“They tell me I have to do this for myself and for other women,” said Ms. Rahimi. “The hope is, as the women speak up, the law will listen.”

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