Just to prove that I’m not one of those liberals (whoever they are, I mean Sam Harris and Bill Maher said they exist so obviously they must really exist and not just be made up) who ignores the Islamic world’s massive problem with gender relations, let’s talk about a remarkable protest movement that began last week in the Iranian city of Isfahan. At its height, on Wednesday, as many as 1000 Isfahanis took to the streets to protest a series of acid attacks — perhaps ten or more in recent weeks — in that city against women who refuse to adhere to the strictest interpretation of the conservative Islamic female dress code (wearing a headscarf to cover their hair rather than wearing a full black chador that covers hair and body). Iranian law requires that women wear loose fitting clothing and cover their hair, but does not require that they wear the chador. The men (let’s be real here) behind these acid attacks believe that any woman who does not wear chador is committing a sin and must be punished by having acid thrown in her face. The disfigurement that results, sometimes costing the victims their eyesight, is considered “justice” by some completely perverted notion of the word.
These attacks are grotesque beyond the normal gender imbalance you find in Iran or other conservative Islamic societies (and please don’t call them “medieval” unless you can find examples from medieval times of men hurling acid at women’s faces), and the authorities have promised to bring their perpetrators to justice, but the protesters simply aren’t buying it, and, frankly, they’re right to be skeptical.
The fact of the matter is that the most conservative elements of Iran’s clerical establishment, while they may denounce these acid attacks themselves (conservative Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kermani called for the attackers to receive the “maximum penalty” for the attacks, and Qom’s Friday Prayer Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Mohammad Saeedi, called the attacks “forbidden and punishable” and “immoral”), are largely sympathetic to the principle, however insane and horrific it might seem to the rest of us, behind them. Iranian conservatives have been pushing legislation that would give legal cover to so-called “vice groups,” which are essentially roving vigilante gangs tasked with enforcing conservative social principles above and beyond what the government will enforce itself. Groups like Iranian Hezbollah or its offshoot, Ansar-e Hezbollah, are probably behind these attacks or at the very least help create an environment in which attacks like this are even conceivable, and they’re being effectively given a license to go nuts by the government.
Well, by part of the government. It’s worth noting that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is having none of this. He’s ordered three of his ministries — Intelligence, Interior, and Justice — to investigate the attacks, and he’s publicly condemned groups that take responsibility for enforcing morality into their own hands. He’s been taken to task by some very prominent conservative clerics, including Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who is the odds-on favorite to be the next Supreme Leader of Iran when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is no more. Khatami issued a pro-forma denunciation of the attacks but saved his real venom for anybody blaming the vice groups, or the legislation protecting them from prosecution, for perpetrating or causing the attacks. At least one journalist covering the protests has been “detained,” which is one more than the number of people who have been detained for the attacks themselves, and the head of the Basij militia, like the vice groups an “unofficially official” paramilitary organization, is claiming that Western agents are behind the protests. Ansar-e Hezbollah went the Full Iranian Monty and cast the people who are protesting against the people who are going around throwing acid in women’s faces as somehow objectively worse than the people who are going around throwing acid in women’s faces, accusing them of trying to undermine Islamic law and Iranian norms. Somebody will have to show me which part of Islamic law prescribes throwing acid in a woman’s face because she’s not dressing modestly enough for you.
All of this is happening, of course, as we’ve entered the final month before the new and improved deadline for the nuclear talks, and while there suddenly seems to be a renewed belief on both sides that a deal really can be reached by the deadline (or at least, as Robert Einhorn seems to be suggesting there, that all the major details can be ironed out by this deadline and that a short extension can allow the parties to fill in the details and craft a full agreement), even if a deal is reached there will come the thorny problem of distinguishing which sanctions have been levied against Iran over its nuclear program and which have been levied against Iran over its garbage human rights record. Iran faces a “Universal Periodic Review” this week before the U.N. Human Rights Council, and these attacks, and the government’s response/lack thereof toward them, will undoubtedly factor in to the council’s findings. Iran has made minimal or no progress on the issue of women’s rights since its last UPR, in 2010, so the council would really be justified in letting Iran have it this time. This all goes to reinforce the fact that, even if an agreement is reached in the nuclear talks, there is still a long road to travel before Iran-U.S. relations are going to really normalize themselves, or before Iran can shed the worst abuses of the Islamic Republic.