On Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei used his English-language Twitter account to defend and promote his country’s policy of mandatory veiling for all women, and to accuse the United States of being the worse violator of women’s rights. The tweet referred to “the disaster of countless sexual assaults on Western women—including incidents leading to #MeToo campaign,” then linked to a post on the supreme leader’s official website, which consisted of excerpts of his previous speeches in defense of strict adherence to the regime’s interpretation of Islamic law as it applies to women.
The tweet also included a video montage of Western women describing instances of sexual harassment and protesting for gender equality. The video was overlaid with a speech by Khamenei, in which he said in part, “By introducing the hijab, Islam has shut the door on a path that would pull women towards such deviation.”
The use of the term “deviation” arguably belies Iranian clerical authorities’ seriousness in addressing issues of harassment and assault against women, insofar as it implies that the women themselves are straying from a moral path when they are subjected to harassment. And this interpretation of Khamenei’s words is reinforced by the fact that his tweet was posted only two days after the internationally condemned execution of Zeinab Sekaanvand.
The 24-year old Kurdish woman was convicted of murdering her husband when she was only 17 years old. Hers was the fifth execution this year of an Iranian prisoner who had been below the internationally-recognized age of legal majority at the time of the alleged crime. In Iran, girls are considered to be legally adults at age 13, and can be married at that age. Sekaanvand herself was 15 at the time of her marriage. Additionally, girls younger than 13 can be married with the consent of their parents.
The given brought renewed attention not only to the issues of child marriage and juvenile execution in Iran, but also to the legal disparities between men and women, and the impact of these disparities upon women’s safety. According to the Amnesty International report on Sekaanvand’s case, the teenager had sought a divorce from her abusive husband on multiple occasions but had been denied. She also complained to police over the physical abuse and the recurring rapes committed against her by her brother-in-law, but no investigation was launched and her complaints were dismissed.
This, of course, is only one of many instances of systematic mistreatment and discrimination against Iranian women, not just by a portion of the male population but by the legal system and the government as a whole. While Khamenei’s tweet called attention to real issues of harassment and abuse in American society, it willfully failed to acknowledge an important feature of those issues: They are highly visible in American media precisely because they are being acknowledged and taken seriously, and often involve the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators.
By contrast, alleged female victims like Sekanvaand are routinely and aggressively dismissed under the Iranian system, as are women and men who advocate for universal rights and an end to gender discrimination. IranWire reported on Monday that “the arrests and the persecution of women’s right activists have intensified” in recent months, with two prominent individuals being arrested in their homes on September 1 and one being arrested in her home on September 3, with another joining them behind bars, and in absence of specific charges, on September 25 after being arrested at Imam Khomeini Airport.
In reporting upon Khamenei’s tweet on Thursday, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty noted: “Iran also jailed leading human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who had defended some of the women who removed their scarves in public to protest the obligatory hijab rule.” The same report pointed out that these protests were unprecedented in terms of their publicity and the extent of participation in them. This surely highlights widespread public disagreement with Khamenei’s assertion that the hijab is a solution to human rights issues.
Also on Thursday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that lawyers representing Nasrin Sotoudeh had filed a lawsuit against Judge Mohammad Moghiseh accusing him of discriminating against her in court and exceeding the sentencing limits defined by Iranian law. Arbitrary and disproportionate sentencing is another familiar issue in Iran’s human rights record, and another issues that Khamenei and others have sought to turn against the United States.
Late last year, Khamenei used Twitter in order to co-opt hashtags related to the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US and pointed to police shootings as evidence that the US government “commits oppression inside the U.S., too.” Here, also, the supreme leader conflated the actions of individual Americans with government policy, while ignoring credible accounts of the Iranian government’s institutionalized discrimination against minority groups such as Baha’is and Kurds.