Victims and their portraits. Victims of Acid Attacks Exhibition, Tehran, Iran, 2019. (IranWire)

By Shima Shahrabi

October 6, 2020

A cleric from Isfahan has sparked controversy after commenting on Iran’s mandatory veiling law, evoking bitter memories of a series of acid attacks on women six years ago.

“Society should be made to be insecure for women who unveil. They should not be allowed to break the norms so easily on the streets,” Yousef Tabatabaei-Nejad, the Friday prayers imam for Isfahan, stated on Friday, October 2. The comments received widespread criticism on social media, with many people accusing the cleric of giving extremists a licence to use violence against women who do not comply with their ideas of how women should behave and dress, or who oppose the compulsory veiling law. People also recalled their bitter memories of a spate of acid attacks in Isfahan, with some of them posting photographs of the women’s injuries.

The attacks, which took place in 2014, led to the deaths and maiming of several young women.

They were thought to have been carried out by extremists who took issue with women who did not wear hijab in accordance with what they viewed to be Islamic guidelines. In several cases, the women, who were all wearing hijab, were attacked in the streets by men on motorcycles who sprayed acid into their faces. Prior to the attacks, Tabatabaei-Nejad had spoken out about the need to “use force” against so-called “bad hijab,” adding that people were failing to pay attention to the problem. Speaking at an event to mark Ashura, he also said:  “Some people believe that coercion is not necessary in society and one must use cultural tools, but nothing can be done with advice alone. Even ‘enjoining good and prohibiting vice’ in ancient times was carried out by muhtasib [enforcement officers] armed with weapons to administer lashes.”

Tabatabaei-Nejad made his recent remarks during a meeting with the Intelligence and Security deputy of the armed forces of Isfahan province. “Judges should also look to support those who practice their duty of enjoining good and prohibiting vice,” the cleric said, and called for the establishment of special branches in courts to deal with cases of moral crimes.

As well as people commenting on social media, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) had also reported the possibility of acid attacks being a response to inappropriately worn hijab. Eyewitnesses and locals in Isfahan agreed.

An Acid Attack Survivor

Soheila Jorkesh was a victim of an acid attack in Isfahan in 2014. The attack took place on October 1, and she was 26. She was talking on the phone to her mother as she was coming home from a swimming pool when she suddenly felt a burning sensation on her face. Jorkesh has completely lost the sight in her right eye and is still undergoing treatment to save the sight in her left eye.”I did not hear the recent words of the Friday prayer imam and I do not know what he said,” Jorkesh’s father told IranWire. “But when many rights are violated and there is corruption and embezzlement everywhere, hijab should not be a priority,” he added.

“One of Soheila’s eyes was destroyed,” he said. “They had to sew it up. They worked hard to save her other eye and she had surgery many times.  But now she has glaucoma and her vision is very bad. She can hardly read books or see her mobile phone screen. She can’t see in front of her and we have to hold her hand when we go out.”

He says he and his daughter traveled to Spain earlier this year to treat her glaucoma. Medical professionals in Iran told them, “We do not have the necessary equipment and you should go abroad. When we went, they said that the eye needed to be lasered as part of a two- or three-step treatment. We did the first, and they said they had drained 50 percent of the liquid from the eye and that we should go back in three months for the remainder of the liquid to be removed.” It has been more than three months, but due to the coronavirus pandemic and rising foreign currency prices, the Jorkesh family has not been able to take Soheila back to Spain for further treatment.

Soheila’s father also said that 30 percent of Soheila’s blood money due to be paid to her by the courts has not been paid. Also, the foreign ministry had said it would pay her medical expenses, but it has not done so yet. “They say they do not have the money and cannot pay for the treatment,” her father said.

Six years have passed since the acid attacks against women in Isfahan took place, and the perpetrators have still not been arrested. “So far, one or two people have been arrested but then they said it was not them. The last time we followed up on it five or six months ago, they said they were working on it.”

Over the last few months, the family has also appealed to authorities to pay the remainder of the blood money Soheila is entitled to, but this has met with no results. “Every person we go to passes us on to someone else. They treat us so badly and we are being dragged between this court and that court; it is not worth it to beg them.”

IranWire asked Soheila Jorkesh’s father whether he thought the attack on his daughter was carried out by extremists who thought her head wasn’t properly covered, and whether he thought the comments from Isfahan’s Friday prayers leader could have fueled such crimes.

“Honestly, wherever we go, people know us tell us, it’s them’,” he says. “But we do not know who “them” is. We will not find out until the perpetrator is arrested and tried.” He says many people in Isfahan do believe these attacks were carried out by extremist groups, and that they are easy to identify. But six years on, nothing has happened.

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.