A #MeToo Awakening Stirs in Iran

The #MeToo movement has hit a nerve among Iran’s women. Now accusations against a politically connected celebrity artist are testing the movement in a sexually conservative society dominated by men.

By Farnaz Fassihi

Oct. 22, 2020

Three years into the global #MeToo movement, women who say they have been sexually assaulted are improbably going public in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The movement’s reach inside Iran gained momentum in late August after allegations aired on Iranian social media against more than 100 men, including a giant e-commerce company’s former star manager, a prominent sociology professor and the owner of a popular bookstore.

But the highest-profile person to face such allegations so far is a nearly 80-year-old, internationally acclaimed artist with ties to the ruling elite. Thirteen women, in interviews with The New York Times, accused the artist, Aydin Aghdashloo, of sexual misconduct over a 30-year span. Most are former students, and some are journalists who have reported on art and culture.

The willingness by women who say they were victims to share their stories more openly is a groundbreaking shift in Iran’s conservative society, where discussing sex is culturally prohibited, sex outside marriage is illegal, and the burden of proof for victims of sexual crimes is onerous. A raped woman often gets the blame.

Mr. Aghdashloo declined requests for an interview but strenuously denied wrongdoing, and according to his lawyer has already taken legal action against one accuser. In a written statement provided to The Times, Mr. Aghdashloo described himself as an independent artist whose career was built on creative achievement.

“The allegations of sexual abuse against me are full of significant inaccuracies, mischaracterizations and fabrications,” he wrote. “To be clear, I have always sought to treat people with respect and dignity and I have never abused, assaulted nor taken advantage of anyone.”

Still, he wrote, “I am not a perfect man,” and that if his behavior had offended or distressed anyone, “I deeply apologize.”

How the authorities treat the perpetrators and victims of sexual misconduct has become a test of the #MeToo movement’s durability in Iran, a country of more than 80 million.

Compared with the impact in the United States after the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, the imprisoned Hollywood mogul, the fallout in Iran is only beginning to unfold. But there are signs that the male-controlled power structure in Iran has started to respond to accusations like those made against Mr. Aghdashloo.

Tehran’s police chief announced on Oct. 12 that the bookstore owner, Keyvan Emamverdi, had confessed to raping 300 women, after 30 took the brave step of filing legal complaints. The police said he would be charged with “corruption on earth,” a capital offense.

The e-commerce company Digikala opened an investigation into its former manager and apologized to female employees. Iran’s sociology union expelled the accused professor and called for a zero-tolerance policy at universities. A painting by Mr. Aghdashloo was pulled from the cover of a famous literary collection, and at least three women have said they are considering legal action against him.

“This is a turning point for sexual abuse, the biggest taboo for women in Iran has been sex and sexual violence and abuse,” said Elnaaz Mohammadi, a 33-year-old member of Dideban Azar, or Abuse Watch, an education and advocacy group in Tehran.

Ms. Mohammadi said she had received complaints about Mr. Aghdashloo from “students who have left his classes distraught and crying,” and that “all his denials have no value.”

Paintings by Mr. Aghdashloo, a dual citizen of Canada, have been auctioned and displayed worldwide, and France honored him in 2016. Before the 1979 Islamic revolution he worked with the family of the shah to curate museums. He then moved into the circles of the revolution’s ruling clerics, and he and his family have business links to the hierarchy.

Despite a few mentions in Iran’s conservative media as a royalist and Western spy, Mr. Aghdashloo has generally received glowing coverage in state media, with no hint of any possible sexual abuse.

The Times found and interviewed former students of Mr. Aghdashloo’s after an Iranian journalist now living in the United States, Sara Omatali, posted on Twitter Aug. 22 that he had sexually assaulted her in 2006 when she visited to interview him.

Sara Omatali said that the artist Aydin Aghdashloo sexually assaulted her in 2006 when she interviewed him.
Sara Omatali said that the artist Aydin Aghdashloo sexually assaulted her in 2006 when she interviewed him.Credit…Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

She wrote that he had greeted her while naked with a robe draped on his shoulder, forced a kiss and pressed his body on hers. Her account appeared to be the catalyst for others.

In telephone interviews, 45 people — including former students, a longtime teaching assistant, art gallery owners, actresses, a Tehran art agent and journalists covering art and culture in Iran — all said Mr. Aghdashloo’s behavior toward young female students had been known in Iran’s art circles.

Thirteen said they had been victims, including one who was 13 years old at the time. Many said they did not know each other. In each of these 13 instances, a family member, friend, or colleague recalled in separate interviews having been told about it.

Nineteen described him as the “Harvey Weinstein of Iran,” elevating or destroying careers of women depending on their receptiveness to his advances.

One former student said he had offered her one of his paintings — worth $100,000, the price of a small apartment in Tehran — if she slept with him. Another said he had retaliated when she refused him, telling galleries to shun her artwork. Her career faltered.

“Aghdashloo’s reputation was an open secret in the art world but nobody did anything about it,” said Solmaz Azhdari, 32, who studied painting under him. She said she had witnessed him placing his hands between a young female student’s legs in 2007 during a sketching class, as Ms. Azhdari stooped to retrieve a dropped pencil.

Solmaz Azhdari studied painting with Mr. Aghdashloo.
Solmaz Azhdari studied painting with Mr. Aghdashloo.Credit…Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

In telling their stories, some asked to be identified only by their first names — a reflection of the subject’s sensitivity in a conservative society and their fear of Mr. Aghdashloo.

Maryam, an art photographer, 49, said she had visited Mr. Aghdashloo in 2010, to collect two paintings from his basement studio for the gallery where she worked.

She said Mr. Aghdashloo had insisted she view his paintings of nude women, then forcibly kissed her and tore at her clothes. When she screamed, Maryam said, he covered her mouth with his hands; she pushed him away and fled, shouting, “You have no shame!”

Maryam said she quit her job, and on her mother’s advice never publicized the encounter or contacted the police.

Maryam, in a self-portrait.
Maryam, in a self-portrait.

“I was terrified of what he could do to me and my career if I told anyone or brought charges,” she said.

In his art classes, the former students said, he asked the women to sit on his lap when he reviewed their work, pressed against them while teaching, touched their bodies, made lewd comments and shared explicit details of a fascination with adolescent girls.

Mehrnaz, 54, said he made her sit on his lap and caressed her thighs. Atty, 30, said he had locked her in his office and forcibly kissed her. Another said he asked the color of her underwear as he touched her.

Afarin, a Tehran teacher, said she had been molested repeatedly 30 years ago, at age 13, by Mr. Aghdashloo, who would press his groin against her and touch her thighs while teaching painting technique. She had been too terrified to tell her parents, she said, and still avoids the street where Mr. Aghdashloo held class.

“I feel relieved that a man who has abused so many women and girls is finally being exposed,” she said.

Laleh Sabouri, a 50-year-old actress and television star, took art lessons with Mr. Aghdashloo for two years. Days after Ms. Omatali’s Twitter posting, Ms. Sabouri tweeted that most women were terrified of being alone with him and that accusations of rape would be “befitting.” Mr. Aghdashloo’s lawyer said he had taken legal action over that tweet, calling it “baseless.”

One of Mr. Aghdashloo’s teaching assistants, who helped manage his workshops for 12 years, said she had witnessed frequent misbehavior by him toward female students and that some had complained to her. She had confronted him and he replied that women should consider his affection a privilege, the assistant recalled. She ultimately resigned, she said, because he had assaulted her.

Ms. Omatali’s account struck a nerve among Iranian female journalists. Several said the advice in newsrooms was that no woman should interview Mr. Aghdashloo alone.

Solmaz Naraghi, 42, an art and culture reporter, said Mr. Aghdashloo sexually harassed her repeatedly in public after she had rebuffed his advances during one such interview. Her former husband recalled her in tears at a gallery after an encounter with Mr. Aghdashloo.

His supporters have rallied to defend him, including former students who posted a letter on Instagram. His first wife, the Hollywood actress Shoreh Aghdashloo, said he was “simply not capable of such heinous acts.” One former student, Mitra Zad, said she had seen “nothing but good things” from him.

Mr. Aghdashloo’s influence in Iran’s art world seemed to only grow after the revolution. He often boasted about connections to government and religious officials and said he was invulnerable because of them, former students and the teaching assistant said — a description he rejected in his statement to The Times.

“I have always worked as an independent artist and, following the revolution, have earned my living not through credits and connections to the state but through my art,” Mr. Aghdashloo wrote.

His students have included the daughter of Tehran’s Friday Prayer imam and grandchildren of a founding cleric of the revolution. He has worked as a consultant, instructor, author and art appraiser for Astan Quds Razavi, a religious and economic conglomerate controlled by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which is under U.S. sanctions. The former head of Astan is Iran’s judiciary chief.

Mr. Aghdashloo’s daughter married into a family that owns Part Sazan, a conglomerate with ties to state-owned enterprises in the oil, gas and automotive industries. The link to the company, which lists a senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Basij militia as chief executive and board member, has further strengthened his aura of impunity, a number of women said.

Viewing Mr. Aghdashloo’s painting entitled “Galactic Destruction” at an auction last year in Tehran.
Viewing Mr. Aghdashloo’s painting entitled “Galactic Destruction” at an auction last year in Tehran.Credit…Vahid Salemi/Associated Press

Anonymous allegations against Mr. Aghdashloo first surfaced in 2018 when an Iranian investigative journalist, Afshin Parvaresh, posted on Instagram that he had interviewed 21 women, including a minor, who said Mr. Aghdashloo had assaulted them. Mr. Parvaresh said he received violent threats. Mr. Aghdashloo’s lawyer denied his client was responsible.

Some Iranian women’s rights activists say significant challenges hinder #MeToo cases. If an accuser fails to meet the high standard of proof for rape, she can then be accused of adultery.

“A woman who is a victim can quickly turn into a criminal if she can’t prove rape,” said Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian lawyer and human rights advocate based in London. “When she testifies that there was sex, she is testifying against herself as well.”

Still, more women are asking how to bring charges, said Leila Rahimi, a Tehran lawyer offering them free consultation and representation.

“You cannot hide this crime happening over and over in our society,” Ms. Rahimi said. “Both for women and men, silence does not improve things.”

Correction: Oct. 23, 2020

An earlier version of this article misidentified the position of Elnaaz Mohammadi at Abuse Watch, an education and advocacy group in Tehran. She is a member, not a co-founder. The article also imprecisely paraphrased what she said regarding the recipient of student complaints about Mr. Aghdashloo’s behavior. Ms. Mohammadi said she had received the complaints, not the group.

Farnaz Fassihi is a freelance reporter with the International Desk based in New York. Before contracting with the Times, she was a senior writer and war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years based in the Middle East. @farnazfassihi

A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 23, 2020, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: #MeToo Awakens in Iran With Accusations Against Star Artist. 

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