The Iranian government’s most senior female official plans to take legal action against an extremist publication for comparing her to a prostitute.
The weekly Ya Lesarat, the mouthpiece of the shadowy, semi-official vigilante group Ansar-e Hezbollah known for its violent enforcement of ultraconservative dictates, has a long history of defaming and inciting violence against women with whom it has ideological differences. This time it chose the Rouhani administration’s Vice President Shahindokht Mowlaverdi as its target. On December 23, 2015 it published a fierce attack on Mowlaverdi, describing her as “worse than the most famous prostitute in the world.”
Four days later, Mowlaverdi posted a public note on her Facebook page criticizing the publication and promising legal action against it. Ya Lesarat published an unapologetic piece in response which called on the Vice President to “join cohorts in London” if she was unhappy.
Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati has been the only official to come to Mowlaverdi’s defense. He warned that Ya Lesarat’s license could now be revoked in the next meeting of the Press Supervisory Board because it has three previous infractions as well.
“Let’s not forget that we as women must pay the price in order to be able to participate in political and social affairs and determine our own destiny. [Ya Lesarat] knows women are willingly paying the price. They want to scare us away. They want to show that not even the Vice President is immune from their destructive blade,” Mowlaverdi wrote on her Facebook page.
She added: “I will not refrain from defending my integrity as a human being. Secondly, I will defend the integrity and legal standing of all the women of my country against this publication which has been rebuked by the Press Supervisory Board in the past. I will take this case to judicial and monitoring authorities and stand firm until a final judgement.”
Ya Lesarat has accused Mowlaverdi, the highest female official in the Rouhani Administration, of being a “senior feminist member” of a banned political party and “opposed to confronting women even if they appear completely naked in public.”
Ansar-e Hezbollah, the extremist group behind Ya Lesarat, is fiercely loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and is believed to enjoy his full support. The group is known for its violent rhetoric and actions, especially against women not adhering to hardline notions of hijab or proper female attire.
The group’s violent rhetoric figured prominently in the 2014 debate in Iran over the then-pending Bill to Promote Virtue and Prevent Violence, which called for Basij enforcement of strict hijab. Most members of Ansar-e Hezbollah are also members of the Basij, the volunteer paramilitary arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and many in Iran felt this bill laid the groundwork for a series of acid attacks against women in Isfahan that year.
In the summer of 2015, Ansar-e Hezbollah’s advocated the formation of mobile units to confront women who do not observe strict hijab, something Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli has so far opposed but not completely ruled out.
The preservation of the hijab has been the main theme in Ansar-e Hezbollah’s street protests throughout the years, usually in the hot months of the year when head scarves tend to be smaller, thinner and worn further back, exposing more hair. “We are prepared to launch an operation to end this scandalous lack of hijab and [spread of] nudity,” it warned in a statement on its web site last June.
The group has also been vehemently against the government’s expressed interest in ending the ban on the presence of female fans in sports arenas.
Many conservatives within the ruling establishment take positions similar to those of Ansar-e Hezbollah, even if they are less inclined to their violent enforcement. In particular, they have often criticized Mowlaverdi for encouraging greater participation by women in society. One conservative female Member of Parliament, Fatemeh Alia, referred to Mowlaverdi as a a “worn-out feminist.”