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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The End of a Taboo
    Iranian Discussion of Child Abuse

    Shhh! Girls Don’t Scream is the name of a film by the (female) director Pouran Derakhshandeh, which was shown in Iranian cinemas in 2013 and which touched many people very deeply. Despite all criticism, one important point that must be taken into account: the film brought the subject of the sexual abuse of children right into the heart of society.

    Shhh! Girls Don’t Scream tells the story of a young woman called Shirin, who kills the caretaker of her building on her wedding day. At first the police assume that the caretaker was trying to blackmail the young woman, but finally Shirin talks about her childhood and about the fact that she experienced sexual abuse as a young child. For years she had borne the burden of this pain alone, and had not found anyone she could have shared her secret with. When she realised that the caretaker intended to abuse a small girl, she lost control and killed him.

    Shhh! Girls Don’t Scream won a handful of Iranian and international prizes, but it was also heavily criticised. On the one hand, supporters of the Iranian state were of the opinion that the film presented a dismal portrait of Iranian society and the justice system, while on the other hand it was criticised by women’s rights activists. They said that the film accused working mothers of neglecting their children, thereby indirectly suggesting that the mothers were partially responsible for the sexual abuse of their children. Children’s rights activists were also dissatisfied that the film did not address the topic of sexual violence within the family.

    Despite all the criticism, one important point that must be taken into account: the film Shhh! Girls Don’t Scream brought the subject of the sexual abuse of children right into the heart of society. Something that not long ago seemed utterly impossible suddenly became reality. Ordinary people on the street were discussing the topic, not just psychologists or lawyers. The film managed to demonstrate very clearly why the sexual abuse of children sometimes went undiscovered for many years, with the perpetrator never being brought to justice. Traditional views and the fear of losing ‘respect and their good reputation’ compel many victims and their families to keep silent.

    Sexual abuse of children and the consequences

    Sexual abuse of children means sexual actions perpetrated by adults on or in front of children. The perpetrator uses his position of power as an adult in order to force the child to take part in sexual activities that excite and satisfy him. The sexual abuse of children does not necessarily mean rape; it can also refer to kissing and touching the child, as well as forcing the child to watch films and look at photographs with pornographic content, or using the child to produce such content.

    In the majority of cases the perpetrators are not strangers to the child. They are part of the family, or the parent’s circle of friends, or work in the child’s school. In other words, the perpetrators are mostly in a position of trust, with a responsibility to support and take care of the child. They use this position to get closer to him or her.

    Sexual abuse causes serious physical and psychic damage to the child and has long-term consequences. Sexually abused children are confronted with a variety of feelings such as guilt, shame, worthlessness, fear, anger and loneliness. In many cases children are unable to speak about their experience. There are various reasons for their silence, including the fear that no one would believe them. Furthermore, children living in societies with traditional cultures learn very early on that they are not allowed to talk about certain areas of their body. Taboos like these result in the child being unable to talk about their experience freely, without fear of being accused themselves.

    Children who have been sexually abused struggle with the consequences for years afterwards. Studies conducted by psychologists have shown that the psychic damage can have serious and long-term consequences if it goes unnoticed and untreated. These children may later become perpetrators themselves. Furthermore, field research in Iran has shown that almost a quarter of the prostitutes in Iran were sexually abused as children.

    Psychologists and children’s rights activists place the emphasis on two issues where sexual abuse is concerned. Firstly, children must be educated about sexuality and boundaries. Improving the child’s knowledge and self-confidence when it comes to protecting their own body as well as practising saying no are the most effective methods of preventing sexual abuse.

    The second critical point consists in, on the one hand, recognising the signs that sexual abuse has taken place, and on the other the reaction of the parents to the abuse. Sudden changes in a child’s behaviour must be taken seriously. Withdrawing into themselves, lack of concentration, wetting the bed, and fear of physical contact can be some of the indications that sexual abuse has taken place. If a child suddenly starts to avoid a particular person with whom they previously had a good and close relationship, the reason for this should be examined more closely. Parents should create an atmosphere of trust and give the child the opportunity to talk about what has happened without fear of reproach. Early recognition of the signs of sexual abuse can prevent it from continuing, thus also pre-empting more serious damage.

    As many Iranian parents don’t know how or at what age they can talk to their children about sexuality, seeking advice from a psychologist or family counsellor can be great help for both the child and the parents, either to discuss prevention, or when sexual abuse has actually taken place. All the steps for preventing the sexual abuse of children depend on breaking the taboo and speaking about the subject within society.

    Discussion in the media and the reactions of those responsible

    It is notable that Persian-language media have recently begun to address the topic of the sexual abuse of children. Not just Persian-language media abroad, such as Deutsche Welle, BBC Persian and Voice of America, which have no need to fear censorship and constraint by the Iranian government: domestic news agencies and newspapers are also dealing with the subject.

    Another thing that is noticeable when glancing through news items and articles in the media about the sexual abuse of children is reports about the rape of boys. In the past, if sexual abuse of children was mentioned, the majority of people tended to think of girls. Some experts believe that it is more difficult in Iranian society, for religious and cultural reasons, to talk about sexual violence against boys. It seems that this taboo has also been overcome.

    In recent months, one case in particular has attracted a lot of attention: that of a headmaster in a boys’ elementary school in Tehran, who in May this year was accused of sexually abusing a boy, and arrested. The boy’s parents had noticed that their son’s behaviour had changed. They had a conversation with him, discovered that he had been sexually abused, and reported the matter to the police. Some time later the families of other boys also brought charges against the headmaster. So far, forensic medical examinations have confirmed that six boys were raped. The judge has postponed the trial because the number of charges keeps increasing and forensics have not yet processed all the cases.

    The Iranian press has been following the case over the past few months, and has also referred to criticism from children’s rights activists directed at those in authority. According to the Iranian newspaper Shahrvand, some of the pupils had seen the headmaster sexually abusing one of their classmates. However, as they didn’t understand what the headmaster was doing, they thought he was disciplining the boy. If these children had had the necessary knowledge and had understood that what they had seen was not an ordinary occurrence, it’s possible that fewer children would have been abused.

    Many children’s rights activists have been calling for sex education in Iranian schools for years now. They see education and knowledge as the first step in the fight against the sexual abuse of children. Although experts emphasise its importance, it is extremely difficult to incorporate this content into the curriculum in Iranian schools. The Cultural Deputy of the Iranian Ministry of Education, Hamidreza Kafash, was the first official to speak to the media about the case of the school headmaster. In an interview with Shahrvand he described sex education as a duty of the family, saying: ‘In Iran we can’t publish topics related to sexuality in books, or teach them directly to pupils. We have to think of some way to educate the pupils’ families.’ Without naming specific people or institutions who reject sex education in schools, he said that the problem lay more with the ‘social realm’ in Iran, not with the Ministry of Education.

    To date, the Ministry of Education has seemed unhappy about the news stories that have been published about the sexual abuse of schoolchildren. The families of some of these pupils were told not to discuss it with the media. Hamidreza Kafash justified this with the need to preserve ‘national honour’, and said that, as an Iranian, he didn’t like it that when two such incidents occur in Tehran there are reports about it in the foreign media.

    No precise statistics about the sexual abuse of children are published in Iran. These cases are registered under the general term ‘child abuse’, along with other cases such as the corporal punishment of children. However, one can certainly say, with reference to reports in the media and comments from children’s rights activists in recent years, that such occurrences constitute far more than ‘two incidents’.

    The reactions of the responsible officials in the current case, their silence, and the attempts to play down the subject give the impression that the problem of the sexual abuse of children is not taken seriously in official institutions – or even that attempts are being made to hush it up.

    ‘Reciprocal inclination’, and anger in society

    The secretary of Iran’s National Body on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (NBCRC), Mozafar Alvandi, was one of the few people in authority to comment publicly on the case of the sexual abuse of schoolchildren by their headmaster, and caused a stir by doing so. In early August this year, he told the news agency ILNA: ‘I believe that not all the cases resulted from constraint, and that in some cases there was a reciprocal inclination.’ This comment provoked a flood of reactions by Iranian users of social networks, astonishing and angering many Iranians. Astonishment because these words were being spoken in a country in which homosexuality is regarded as a serious crime, and anger, because elementary schoolchildren were being blamed.

    Comments like these not only incriminate the pupils who were raped and their families: they may also prevent families who have had similar experiences from talking about sexual abuse and prosecuting such cases. Psychologists and lawyers also agree that, even if in particular circumstances and for specific reasons sexual inclinations continue to develop normally in childhood, one cannot speak of a child’s ‘consent’ with regard to sexual contact with adults, because the child lacks understanding of the significance and consequences of a sexual relationship. Therefore such relationships are also considered to be sexual abuse and the adult is still answerable for the consequences.

    It is difficult to find a positive aspect to the controversial case of the school headmaster, but the new awareness of this subject in society and the media, and the families’ courage in not concealing the sexual abuse of their children, represent a glimmer of hope. There is clearly a growing sensitisation of Iranian society to the subject of the sexual abuse of children. It seems that at least a part of society wants to address this problem and find a solution. Nonetheless, there is a considerable gulf between the attitude of official institutions and that of non-governmental organisations about how to deal with the sexual abuse of children.

    Non-governmental organisations and secret services

    In Iran, efforts to prevent sexual abuse of children and to help children who have been abused are primarily made by non-governmental organisations, social workers, and children’s rights activists. Although the Iranian government has set up a number of facilities since 1999 to address children’s problems, and has acknowledged that these problems exist, it has not yet been able to establish a safe place of trust for abused children. Some reports, for example, have described children running away from welfare homes because the abuse has continued there.

    The majority of non-governmental organisations that work independently concentrate on children from vulnerable social classes, such as child workers. The main problem organisations like these face is finding their budget through personal donations. Their work is made more difficult by the scepticism displayed towards them by the Iranian security services. For this reason, non-governmental organisations reject financial aid from foreign sources. Previous experiences have shown that accepting foreign aid could provide the security forces with an excuse to accuse non-governmental organisations of counter-revolutionary activities and ‘ties to foreign states’. The same is true of interviews with the media outside Iran, addressing the topic of social problems, and criticising the work done by the government, all of which could be interpreted as ‘propaganda against the state’ and incur legal consequences. In recent years a number of children’s rights activists have been arrested and given custodial sentences.

    The official institutions have always been sensitive where social activities by non-governmental organisations are concerned: because, on the one hand, addressing social problems also entails criticism of the government and of certain laws, while on the other government agencies are worried that their position in society is being weakened, and are afraid of losing control over the social sector. This is also why obtaining permission to set up and run a non-government organisation is a long and difficult process.

    Sexual abuse and the law

    There is a fundamental difference between the view of children’s rights activists and Iranian law with regard to the sexual abuse of children. In Iran, the law allows girls to get married at thirteen and boys at fifteen. The marriage of younger children is also allowed, if the father applies to a court for permission and a judge agrees to grant it. Children’s rights activists believe that laws like these contravene the children’s rights and constitute a licence for sexual abuse, as a child cannot make a free or conscious decision to marry. For the Iranian state, however, these laws are consistent with Islamic principles, and criticism of them is not accepted.

    According to official statistics, in the first nine months of last year, 29,000 girls between the ages of ten and fourteen and 1,500 girls under ten were married. Since some provinces do not make a note of the ages of those getting married, and traditional marriage ceremonies without registration are also common in many parts of Iran, this statistic is only a fraction of the real figure. The true number of children forced into marriage every year is far higher.

    Although for some years now the age at which people get married has been increasing in the middle and upper classes of Iranian society, for families with very little income and a large number of children, marrying off their daughters is still a way of relieving the burden on the family. Social injustice and the lack of a law that sets a minimum age for the marriage ceremony in accordance with modern norms, international law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child have essentially provided an official and legal framework for sexual abuse. Changing these laws in Iran may well take many years, but this only reaffirms the importance of efforts by children’s rights activists to ensure that society is sensitised not only to sexual abuse, but also to the problem of child marriage.
    Parisa Tonekaboni lives in Cologne, where she works as a freelance journalist for, among others, Deutsche Welle’s Persian Service.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2014

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