Nazar Street is one of the most liberal streets in Isfahan, a historic city 340 kilometers south of Tehran. Young men and women mix more freely than elsewhere and women wear their hijabs more loosely, revealing more hair than the law allows.
But this week, the street was quiet and its restaurants empty as people avoided public places in the wake of a series of acid attacks on young women. Eight women have been badly injured after having acid thrown in their faces by unidentified men in recent weeks causing fear and anger in the city.
Thousands protested Wednesday in Isfahan to demand security for women, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. Demonstrators, including many mothers, worried for the safety of their daughters. “Security and freedom are our indisputable rights!” they shouted. “Down with Iran’s Daesh,” refererring to the Arabic acronym for the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
Soheila Joerkesh, 26, was driving back from an afternoon out swimming with her friends on Oct. 13 when she pulled over to speak with her mother on the phone. Just as she had started to speak, a motorcycle stopped beside her car and a passenger got off with a glass canister in his hand. “Suddenly Soheila started screaming, I could hear her scream for more than 5 minutes before the call got cut,” her mother told local media. “By the time we found her at a hospital she was blind. Her cellphone had been melted by the acid that the motorcyclist had thrown onto her face."
All of the victims have been young women who were attacked on busy main streets by male motorcyclists or passengers throwing acid on their faces. The women have suffered third-degree burns on their faces, necks, chests and hands, and will require cosmetic surgery.
Many women in Isfahan now fear going out. “One of my colleagues has her husband drive her to and back from work. Another says she nearly dies from fear whenever a motorcycle passes her car. I myself take the bus now as it seems safer," Fatemeh, a female resident of Isfahan said on Wednesday, asking for her surname not to be published. "We are all worried, we only leave home when it is absolutely necessary.”
Women in Iran have been required by law, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, to dress modestly and not wear cosmetics. The enforcement of morals is one of the duties of the Basij militia. Many women, however, have resisted and flaunt the rules by leaving parts of their hair exposed. Members of hardline religious groups have staged demonstrations protesting what they call the decadent clothing of women. This has led to rumors that some members of these groups are behind these attacks.
“People are saying it’s a group called Ansar trying to force women to have proper hijab. I don’t know if that’s true, but many are now using masks to cover their faces to escape possible attacks, which is ironic, as the attacker didn’t even feel the need to cover his face,” Fatemeh said, pointing to reports that the culprits had not gone to any trouble to hide their identities.
Most of Iranian society has reacted angrily to the attacks.
"Throwing acid is an ugly, heinous and disgusting act, maybe murder is more acceptable, this crime is despicable," General Esmaeel Ahmadi-Moghadam, head of the Iranian police, told the Fars News Agency on Wednesday. And the deputy head of the Judiciary, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, told state television two days earlier that those responsible would receive “such a punishment for the culprits when they are arrested that no one would ever dare commit such crimes again."
Others said the attacks were carried out by people linked to Western intelligence agencies in a bid to damage Iran. “Today we are seeing the foreign media network trying to link this crime to promotion of virtue and prevention of vice,” said General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, head of the Basij paramilitary force, according to news website Mashreghnews.ir.
With none of the assailants arrested yet, many Iranians are posting comments on websites and social media that criticize the police force. Some compared the swift arrests of the makers of the Pharrell Williams’ Happy video in Tehran, “within hours” in May, to the fact that weeks have passed since the first acid attack.
Soheila’s mother struck a similar chord. “We asked them can we look at footage from surveillance cameras in Soheila’s route, but they refused," she said. "Why are they not showing us the footage?”