Tehran Art Exhibition Showcases Works by Acid Attack Survivors
Victims Face Social Stigma and Inadequate State Laws and Services
“How many more victims should acid take until it’s banned, or its trade is limited, or a new law is passed so not everyone dares to use acid as a weapon?” –Recent acid survivor Zahra Yousof-Nejad
Highlighting the plight of survivors of acid attacks, a new exhibit, “Identity,” recently opened in Tehran which presents the work of acid attack survivors and other artists with disabilities. The exhibit, which presents the impasto paintings of Mohsen Mortazavi and other survivors, aims to raise awareness of the social stigma faced by the survivors of these attacks.
The show is the fourth exhibition of acid survivors and their artist supporters, in collaboration with The Association of Support for Acid Violence Victims and the State Handicrafts Institute.
Mortazavi chose the impasto method, which involves layering the paint thickly so that it stands out from the surface, in order to make his artwork accessible for fellow survivors who have lost their eyesight as a result of acid violence. In addition to the work of Mortazavi, the five-day exhibition at the Reza Abbasi Museum showcased the ceramic art of survivor Masoumeh Attai, and the work of people with disabilities and other supporting artists.
The organizers of the exhibit stated their goal is to confront public assumptions and stop common intrusive questions that survivors often endure.
“It’s really difficult to get used to people’s prejudice,” said Mohsen Mortazavi, survivor and featured artist in an interview with Iran Newspaper. “We’ve learned how to deal with ourselves, but a lot of people can’t deal with us. We often have to tolerate judgmental stares and cruel questions, and we’re expected to always answer. ‘How is the lawsuit going? Did you receive financial reparation?’ And these are only the simple questions. Sometimes they really overstep boundaries. People often ask me whether my wife stayed or got divorced after the incident. They ask if my child is still living with me. But these aren’t questions we ask regular people who have not been burned. People ask the disabled similar questions too. So the Association organized this exhibition for people to see us closer and understand that we too live and work like others.”
Inadequate Punishment and Easy Public Access to Acid Encourage Attacks
The Islamic Penal Code offers no distinct punishment for acid attacks, and thus the perpetrator is sentenced to only two to four years of imprisonment for assault and battery as per Article 614 of the code. “Retaliation in Kind” (qisas) or retributive justice is included in this article but it is not often exercised due to the difficulty of maintaining damage proportion, leaving only the option of blood money or financial reparation. There exists an older law dating back to 1959, which was specifically drafted for cases of acid violence, yet is now rarely cited in courts.
Furthermore, this law does not consider other aspects of this issue such as prevention of access to acid. The growing number of acid attacks in the country testifies to the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of the penal code and other legal measures which have so far attempted to prevent acid attacks.
Urgently Needed New Bill Pending Approval
The growing number of acid attacks in the country testifies to the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of the penal code and other legal measures which have so far attempted to prevent acid attacks.
As for recent legal developments, Tehran MP Fatemeh Hosseini announced the adoption of a new bill “Exacerbation of Punishment for Acid Crimes and Support for Victims,” which was enacted in the January 1 meeting of the Parliament’s Judicial Commission.
“This draft bill is awaiting approval in the Open Session, after which it will be sent to the Guardian Council for enactment,” explained Hosseini, who designed and proposed the bill herself. “As for exacerbating the punishment for acid attacks, we have added Degree 1-4 imprisonment in addition to qisas (retaliation in kind).”
The lack of restricted public access to acid presents a major legal shortcoming in preventing acid crimes. “Another issue that highly concerns women’s rights activists is the lack of supervision on acid trade in our society, to a degree that in every alley and on every street one can easily find and access this dangerous material,” says Fatemeh Zolghadr, a member of the Parliament’s Women’s Faction in an interview with Arman Newspaper.
“There must be a system of supervision for selling and purchasing acid,” she added. “Permits should be required too, so not every child or adult can easily buy and sell acid. This is why we’ve added these details to the bill, and now we’re waiting for the Open Session.”
Lack of Statistics and Reliable Database
There are no accurate statistics on the number of acid attacks in Iran. According to the former director of the Motahari Burn Injury Hospital, there are about 60 to 70 acid attack survivors in the country every year. This number has increased significantly during the past year. For instance, only within the first forty days of the Iranian New Year (March 20-April 30 2018), seven cases of acid attacks were reported, five of which took place in Tabriz.
Seyyed Kamal Foroutan, Plastic Surgeon and a Board Member of the Association of Support for Acid Violence Victims states that the number of acid attacks is far higher than what the reports suggest. “It seems as if there are people who don’t want these statistics to be published,” he added, critiquing the dearth of official statistics. “Only in 2016 we had 57 or 58 cases of acid attacks in Tehran. This shows that the number is no less in other cities.”
The founders of the Association of Support for Acid Violence Victims have publicly encouraged all survivors to contact and reach out to the organization as a first step to collect reliable data.
Masoumeh Attai, a survivor and member of the Association’s Directing Board announced in an interview with Ana News Agency: “Only in this short one-month period since our opening, men and women from all over the country have contacted me and expressed their urgent need for aid and support. These are people who have never been mentioned in the newspaper cases. People who need therapy, medical care and legal assistance and who are now bound to their homes.”
The Association of Support for Acid Violence Victims was established in May 2017 by a number of acid survivors, burn and plastic surgeons, social workers and artists.
Acid Survivors Need Urgent and Multifaceted State Support
A survivor who agreed to speak with CHRI anonymously, discussed the services the government offers. “They treated us exactly like a person whose disabilities are caused by a car accident. They did not recognize that the loss of sight or hearing or physical disabilities are only a small part of an acid survivor’s problems. Due to the severe social and mental effects of such incidents and the resulting exclusion and isolation, we need the government’s multifaceted support.”
“After the incident, no one from the State Welfare Organization or any other governmental organization came to my support,” she continued. “Only five years after the incident I learned about SWO’s services through some friends. The SWO staff reviewed my case like all other clients and paid no attention to the urgency of my situation or my special needs. After twenty months of waiting, they recently started my $38 monthly pension. This is the same amount of money they give to all other people with disabilities.”
Due to the drastic changes in physical appearance and the potential loss of sight, psychological support and therapy for the survivors and their families is especially critical during the first months after the incident. According to this survivor and previous media reports, however, the government has provided no such assistance for survivors.
Acid Attacks: the Product of A Patriarchal Culture
Approximately 1500 acid attacks are annually recorded around the world, 80% of which target women. It has been estimated that a large number of the incidents remain unreported due to the victim’s fear of retaliation by the perpetrator or of social stigma, lack of access to medical services or legal support, and lack of an organized system in most countries for recording and collecting data and statistics. Acid Survivors Trust International estimates that 60% of all attacks worldwide aren’t reported.
ASTI also emphasizes the difficulty to obtain official statistics on acid attack numbers in Iran.
“When there are many forms of structural and cultural violence embedded in society, physical violence becomes normal,” said Legal Expert Farshad Esmaili in a 2015 meeting on the legal aspects of acid violence. “In our country too, one must study these structures of violence to understand the reason behind such attacks against women.”
In late 2014, a series of acid attacks took place in the Iranian city of Isfahan, which involved unidentified men flinging acid into the faces of women with whom they had no history of personal grudges. Eyewitnesses reported at the time that the assailants proclaimed they were defending proper hijab during the assaults.
Emphasizing patriarchy as the root cause of these forms of violence, Esmaili added, “This is caused by the structural violence prevalent in our law, as well as a patriarchal history that grants men the right to possess women and to assume authority even after the end of a relationship. Therefore they feel entitled to eliminate the body and the beauty that is no longer in their possession.”
Esmaili notes “the need to recognize the judicial and cultural violence behind acid attacks. Thus instead of focusing on exacerbating punishment or speeding the judicial process, we must think of dismantling all patriarchal structures in our society.”