The failure of Iranian authorities to identify those responsible for a spate of acid attacks against women has raised fears of further attacks and prompted questions about the adequacy of the government’s response.
Up to eight women in the central city of Isfahan have been injured in acid attacks this month, according to local media. While no new incidents have been reported in Isfahan this week, rumours are rife on social media of similar incidents in other Iranian cities, fanning concerns among women that they could be doused with a chemical agent by attackers on motorcycles.
One of the first incidents, according to domestic media citing eye witnesses, took place on October 15, when a young woman driving her car was hit by acid thrown by men who sped away on a motorbike. Local media reports of the other incidents paint a picture of apparently random targeting of young women in different parts of the city on different days.
Setareh, a university student in Isfahan, says: “I tremble with fear as soon as I hear a motorist nearing me.”
According to locals, security measures in Isfahan have been tightened and police patrols increased outside girls’ schools. Some schools in the capital, Tehran, have told parents to accompany their daughters to and from home, while other women say they go out only for necessary shopping and avoid outdoor socialising.
Minoo Mortaazi-Langaroudi, an Iranian women’s rights activist, says: “The acid attacks have jeopardised the psychological, physical and social security not only of women but of all people.”
No individual or group has claimed responsibility and the authorities have failed to offer any leads on who they believe are responsible. In the absence of official explanation, some commentators have pointed the finger at rogue Islamist vigilantes with grievances against women, while others have suggested violent foreign radical groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant could be behind the attacks.
The slow response from the government of reformist president Hassan Rouhani and of Iran’s judiciary helped fuel suspicions initially that groups affiliated to hardliners in the regime were behind the attacks, in an attempt to undermine Mr Rouhani and his ability to provide security.
But Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a reform-minded former vice-president, says the acid attacks “could not have been organised by known domestic groups because there is no benefit in it for them”.
The incidents have also been linked to comments from hardliners in parliament and at Friday prayers exerting pressure on the government to force women to further observe obligatory Islamic covering.
However, many hardliners have condemned the attacks in the face of accusations that their comments about women failing to cover themselves in accordance with Islamic traditions could have provoked their followers.
Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, Iran’s fundamentalist prosecutor-general, who travelled to Isfahan this week, called the attacks “savage” and insisted they could not have been inspired by Islamic teachings.
Members of Mr Rouhani’s cabinet have visited some of the victims in hospital, while the president has urged people not to “question the country’s whole security because of one incident” which he said was “the most heinous act a vicious person can do”.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Isfahan to protest against the attacks, while others have used social media to put pressure on the authorities to catch the perpetrators, and to criticise the arrest of a photojournalist, Arya Jafari, who took pictures of the protests in Isfahan.
Previous incidents of acid attacks in Iran were for personal reasons against both women and men and usually by former lovers. The Isfahan incidents are thought to be the first time acid has been used in Iran in apparently random attacks.
Although assaults with acid are a worldwide phenomenon, it is a particular problem in countries including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Uganda and Colombia. Acid attacks have also been reported in western countries such as the UK and Australia.
According to the Acid Survivors Trust International, a London-based charity, there are about 1,500 acid attacks per year, although the true figure is likely to be far higher. ASTI has estimated that 80 per cent of victims of such attacks are women, while one study in Bangladesh found that nearly 60 per cent were 10-19 years old.