Accusations of sexual assault against one of Iran’s most celebrated visual artists are making waves in Toronto’s Iranian community — with many saying they represent a critical moment not only in the burgeoning #MeToo movement inside Iran, but also an opportunity for community leaders abroad to take a stand against a culture of impunity they say has too long shielded perpetrators at all levels of power.
Last month, The New York Times released a report detailing multiple allegations of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct against Aydin Aghdashloo, 80, a prominent Iranian contemporary painter.
The report cites interviews with some 13 women, including former students whose accusations the paper says date back three decades. Nineteen of the 45 people interviewed, the story says, described him as the “Harvey Weinstein of Iran.”
The allegations remain unproven and have not been tested in court.
In an email to CBC News, Aghdashloo’s lawyer said the artist could not provide comment at this time, but “we will be further rebutting the many inaccuracies in the NYT’s article in the near future.”
Still, news of the allegations is prompting many in Toronto’s Iranian community to speak out, calling for organizers of what’s known as the world’s largest celebration of Iranian art and culture to cut ties with Aghdashloo.
A chance to show ‘what kind of organization it is’
Aghdashloo has been featured repeatedly over the years at the Tirgan Festival, held in Toronto every two years, showcasing hundreds of artists, performances and speakers.
“Tirgan has a very positive track record in the community,” Toronto-based entrepreneur Mahshid Yassaei, 34, told CBC News.
“This is a turning point for Tirgan to really tell the story of what kind of organization it is. Is it an organization that’s built for the community and by the community, or is it an organization that’s turning into a corporation that’s just thinking about profit?”
Yassaei is one of some 850 people who have signed a petition launched by a group of Iranian artists, activists, academics and members of the community calling on the festival’s organizers to “stop giving predators a platform.”
In particular, the petition takes aim at festival CEO Mehrdad Ariannejad, who earlier this year partnered with former CBC star radio host Jian Ghomeshi to create Roqe Media, where the two serve as directors.
Ghomeshi was acquitted of sexual assault and choking after a high-profile trial in 2016. The venture was first reported on by Canadian newsite and podcast network Canadaland earlier this year.
‘I don’t believe in cancel culture’
In a written statement to CBC News Ariannejad said: “The decision to start Roqe with Jian Ghomeshi was not one that I made lightly,” adding the company has never had ties to Tirgan.
“Jian might have made mistakes but I believe that people should be given a second chance. I don’t believe in cancel culture,” Ariannejad said in part.
As for his personal values, Ariannejad said he has dedicated “a considerable portion” of his volunteer activities to women’s rights and gender equality, and has always “strongly condemned acts of sexual violence and harassment and will continue to work hard for these values.”
The Tirgan Festival said it “strongly condemns all acts of sexual misconduct” and has a “zero-tolerance policy” on harassment and discrimination.
“We too are concerned by the news surrounding Iran’s Me Too movement and will be closely monitoring the developments,” the organization said in a statement to CBC News. The festival said it has always been its policy “to stay away from contentious matters” so as to “foster a safe and welcoming environment for our visitors.”
Asked specifically if it would cease its collaborations with Aghdashloo, the organization would not say.
“We will continue to uphold this policy and remain committed to never acting as a forum for those who are guilty of sexual misconduct,” it said.
‘We’ve never seen the momentum that we’re seeing today’
Though the allegations against him remain unproven, some say if Tirgan continues to give Aghdashloo a platform, it will erode their confidence in the festival.
“I will have second thoughts of supporting the festival, which is quite honestly the only [such] festival happening outside of Iran,” Samira Banihashemi told CBC News.
She’s not alone.
These assaults are not necessarily about sex, but about exerting power.– Samira Banihashemi
“Myself and part of the community were expecting Tirgan and community leaders to express their sense of empathy with the victims… and [as long as] the cases are open, they would suspend their work with Aghdashloo,” said Mahmoud Azimaee, a Toronto-based Iranian activist.
For Banihashemi, who previously worked in production at the Tirgan Festival, news of the allegations against Aghdashloo go beyond the festival itself, however.
“We’ve never seen the momentum that we’re seeing today,” the 35-year-old said.
“This is starting a very important conversation about the idea of consent and what it means to say no, and also the fact that the perpetrators… can very well be prominent and respected members of the society,” Banihashemi added.
“These assaults are not necessarily about sex, but about exerting power.”
Sexual harassment an ‘everyday event’ for many
Artist and art educator Azadeh Pirazimian, 40, grew up in Iran, where she says sexual harassment was a part of daily life — only she didn’t have the vocabulary to call it out.
“Honestly, it was an everyday event for me,” she said, describing a regular pattern of unwanted remarks, being touched without consent and being told she was somehow responsible for the advances of men, often strangers.
“Before coming to Canada and learning so many things about this topic… I just knew the ‘rape’ word,” said Pirazimian. In Iran, she said, “there are no categories like sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual violence.”
And while the #MeToo movement in Iran has gathered steam over the past few months, Ontario Tech University professor Serena Sohrab says she hopes more attention will be paid to the experiences of a group she referes to as “second-hand victims” — women who have made the difficult choice not to engage in the workforce in Iran to avoid the reality of daily sexual harassment.
“I’m a hard-headed feminist, and as a woman who has lived in a patriarchal society … there is nothing that I want more than equality for women,” Sohrab told CBC News.
But regarding the case of Aghdashloo, she urges caution, saying that while the allegations against him are serious, it’s important not to jump to conclusions as long as the case remains open.
Defining ‘how the next generation’ sees sexual harassment
“If we close our eyes to those standards for people that are in power and people that we want to be connected to … I think we’re definitely encouraging behaviour that we don’t want to see in the world,” she told CBC News.
And as more women in Iran come forward with their own experiences of sexual violence, she hopes their stories will also send another message: that this should not be normal.
“I want the next generation to be really shocked, really surprised to hear that these behaviours still exist,” she said.
“And I think our reaction to these behaviours today is going to define how the next generation is going to live their lives.”