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Iran's Isfahan Outraged Over Acid Attacks

Police investigators stand next to a car splashed with acid that was reportedly thrown at a woman in the central Iranian city of Isfahan.

Soheila Jowrkesh had just pulled over to take a call from her mother when she became a victim.

As she sat in her car with the window open, two men on a motorcycle threw liquid acid at her. The attack left her completely blind in her right eye, with injuries to her left eye and extensive burns to her forehead, hands, and legs, her father, Nasser Jowrkesh, told the BBC's Persian service.

The 27-year-old student is just one of a number of young women who have been targeted in a spate of acid attacks in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, apparently because they were not veiled properly.

Several victims and their relatives interviewed by the semiofficial ISNA news agency described attacks similar to the one Jowrkesh suffered.

Maryam had opened her car window to take in the good weather while driving in the city when she was attacked. She said men on a motorcycle splashed about 2 liters of acid on her face and body. She lost a cornea and her body was severely damaged.

"I'm still in shock over how a person can do such thing to someone else," she was quoted as saying. "Is [that person] human?"

Police have said that four women have been victimized, while posts on social media have claimed that there are more than 10 victims.

Conservative Backlash?

The reason for the violence is not clear.

Many have blamed hard-liners for encouraging the attacks by making renewed calls for a campaign to enforce the Islamic hijab. Under the Islamic dress code that became obligatory following the 1979 revolution, women are required to cover their heads and wear modest, loose-fitting clothing.

In recent years, women in Iran have been pushing the boundaries by allowing their hair to show beneath colorful head scarves, and wearing tight coats and makeup. This has led to anger among conservatives, who have called on the government to take action.

Lawmakers in parliament have proposed a bill that would give vigilantes who enforce the hijab and Islamic norms some legal protection.

"The attacks have led to fear, particularly among young women," says a Tehran-based woman who is originally from Isfahan and has still friends and family in her hometown. "[Hard-liners] have been spreading hatred against women, therefore many believe they are behind the attacks."

ALSO READ: Thousands Of Iranians Protest Acid Attacks

Four suspects have been arrested in connection with the attacks, according to Deputy Interior Minister Morteza Mirbagheri. "Currently there is nothing to worry about regarding security in Isfahan and the issue of acid attacks has been dealt with in the best manner," he said on October 20.

However, judiciary spokesman Mohseni Ejei has disputed that arrests have been made, or that the attacks are linked to the improper veiling of women. Women who were attacked "were not among [those with bad hijab] and the information published in some websites cannot be confirmed," Ejei was quoted as saying by domestic media.

He promised severe punishment for the perpetrators of the attacks.

Isfahan's Friday Prayers leader, Seyed Yousef Tabatabayinejad, has said the attacks are against Islam. He also said the violence should not be linked to certain "groups" and "individuals."

Despite such comments, many have expressed outrage over what they see as inaction by the police and a lack of political will to deal with the attackers. "When several young people uploaded a 'Happy' video on YouTube, police boasted that the culprits were arrested within a few hours," wrote a Tehran-based man on Facebook. "Where are the police now that women are being targeted?"

A woman in the city of Shiraz told RFE/RL that she believed the attacks are an attempt by hard-liners to restrict women's public life. "This is being done and controlled by [vigilantes]," she said. "They want to create fear and keep women at home. It shouldn’t be difficult to find the culprits."

Previous reported cases of acid attacks against women in Iran were usually attributed to male relatives or men who had been rejected by the victims.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.