Shaghayegh Norouzi, Iranian actress and activist: ‘My filming partners told me to learn to manage abuse. How do you do that?’

From her exile in Barcelona, one of the promoters of the Me Too movement within Iranian cinema has published the testimonies of women who have suffered sexual violence in her country

Shaghayegh Norouzi
Iranian actress Shaghayegh Norouzi, on March 26 in Barcelona.Zahida Membrado

During the decade in which Shaghayegh Norouzi worked as an actress in Iran, she was subjected to sexual violence — which she describes as systematic — by directors and other men on the crew. Her filming companions told her that she should “learn to manage it,” she recalls. “But how do you handle abuse?” she asks herself indignantly.

In 2019, Norouzi — who was born in the city of Shiraz in 1984 — felt that she could no longer bear this climate of impunity. She left her country and settled in Barcelona, the city where her interview with EL PAÍS takes place.

While living in Spain, alongside some of her friends, she has been promoting an Instagram account — me_too_movement_iran@ — which tells her story and encourages other people to do the same. Thousands of women have told her stories of abuse and rape, which have subsequently been shared on the movement’s Instagram and X accounts. The names and surnames of perpetrators have also been revealed.

Question. When did your acting career start?

Answer. I studied Theater at the University in Tehran and, very soon afterwards, I started working as an actress. My career lasted 10 years; I participated in multiple series and films in Iran. But during my first job — at the age of 20 — I suffered my first episode of sexual violence. In subsequent projects, there was always some man — usually the director — who abused me.

Q. What did you do when you experienced that first abuse?

A. It was very traumatic. I was in shock. I was shooting for seven months. In front of and behind the cameras, he abused me. He was about 45-years-old. That first experience marked me deeply.

Q. Did you ever ask him to stop?

A. Yes. One day, off camera, I told him that I couldn’t continue filming if he touched me. And then he told me that he regretted hiring me. When the project ended, he threatened to put my name in the credits. Then he started slandering me among television and theater directors, so that no one would hire me.

I continued working and finished filming, but I fell into a deep depression for many months. As I recovered, I returned to work… but that experience always stayed with me. When I started acting in other TV shows, I faced new abuse. The team knew about it and never did anything.

Q. Did you report it?

A. Report it where? The police are useless when it comes to things like this in Iran. I talked about it with my colleagues in the TV series and they responded that I had to “learn how to manage it.” But how do you handle abuse? The worst thing was the impunity with which the director committed [the sexual assaults]. There were times when he would do it while we were shooting and I would freeze up. I remember how, one time, we were filming in the back of a car and he was sitting in the front seat, next to the camera operator, giving instructions. He started touching my leg. I tried to get away, but I had to continue acting. Nobody said anything. On other occasions, he would come into the dressing room and forcibly kiss me on the mouth.

One day, I decided that I couldn’t consider [this to be] normal anymore. I had already worked on numerous productions — in all of them, some man tried something with me without my consent. I went to the body that supervises audiovisual productions in Iran and reported the [assaults]. Hypocritically, they told me that they would take what had happened into account and that they would monitor the filming, but it wasn’t true. The only thing that this supervisory body — dependent on the Ministry of Culture — is concerned with is that the scripts don’t violate the rules of Islamic morality. They [officials] don’t care about anything else.

Q. Do you mean that the regime protects abusers in the industry?

A. Of course. The regime has absolute control over the audiovisual sector. The men who work in that industry are, in some way or another, connected to the regime, because all the money [allocated] for the projects is under the control of the government. Even if [some men in the industry] don’t like what’s happening, if they report it, they lose the possibility of working on films.

The atmosphere of silence in Iran is enormous. I also tried to report [the abuse] on social media, but they started canceling my jobs. In Cannes or Hollywood, actresses can speak up, but in Iran, it’s very dangerous. We not only risk losing our jobs, but also being arrested.

Q. When did you decide to leave Iran?

A. There was a shoot in which they changed the script for me to say that the social network X (then Twitter) had ruined my family. It coincided with a period of protests within the country — social unrest was growing online. They told me that if I didn’t want to read what the script said, I should go home. I left. And, the next day, I lost my job. It was then that I clearly saw that I couldn’t be an actress in Iran. After a few months, I landed in Barcelona.

Q. And it was from here that you decided that, now, you could do something...

A. Exactly. When I arrived in Barcelona, I decided that I had to denounce everything that I hadn’t been able to raise my voice about in Iran. I created accounts on Instagram and X to explain the abuses in the audiovisual sector. The response from the actresses was immediate. I obtained 800 signatures from women, who signed a manifesto calling for an end to impunity. I created a network of credibility by getting the stories I published to be reposted many times by other actresses who had gone through the same thing. I had to dispel any doubts about the veracity of the stories. It was like a bomb: They attacked us from the media, from the government. They accused me of lying. We revealed the names and surnames of the abusers.

Q. You were safe in Spain, but didn’t the actresses in Iran suffer reprisals?

A. Many were identified and called to testify [before the authorities]. There were actresses, photographers, fashion designers... some were detained. Despite the enormous risk, we made a lot of noise and something changed.

Q. Did you report any cases that targeted politicians or well-known men?

A. Yes. I published a post denouncing that Shahram Gilabadi — the right-hand man of former Tehran mayor, Mohammad Ghalibaf — had raped three women. He was a senior official in the communications center of the capital’s City Hall: three women wrote to me saying that he had raped them. When I published it, he wrote to me and told me that he would come to Barcelona to “give me what I deserve” if I didn’t publish a post acknowledging that I had invented the story for political reasons. I went to the police and reported the threats.

Q. Has anything changed in Iran after the outbreak of the massive feminist movement — Women, Life, Freedom — in 2022?

A. After this revolution, the regime still hasn’t changed. It continues to repress both men and women. But we feel more empowered about our rights. I want to emphasize that the revolution unleashed after the death of Mahsa Amini (who was killed while being detained by police for not wearing her veil correctly) has been the most important that Iran has experienced in 44 years [since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979]. Never before had such an important part of the population — led by women’s groups — come together to unanimously express their rejection of the regime.

My determination to promote the Me Too campaign once in exile — and the massive response I received from Iran — is a reflection of the strength of female resistance in my country. The regime subjugates women through a system to preserve its power. They fear women the most. That’s why [the government] maintains the highly patriarchal laws about the headscarf and women’s clothing. But things have changed. Now, despite the risk that mobilization entails, women are raising their voices.

Q. What’s your life like in Spain?

A. I work for the Iranian-American NGO United for Iran, trying to promote the empowerment of women in the face of abuse. I miss my country a lot. If I could, I would return, but for now, it’s not possible. I hope to be able to go back one day. [At the moment], I’m under threat and, if I were to land in Iran, I would be arrested.

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