Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Honoring International Women’s Day 2021 (Bidarzani)

In an appeal released on March 8, 2021 (International Women’s Day), the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, who has made women’s rights the focus of his latest report, expressed  concerns about the state of women’s rights in Iran. He pointed to entrenched discrimination against women and girls in law and practice, who “continue to be treated as second class citizens in Iran":

In several areas of their lives, including in marriage, divorce, employment, and culture, Iranian women are either restricted or need permission from their husbands or paternal guardians, depriving them of their autonomy and human dignity. These constructs are completely unacceptable and must be reformed now.

The vast array of discriminatory practices reported by the Special Rapporteur have affected all aspects of women’s private and public lives, including their participation in political life and their access to decision making positions. Iranian women have fought for their rights relentlessly, but their efforts to challenge the status quo have been met with insurmountable obstacles. In Iran, as elsewhere, significant progress in the fight against discrimination requires an opening of the political space inside the country and safety for advocates to work for change. "Gender equality, or progress in the human rights situation generally, will never be achieved if it is treated as a footnote in foreign policy and in engagement with the Islamic Republic," said Roya Boroumand, Executive Director of Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC).

Iranian women are educated and resourceful. Generation after generation, they have fought for their right to equality and their dignity, including in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the monarchy in 1979. Realizing that their rights were not on the agenda of revolutionary actors, both religious and secular, women demanded clarity regarding how the “Islamic Republic”  — an undefined political system, which Iranians were asked to approve in a simple yes or no vote in a hastily organized referendum  — would impact their status in the family, public life, and other spheres.

The days surrounding International Women’s Day were marked by massive protests by women from all backgrounds, who took to the streets to oppose the new rulers’ attempt to impose mandatory veiling and to ask for equal rights.[1]

"... I consider women not only the first victims of the Islamic revolution but also the first ones who resisted and struggled."
Parvin Ardalan, writer and journalist. Conference on international solidarity within the feminist movement in Stockholm, October 6, 2006
Hengameh Golestan

The tens of thousands of women and girls who protested for days in 1979 — despite the attacks of an organized mob armed with batons, chains, knives and bricks and the total information blackout by the national radio and television — were right to be concerned. The mandatory veil was the beginning of laws and policies that marginalized women from public life, idealizing their role as mothers and wives, and drastically reducing their rights and protections both within and outside the family.

Over the years, Iranian women have continued to question and fight discriminatory laws and practices, while adapting to circumstances created by the repression which brutally eliminated independent political and civil society activities in the early 1980s. They have used any political opening to express themselves, organize, and 
strategize to advance their rights. They have voted for political groups promising reform, worked with powerful women within the ruling elite and joined registered student groups to find state tolerated channels to advocate for their rights. They have organized in NGOs, worked with lawyers, the media and the international community to give visibility to the plight of women and engage with decision makers. Expanding their reach outside of major urban areas, they have organized campaigns to raise awareness among their fellow citizens and educate women to make informed decisions. And they have taken to the streets to increase public pressure on the authorities. More recently, they have carried out acts of civil disobedience to draw attention to their demands. 

Their area of focus has included the family and criminal laws (including the right to divorce and custody of their children, inheritance, age of maturity/criminal responsibility, stoning as punishment for adultery, child marriages, violence against women, witness requirements, blood money, and honor killings), citizenship law, and dress restrictions. Progress on most of these issues has been minimal, in particular compared to the great cost imposed on women’s rights activists and their loved ones.

In the late 1990s, Iranian civil society was burgeoning after two decades of brutal repression and violence. Shirin Ebadi recounts that she was the only woman political prisoner in Evin Prison when she was arrested in 1999. Over the years, as activists organized more effectively, reached out to the general population across the country, and articulated clear demands that challenged existing laws (including the constitution), the intensity of state persecution increased, as did the number of women detained or serving prison terms in Evin and other prisons.
Scenes from 2005 and 2006 protests. Aasoo.org.
In June 2006, at least 70 activists, including 48 women, were beaten and arrested in Tehran during a peaceful protest calling for equal rights in family law. By spring 2008, at least 43 activists had been detained for the crime of collecting signatures and for holding workshops in the framework of the One Million Signature Campaign for Changing Discriminatory Laws. Arrests were still being made in connection with this Campaign in the fall of 2011. According to the Iran Special Rapporteur, between January 2018 and August 2019, at least 32 women had been arrested for taking their veil off in public. Some are serving prison terms of 16 years or more.
Crackdown on 2006 women’s rights protests.
Women’s rights activists have been threatened, beaten, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and imprisoned, expelled from their workplace and denied job opportunities, and banned from university for acts including writing, campaigning to change discriminatory laws, managing websites which promoted women’s rights, participating in peaceful protests, accepting legal representation for women who participated in peaceful protests, publicly defying the state by removing their veils, organizing workshops, and educating women on marriage contracts. Systematic persecution has silenced many activists inside the country or forced them into exile.

Today, Iranian women constitute 50% of university graduates and yet their participation in the economy is far lower. The 2014 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Iran at 139 of 142 countries in regard to female representation in the labor market. The 2020 edition of this report ranks Iran 148th out of 153 countries for women’s participation in the work force and 145th for political empowerment.

Four decades of discriminatory laws have held women back and significantly reinforced  the cultural barriers preventing their participation in the country’s politics and economy. Eliminating cultural barriers is a serious challenge when the law formally values a woman’s life as half that of a man for purposes of blood money. In practice, this law means that a mother’s life is half as valuable as that of her four-month-old male fetus.

Iranian women’s education, resourcefulness, persistence, and courage have resulted in visibility, public awareness and hardship, but they are still denied their most basic rights within the family and outside.

The story of Azam Jangravi, an ordinary Iranian woman who was pushed by her divorce experience into activism, is emblematic of women's struggle. Jangravi told ABC that it took several years and three lawyers to part with a husband with a history of drug use and extramarital affairs who had abandoned her and her child:

From the beginning in the court, I had said that this man has deserted us. He is a drug addict.  He beats me. The judge said, “Ok, he’s an addict.  You have to prove it. Then you have to prove he has been a resident in the Drug Rehabilitation Camp three times. If he is still an addict after being there three times, then you can divorce him.” I said this man has cheated on me.  He has been seeing a married woman for the past year and a half.  They would say: “ this is not a valid reason for divorce.  You have to arrange for three witnesses to see him in bed...  As a woman, you don’t count.  You have to have three witnesses.  They have to be men.  What does all of this mean?  When you go to court, you realize that we women are not human beings in this society.  Only the men are human.  They are the only ones who have rights.

Jangravi was finally able to secure a divorce judgment only by pursuing an alimony complaint. In her legal fights, Jangravi faced no opposition from her husband and enjoyed the support of her family, competent legal counsel, and financial means. And yet, the experience was humiliating and emotionally draining. It is not hard to imagine how other women, deprived of means and support, might respond to circumstances in which the legal system provides no path away from an abusive husband.

The 2018 execution of Zeynab Sekanvand Lokran is a case in point. Zeynab was put to death for the murder of her husband when she was 17 years of age; she had married the man, who had abused her physically and verbally, at the age of 15. Zeynab had attempted to obtain a divorce and report her husband’s abusive behavior on several occasions, but legal authorities took no action.

Following her divorce, Azam Jangravi joined reformist female politicians to contribute to the reform efforts. She got a job at the Center for Women’s Studies and Research. The fate of the Bill for the Prohibition of Violence Against Women and the back and forth with the parliament awakened her to the limits of women's power in protecting themselves in the male-dominated polity:

Ultimately, the Islamic Republic gave nothing to women. They used to say at the Center “men already decided for us.” They changed that Bill’s title after 11 years and called it [the Bill] for Safeguarding the Dignity and for the Protection of Women… so it would pass in Majles. Even if Majles passes it, the Guardian Council will reject it again afterward. What can a cleric do who has no knowledge about women’s issues, who knows nothing about scientific research or understand anything about the harms women are subjected to, and doesn’t know or understand anything about what’s going on in society?

Jangravi slowly lost hope in change through the existing legal channels and was the third “Girl of Revolution Street” who took off her veil and stood up on an electric post in February 2018, joining the nationwide protests. The severe punishment meted out to her for taking a stand — a prison sentence, the reversal of her divorce and losing custody of her daughter to her absentee husband — did not moderate her views.

After two decades, many Iranian activists feel that they are at an impasse. Laws based on the religious interpretation of elderly male clerics, who are offended by the notion of gender equality, and a constitution that gives the last word to an unelected male ruler and the men he chooses, are meant to prevent significant changes to a political system built on discrimination. This is why the Guardian Council, citing vague religious justifications, struck down in December 2003 the parliament’s decision to join the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, as it has done with many other laws. The law has languished in the Expediency Council ever since.
Current and former members of the Guardian Council. Can these men possibly represent the diversity of more than 85 million Iranians?
This same Guardian Council, through its vetting of parliamentary candidates, further ensures that elected deputies do not question the fundamental tenets of the Islamic Republic. The long-awaited draft bill on domestic violence, a summary of which has been made available to the public, “does not go far enough” and must be further improved before enforcement, according to the Special Rapporteur on Iran. Given the system’s efforts to defuse and prevent genuine improvement in women’s rights, it is no wonder that Iran’s representative to the United Nations, when faced with the Special Rapporteur’s criticisms regarding discrimination against women, boasted to the 46th session of the Human Rights Council that “half of internet users in Iran are women.” 
Given such long standing structural barriers, it is little wonder some have come to the view that full respect for women’s rights, as well as human rights broadly, demands fundamental structural changes.

In February 2018, fifteen high-profile activists, scholars, lawyers, and filmmakers including Narges Mohammadi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and Shirin Ebadi, published a joint letter demanding a transition from the Islamic Republic to a secular democracy by way of a UN-supervised referendum. One of the signatories’ announced aims was the “elimination of structural discrimination, especially in regards to full equality for women.” In August 2019, 14 women’s rights activists demanded the resignation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the creation of new laws and a political system “in which the dignity, identity, and rights of women are recognized.”

In a January 2021, Fa’ezeh Rafsanjani, a pro-reform politician, former parliamentarian, and former Editor in Chief of Women Magazine, and the daughter of one of the most powerful founders of the Islamic Republic, declared in an interview she would have preferred the re-election of US President Donald Trump: “However much the people strive for reforms to be enacted, nothing comes of it and the people themselves end up being repressed. Maybe if Mr. Trump’s pressure had continued, we would have been forced to make some political changes. And these changes could certainly have been to the benefit of the people”.

These perspectives, stemming from decades of experience, are part of the reality of today’s Iran. Policy makers should take them seriously.

By ratifying international conventions, Iran has committed to respecting human rights, which include the right not to be discriminated against based on gender. Yet, the discriminatory provisions of both the Civil and Penal Codes and serious flaws in the administration of justice persist. Many of the recommendations made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Yakin Ertürk, following her February 2005 visit to Iran have been repeated throughout the years and through various UN mechanisms. Iran’s leaders will take these obligations seriously, only if the international community is serious about them and holds them accountable for their violation.

Rather than continue on a path that has not yielded results, the international community should take stock of its achievements and failures and look for new strategies to fight impunity and press Iran toward structural changes. To show that it takes these human rights commitments seriously, the international community should give visibility to women’s rights advocates and their demands, and make these demands an integral part of negotiations with Iran regarding the country’s international obligations.

A very diverse community of activists is accessible inside and outside the country, with a wealth of experience and knowledge. These activists should be consulted, including those who do not speak English, regarding what they see as the main obstacles to progress. Their demands should be given visibility and be brought up in negotiations with Iran.

For close to two decades, the international community has made compromises in order to dialogue. But dialogue is only a means; it should not be the ultimate goal. To be effective, any human rights dialogue must be transparent, have clear benchmarks and concrete demands, and involve civil society. Iranian representatives prefer conversations behind closed doors, because accountability goes hand in hand with transparency.

The European Union’s human rights 
dialogue with Iran, which began in 2002, lacked transparency and did not impact the human rights situation. In a June 2007 briefing paper, the EU concluded that:

Other than certain openness up until now to allowing visits by the human rights mechanisms of the UN (though not to implementing their recommendations), there has been very little or no progress at all by the Iranian authorities measured against the EU benchmarks.

"Effectively supporting women’s struggle for equality requires stamina, consistency, and leverage," said ABC Executive Director, Roya Boroumand. Human rights violators are not likely to hold themselves accountable or easily give up their monopoly on power, and Iran’s leaders are no exception. The human rights based approach can be effective if pursued with persistence and consistency with both the allies and foes of democratic societies. It must also be issue-oriented and transcend factional disputes and partisan tensions, whether in Iran, the United States, or any other country.

Women across the world have faced and continue to face discrimination justified by tradition and religion. Progress towards equality has been possible where women of diverse backgrounds have had space to work for their rights, raise awareness, participate in politics, and rise to positions through which they have made a difference. This long and arduous path is not available to Iranian women, half of Iran’s population. The international community should not shy away from acknowledging this reality. The current constitution and electoral laws block the path to reform and encourage impunity.  Prioritizing negotiations for a real political opening - that involves regime outsiders and includes the release of political prisoners and human rights defenders - will send the right message to Iran's leaders and its people. There will be no miracles. Real change can only come with a real fight.

[1] “At the largest demonstration today. 15,000 protesters took over the Palace of Justice for a three‐hour sit‐in. A list of eight demands was read. They included the right to choose the attire that best suited women and the country's customs; equal civil rights with men; no discrimination in political, social and economic rights, and a guarantee of full security for women's legal rights and liberties." New York Times, March 11, 1979 https://www.nytimes.com/1979/03/11/archives/iran-women-march-against-restraints-on-dress-and-rights-15000.html