Foreign Affairs

Who Will Defend Iran’s Women?

Iran’s most famous human rights defender was ordered this month to close her Center for Defense of Human Rights or face arrest. This direct threat to Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, sent a clarion call to the world community that it must make clear that Iran’s deteriorating human rights record, especially its treatment of women, is intolerable.
 
Ebadi provided free legal representation to journalists, students and dissidents who faced prosecution for peaceful assembly. She also represented women and men who had been detained and beaten while demonstrating for their basic rights on International Women’s Day. If Ebadi’s law firm is closed, representation for those women who are struggling to put women’s basic freedoms on the Iranian agenda is threatened.
 
It comes as little surprise that women who are treated as second-class citizens in Iran still struggle for basic human rights protections under Iranian law. Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Islamic clerics have imposed strict interpretations of shari’a law and segregated women in most aspects of public life.  
 
There has been a series of cases where women have been condemned to death by hanging or stoning. For instance, Ashraf Kolhari, who is a mother of four, was sentenced to death by stoning for having sex outside of marriage. Kolhari’s sentence was protested by human rights and women’s rights organizations across the world. Although her sentence has been suspended, stoning is still legal in Iran. Also, Nazanin Fatehi was sentenced to death by hanging for killing a man in self-defense who attempted to rape her and her niece.  
 
In Iran, boys are considered legally responsible for their crimes after the age of 15, for women the age of criminal responsibility is 9. Leyla Mafi, one of many young victims of this draconian legal code, was whipped 100 times for prostitution at the age of 10. Unfortunately, stories like Ashraf’s, Nazanin’s, and Leyla’s are all too common in the Islamic Republic.  
 
Shari’a law also places many restrictions on women’s legal and civil rights. Shortly after the 1979 revolution, the government repealed the 1967 Family Protection Law, which provided women with rights in the home and workplace, and replaced it with a legal system based on shari’a law that severely restricted women’s rights in inheritance, divorce and custody rights. Gender segregation is enforced in public places and prohibits women from mixing openly with unmarried and/or unrelated men. They must ride in a reserved section on public buses and enter public buildings from separate entrances. If a woman appears in public without a chador (the appropriate head-to-toe Islamic covering in Iran) she can be sentenced to lashings or a fine.
 
For a brief period under President Khatami’s rule in 1997, women made some progress including reforms that raised the marriageable age of girls from 9 to 13 and that put divorce in the court system. However, with the election of Ahmadinejad, many see a shift from reform to restrictions. For example, proposals have been introduced for a uniform “national dress” for women in public. Publications of pictures of uncovered women in the print media, including foreign women, have also been prohibited.
 
The social and political barriers facing women in Iran are extremely high as conservative religious ideas about the role of women in society predominate. Most existing political parties exclude women and women cannot run for president or be judges. Although Iranian women are highly educated with literacy rates at 70% and up to 70% of university students are female, they comprise only 11% of the work force. Only 0.1% of ministry level jobs and 4.1% of parliament seats are held by women.
 
In February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged $75 million to empower Iranian civil society movements in order to promote pro-democracy movements within Iran.  If Washington is going to make democratization of Iran the centerpiece of its initiative, Iranian women should naturally be the recipients of such aid.  Yet, who will protect these brave women if people like Shirin Ebadi are not there to represent them?


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