Iran's moderate president Hassan Rouhani has a chance to enact one of his campaign promises to promote women’s right by signing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW urges its signatories to address laws, practices and customs that discriminate against women.
Today, 18 December, CEDAW turns 35. Since its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1979 it has been ratified by188 countries. This global majority includes 51 Muslim countries that are party to the Convention.
Today gender equality is considered a universal norm and is easy for governments to accept. Nevertheless CEDAW and its internationally-accepted understanding of equality remain controversial in some parts of the Muslim world. This is especially true in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In Iran, conservative politicians and religious figures reject the universal approach for gender equality in CEDAW and instead propose their own “Islamic” alternative. Indeed, according to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, it was the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that elevated women to their rightful place in Iran. He has said, “Islam introduces Fatima [the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad] the outstanding and distinguished celestial being—as a model and an ideal for Muslim women.” Using Fatima as the role model, Iran’s Leader and other members of the conservative religious establishment promoted the idea that women and men are equal parts of God’s creation but that the two genders have manifestly different social roles and duties.
This view results in a host of blatantly discriminatory practices that affect women in their public and private lives. For example, in courts the monetary damages for causing the death of a women is half that of a man’s. A women’s testimony is also worth half of that of a man’s and women are barred from being judges. Women should cover themselves with hijab. Within the family, husbands have the legal power to control whether their wives can hold a job or obtain a passport and travel out of the country. Iranian woman cannot pass their nationality onto her child if their father is not Iranian. Men are granted automatic guardianship to children.
To some religious leaders and conservative politicians these laws reflect social roles where women, while spiritually equal to men, are not charged with the same level of social, economic, and political responsibility, and thus are not given agency in these fields. So for them, CEDAW’s notion of equality in all areas of life is at odds with Islam.
But these views are not as clear cut in Iran as some want us to believe. Indeed women’s rights have always been seen as a challenge to the ruling ideology. Iran’s governmental institutions are supposed to be grounded in Shi’ite Islam. Doctrinally, however, Shi’ite Islam is supposed to allow for different interpretations. Grand Ayatollahs can and do offer variant interpretations on Islam and women’s rights, including ones that support the framework of ideas found in CEDAW. As the Nobel Peace laureate and women's rights activist, Shirin Ebadi, says, "a basic right for women could be guaranteed within an Islamic framework of governance provided those in government were inclined to interpret the faith in the spirit of equality."
And it is not insignificant that nearly every Muslim country worldwide has ratified CEDAW. Perhaps the real reason Iran has not ratified the Convention has less to do with religion, and more to do with the fact that women’s rights are in conflict with the interests of the predominantly male political elite.
Ratification of CEDAW will give advocates of women’s rights a framework that they can invoke when pushing for better policies and laws. Moreover, with ratification the State will submitted itself to review by UN bodies. This process has led to substantial legal reforms in Muslim countries, like Morocco and Egypt, which have improved the status of women.
To be fair, Iranian officials have discussed ratifying CEDAW during two distinct periods in Iran. First, between1995–1997, toward the end of the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, For Rafsanjani however, the economic and social reconstruction of the country after the Iran-Iraq War took priority over women’s rights, and ratification never gained much momentum.
CEDAW remerged between 1999–2003 during the “reform era,” born out of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Reformists pledged then to advance civil and political rights within an Islamic framework. As part of a series of progressive legislative measures, the reformist-dominated Sixth Parliament actually ratified CEDAW. However, the Guardian Council, which is charged with vetting and approving all legalisation to ensure compatibility with Iran’s Constitution and Islamic precepts, rejected the bill. The Council cited supposed religious objections, but never actually specified what those objections were.
Last year, the victory of Rouhani, a moderate cleric, renewed some hope. Rouhani’s campaign promised to determine why CEDAW was rejected and eventually ratify it. In fact, in his first press conference as president, Rouhani stressed that the goal of women should be to remove all “primitive behaviour” which inhibits greater participation by women in public life and just ensures the appointment of “token” female ministers. While this was in part a defence of the lack of women in his cabinet, Rouhani’s echoing of CEDAW’s broad challenge to legal and customary gender discrimination is grounds for guarded optimism.
For now, however, the large conservative majority in the current Parliament is a clear obstacle to movement on the Convention. However, if moderate and reformist politicians regain the majority in the 2016 Parliamentary elections, then there could be a new push for Iran to ratify CEDAW. The Parliament will, nonetheless, be subject to oversight by the Guardian Council, which will not only vet any bill to ratify CEDAW, it will vet the Parliamentary candidates before they can even be allowed to run for office. In turn the conservative religious establishment will continue to maintain considerable power within the political sphere.
These political challenges are why the President must start to develop the legal and religious ground work for CEDAW ratification now. If he honours his promises and the country joins CEDAW we will be on the road to significant changes in the legal status of women in Iran.