Iranian women human rights defenders: challenges and opportunities

If President Rouhani honours his promises and 'de-securitises' the general atmosphere, the work of women human rights defenders could lead to significant and tangible change towards ensuring human rights for Iranian citizens.

Leila Alikarami
20 April 2015

More than fifty Iranian women human rights defenders are currently behind the bars in Iran. They are spending their lives in prison because they refused to be silenced: whether in voicing their political and religious beliefs, raising their ethnic demands, or simply challenging gender-related restrictions that are imposed on them as women.

In order to silence women human rights defenders and prevent them from working together, the state has employed different methods. Threats, interrogations, arrests and jail terms have been the fate of tens of women who have organized gatherings, written articles in criticism of discriminatory laws, given interviews or taken part in seminars, despite none of these activities being illegal. A number of these individuals have been acquitted, and others have been handed suspended jail sentences; some, however, have received heavy sentences.

Bahareh Hedayat is a student activist and a human rights defender, currently serving her nine and a half years’ sentence on the false accusation of propaganda against the state. Her only “crime” is promoting human rights and democracy in Iran.  Mahnaz Mohammdi is a filmmaker sentenced to five years of imprisonment because of her activities to advance human rights. Zeynab Jalalian, a 33-year old Kurdish citizen who was initially been sentenced to death for her so-called ‘political’ activities. Her death sentence has now been commuted to life imprisonment. Hakimeh Shokri, a member of the “Mourning Mothers” (a group of women who have lost their children in political crises) was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “propaganda against the state,” and “acting against national security” for her human rights activities and participation in peaceful gatherings.

The cases of women human rights defenders are considered to be political ones, and therefore come under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Courts. Despite the constitutional and legal requirement for courts to conduct hearings in the presence of a defence lawyer, in practice many women’s rights activists are denied this right and placed on trial without access to a lawyer. It is obvious from the provisions of Iran’s Constitution and the Criminal Code that for a crime to be proved, the criminal act must be defined as such in the existing law.

There is no legal basis for convicting human rights defenders merely because of their activities.

Although traditional and patriarchal practices are an important barrier to the activities of women human rights defenders, state repression may represent the main obstacle to their activities. In line with the theory of the “Velvet Revolution”, most social and human rights activists - including women human rights defenders - are seen as a threat to national security for attempting to bring about a velvet revolution and the overthrow of the government. In fact, the hardliners within the government have assumed that these women were their political opponents and have done their best to control, confront and repress them. Women human rights defenders have repeatedly declared that they do not want to bring down the regime in Iran. On the contrary, they are challenging the status quo because they are passionate about their country and their Iranian identity.

The persecution and arrests of women human rights defenders has become more serious after the presidential elections of 2009, the aftermath of which forced some prominent women human rights defenders to leave the country, and reside in Europe or the United States. Unfortunately, those who prefer to stay in the country and continue their struggles under the current political situation have no platform to voice their demands, and no space to freely carry out their peaceful activities. Although they have reorganised and changed strategies to be able to continue their tasks, state repression has had a negative impact on their activities.

Despite severe pressure imposed by the government, women human rights defenders in Iran have been largely successful in broadening their allies by taking their demands into the street, and contextualising the concept of human rights in the everyday life of those who have experienced discrimination. Therefore pressure from society, and especially from women, may eventually compel the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and the administration of President Rouhani, to revise the Constitution and other relevant laws such as civil and criminal codes to ensure human rights for Iranian citizens.

Hassan Rouhani, who was elected president in June 2013, has promised to “de-securitise” the general “atmosphere,” and to promote “justice” and “civil rights.” Rouhani, a moderate conservative cleric, was the only candidate to promise the establishment of a “Women’s Ministry” to push the implementation of strategies and programmes designed to advance women’s status in a structured and consistent manner. However, these promises are yet to bear any fruits.

President Rouhani requires the cooperation of other power centres in the country to compensate for earlier setbacks in the struggle for human rights. It remains to be seen to what extent he will risk his carefully constructed relationship with powerful stakeholders such as the Supreme Leader, over human rights issues. Whether Rouhani becomes involved in the advancement of human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular, or not, the important step forward for women human rights defenders is the newly-found and tentative openness of the public space which was denied to them during the past eight years under President Ahmadinejad. To engage the public in her demand to guarantee the human rights of Iranian citizens, since October 2014, Nasrin Sotoudeh a prominent human rights defender, has been carrying out a sit-in in front of the Tehran Bar Association in protest against the Iranian government’s persecution of dissident voices, and the increasing control over the Bar Association and Judiciary. A number of human rights defenders have been joining her in urging the Iranian government to ensure the human rights of dissidents.

If President Rouhani honours his promises and ‘de-securitises’ the general atmosphere, the work of women human rights defenders could lead to significant and tangible changes in the human rights situation in Iran. This development could help Iran to improve its human rights record in the international arena.

Leila Alikarami will be speaking at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the Defence of Women Human Rights Defenders, 24-26 April.  50.50 will be reporting live from the conference.  Read more articles by participants and speakers. 




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