Iran: a 'bloody stain' on the nation

The war on women continues to manifest itself in different forms and intensity globally; tarnishing all societies with a ‘bloody stain’. In Iran, hard-liner interpretations of Islamic principles dictate gender norms, violation of which can be fatal.

Yakin Erturk
25 November 2014

 In memory of Reyhaneh Jabbari

‘Bloody stain on Iran’s human rights record’ was Amnesty International’s reaction to the execution of 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari on 25 October, 2014. She is not the first and most likely will not be the last woman to be killed in the hands of state or non-state actors because of gendered discrimination.  Nor is Iran, although among the most notorious, the only country where women go victim to femicides. The war on women continues to manifest itself in different form and intensity globally; tarnishing all societies with a ‘bloody stain’.

Understanding the manifestations of assault on women worldwide requires an inquiry into the dynamics of the global and post-cold war era which has resulted in shifts, fragmentations and decline in hegemony. In the process, particularly as women demand their rights, dominant power relations and patriarchal structures are challenged, thus unleashing violence to restore order in public and private spheres. Hence, violence against women accelerates at the intersections of systems of inequality that are under strain.

Decades of feminist paradigm (scholarship), praxis (activism) and policy (decision-making) with respect to women’s human rights have also verified these linkages and enabled  us to go beyond the narrow and isolated treatment of violence against women in demarcating  it as embedded in unequal power relations manifesting at the intersections of different structures of inequality. 

In my forthcoming book, Violence Without Borders, I examine the articulation of these manifestations within women’s translational activism and locate their concreteness in the context of 10 countries, all of which I visited during my tenure (2003-2009) as UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences.

In memory of Reyhaneh, I dedicate this article which stems from the Iran chapter of the book, thus contextualizing her death.


Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

False expectations of a revolution

Early 1979 millions of Iranian women, from all walks of life, took to the streets wearing the chador as a symbol of solidarity with the revolution and opposition to the Shah, chanting azadi, azadi (freedom, freedom). However, just before the commemoration of International Women’s Day (8 March 1979), Khomeini started announcing measures, which were indicative of a rollback in women’s rights, including a decree dismissing all women judges and barring female students from attending law schools and the imposition of the veil (hejab), among others. The enthusiasm for the revolution was short-lived for many supporters as the gender contract in Iran sharply deviated from one of the most liberal in the Muslim majority countries to one of the most reactionary.

The new rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran quickly distanced themselves from universal human rights standards, which they branded as Western in nature. The following editorial from the Tehran Times (6 February 1996), in connection with the visit of the Special Representative on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, is representative of the sentiments of the revolution: “Criteria for human rights are respected by everyone; however any judgment on the situation of human rights in a country should be harmonious with the nation’s culture, religion and traditions…”

The revolutionary ideals were based on the assumption that imperialism considers women as the best tool for subjugation of the nation: “…women serve as the unconscious accomplices of the powers-to-be in the destruction of indigenous culture”, declared a weekly women’s journal in Tehran in 1984. Thus, women, perceived as bearers of culture, became central to the political discourse that was to shape the society under the new regime. In this respect, the revolutionary purification process discarded secular women as remnants of the old regime and women in sympathy with and supporters of the Republic were placed in key positions where they could promote Iran’s new gender agenda. This would also prove to the critics of the regime that the new system has in fact restored women’s dignity and delivered women from the corruption of capitalist imperialism.

Contradictory trends in the status of women

Women in Iran - compared to other developing and neighbouring countries - have relatively greater access to health and education and to some extent employment and political participation. This has resulted in some positive developments in education during the past two decades. The ratio of girls attending primary school is almost equal to that of boys. The literacy rate for women is improving, although, a gender gap still exists; about 31 per cent of women are illiterate, compared to 17 per cent of men. The most significant progress has occurred in higher education, where roughly 65 per cent of the students are women.

However, the progress in women’s education has not been matched with a parallel increase in employment, nor in women’s representation in politics and decision-making posts. Furthermore, women’s participation in public sector institutions take place within strictly defined boundaries, transgression of which could be “fatal”.

By universal standards women are confronted with economic, social and legal barriers to the full enjoyment of their human rights and are excluded from equal partnership in determining the parameters of social relationships in the public as well as private spheres of life. Conformity with the rules of hegemonic gender contract is ensured through the ideological and legal foundations of the Iranian State, as well as through the use of diverse forms of violence within the family, community and State institutions.

Violence at the intersections of public/private patriarchy

Violence used to keep women in their strictly defined place in Iran is perpetuated by two main factors: (a) patriarchal values and attitudes favouring the norm of male supremacy, and (b) state-promoted institutional structure based on hard-liner interpretations of Islamic principles. While the former is a universal and historically rooted phenomenon, the latter is particular to Iran’s gender politics and policies prevalent in the country since the 1979 revolution. Both factors converge in dis-empowering women and in undermining rights and freedoms of Iranians in general.

While the official ideological underpinning of the state gender discourse rests on the premise that women in the Islamic Republic have been attributed with due dignity, this very ideology also serves to rationalize the subordination of women, discriminating against them, subjecting them to violence and silencing defiance.

During my tenure as Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women I received many reports and complaints with respect to cases of domestic violence, incidents of self-immolation and increasing trends in trafficking of women and girls in Iran. However, the bulk of complaints I received related to incidents condoned by the State and its agents.  Between 2004 and 2009 I acted on a total of 51 urgent appeals and allegation letters concerning violations of women’s human rights in Iran, the vast majority of the complaints  related to discriminatory laws, practices and aggression of state agents. 2009 marked a peak in the number of Iran related complaints, with 12 urgent appeals and 6 allegation letters (communications report A/HRC/11/6/Add.1). Most of the complaints were about detention, arrest and interrogation related to the One Million Signatures Campaign, which was a call for ending discriminatory laws against women in Iran. 

During my visit to Iran in 2005 I interviewed a number of defenders of women’s human rights, including lawyers and journalists who relayed similar experiences of being arrested without charge by plain-clothes agents allegedly from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, detained incommunicado in secret detention centres for periods of one month or more, tortured or maltreated under detention and their house being searched periodically without a warrant. Although, the Constitution of Iran forbids the use of all forms of torture “for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information”, reports of torture and other inhuman treatment  in various detention facilities in Iran were rampant  ( mission report E/CN.4/2006/61/Add.3).

The death penalty, including by stoning, has been a continuing area of major concern. I received numerous reports of women on the death row, sentenced mainly for sexually or morally oriented offences such as adultery. At the time of my visit there were 397 women in Evin Prison, 200 of who were sentenced for “moral crimes”, some awaiting execution. I spoke to some of these women, some of whom were still children; their stories reflect the gender biases in the attitudes, laws and institutions of the country within which they have become labelled criminals.

Reyhaneh  is only one among many who live under the terror of the death raw in Iran. The 26 year old Rehaneh was arrested in 2007 for the murder of a former employee of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence who allegedly tried to rape her.  After being kept in solitary confinement for two months, she was placed in Evan prison. In 2009 she was sentenced to death by a criminal court in Tehran. On 25 October 2014 Reihaneh Jabbari was executed by hanging. According to Iranian law, after her guilt was proven and her claim of self-defense dismissed, only the victim's family had the right to stop the execution (qesas); the family insisted on proceeding with the execution.. Reyhaneh Jabbari was executed under questions around due process, in particular the allegation that her conviction was based on confessions made under duress. Many court cases against women are shadowed by claims of flawed investigation and trial. The contradictions surrounding the cases of many young women sentenced to death on moral grounds as well as those based on criminal / political charges warrant a serious re-examination and abolition of the death sentence in Iran.

Women’s resilience and agency

Although the Iranian regime has taken stringent measures to cleanse women as autonomous beings from public space, it has not succeeded in excluding women’s intellectual articulations and activism from public discourse. On the contrary, women have continued to actively contribute in many fields ranging from arts to sports, demonstrating their determination to challenge, resist and negotiate the boundaries of the imposed gender order.

A number of women’s organizations have engaged in reinterpreting the Koran from a women’s perspective. “Instead of beginning with creation as a narrative of origins from women’s rights and responsibilities”, many of these sources place “individual woman, in her contemporary social concreteness, at the centre of their arguments”.  Focusing on women’s lived realities not only paves the way for the alternative interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence; it also demystifies values that justify dichotomies such as Muslim/secular; Iranian/Western by revealing the universal elements of women’s subordination in diverse patriarchal arrangements. In this context, violence against women emerges as a common point of reference and struggle for women worldwide.

If the Iranian regime is sincere about restoring women’s dignity, then it must embark on a re-interpretation of its fundamental norms, including Islamic principles in line with the current needs and societal contributions of women as well as with universal human rights standards.

Read more articles in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014

The author's forthcoming book ‘Violence Without Borders’ ('Sınır Tanımayan Şiddet') links paradigm, policy and praxis with respect to the persistent problem of violence against women. It probes into the dynamics of the globalized and post-cold war era and argues that violence is unleashed and generalized as hegemony is destabilized in public and private spheres of life.




Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData