The rights of Iran's women

Nazenin Ansari
18 May 2009

You want our support? Support our bill of rights!" In the official political manoeuvrings around the Islamic Republic of Iran's presidential elections to be held in June 2009, issues of women's rights are increasingly taking centre-stage. A series of events highlights the trend.Nazenin Ansari is diplomatic correspondent of Kayhan (London)

Also by Nazenin Ansari in openDemocracy:

"Iranians on the freedom path" (14 February 2006)

"An ayatollah under siege - in Tehran" (4 October 2006)

"Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007) 

The Guardian Council - the body that monitors and decides on the candidates allowed to stand in the election - made a ruling in April 2009 that opened the doors for women to run for the presidency; this cast down an earlier ruling that "women lack the intellectual capacity and understanding"  to be candidates.

Moreover, Zahra Rahnavard - the wife of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi - is playing an increasingly prominent role in her husband's campaign. As a result, a more progressive and forward-looking discourse on the issue of the status of women in Iran is emerging. At the same time, the parameters of the Islamic Republic's constitution and the confines of the country's patriarchal and sharia-derived legal code - significantly depart from international human-rights norms - limit the further development of this process.

The Iranian feminist movement, in seeking to circumvent these restrictions and sustain momentum, is now demanding a "bill of rights" for Iranian women. It has forged a broad coalition of women's groups and feminist activists that will hold collective and peaceful actions urging presidential candidates to commit to two actions:

* actively pursue the unconditional ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw)

* advocate the elimination of discriminatory laws against women enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A flood-tide

The campaign is committed to an independent outlook: it neither supports any specific candidate nor infringes on the right of Iranian citizens to choose to participate in or abstain from the elections as they wish.

It is being supported by thirty-two national and international groups, and more than 600 individuals (men as well as women) have added their names. Among the more prominent backers are the human-rights lawyer and Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi; the acclaimed poet, Simin Behbahani; Iran's first female publisher and founding member of the Change for Equality campaign, Shahla Lahiji; the human-rights activist and president of Stop Child Executions, Nazanin Afshin-Jam; and the independent activist (formerly of Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights), Elaheh Sharifpour Hicks.

The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It calls for action in nearly every field of human endeavour to advance and equalise women's rights: politics, law, employment, education, healthcare, commercial transactions and domestic relations.

The Iranian parliament passed a bill in 2003 which ratified the convention; but this was summarily rejected by the Guardian Council on the grounds that it contradicted the tenets of Islam. If it were to fully ratify Cedaw, the Islamic Republic would have to eradicate articles in its penal code that legalise "honour killings", value a woman's life at half that of a man's, and allow girls as young as 9 years old to be stoned to death on charges of adultery. It would also have to amend civil laws that restrict equal rights in divorce and child- custody cases, and which prohibit women from working and travelling freely without permission from their husbands (see Nasrin Alavi, "Women in Iran: repression and resistance", 5 March 2007).

The women's movements refused to be disheartened by the Guardian Council decision of 2003. They have continued to broaden their grassroots activities inside Iran, and worked vigorously to increase international support for Iranian women and challenge the violations they face. The vehicles of this campaigning include the One Million Signatures Campaign, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, and the Centre for the Defence of Human Rights.

The Islamic Republic has to date considered feminist campaigners to be "threats to national security".  Indeed, a statement released on 16 June 2007 and signed by over 700 champions of equal rights confirmed that 121 women's-rights activists had been arrested and imprisoned, with some subject to lengthy sentences; others were given suspended or probationary terms, with around $110 million posted in bail or guarantees to free those who qualified for conditional release. In the run-up to the presidential elections, the government is expanding its repression of women's activists with a new wave of travel-bans, detentions, and summons.

Between past and future

A signatory to the campaign, Roya Kashefi writes: "I am under no illusion that the Islamic Republic could ever ratify CEDAW or indeed change articles of its constitution. Quite apart from the fact that such actions do not fall under the president's so called powers there are two other articles in the constitution that prohibit such actions and amendments - Article 4 and Article 177.... What prompted [the signatories] to form the coalition at the time of the elections if they were not encouraging women to vote, if they were not supporting a particular candidate and if they were aware of the obstacles? They simply want to take advantage of the media interest domestically and internationally to voice their demands".

The women's-rights movement in Iran has existed for more than 100 years. Today it is today one of the most vigorous social movements in the country (see Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic", 24 February 2009). The new situation whereby the Guardian Council has ruled in favour of women being able to stand in election, and where a candidate recognises that his chances of success clearly depend on women's votes, is in itself an acknowledgement of the effectiveness of the collective actions and initiatives of the women's movement. This movement's innovative, stimulating and productive energy - aided by the invaluable solidarity of supporters inside and outside the country - once again shows the rich potential of Iranian women to transform Iran's ruling theocratic system.

Among openDemocracy's many articles by and about Iran's politics, including women's movements:

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Women in Iran: repression and resistance" (5 March 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's hostage politics" (2 April 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "The Iran-American dialogue: enemies within" (4 June 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's circle of power" (23 October 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's new order" (28 January 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's election signals" (18 March 2008)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's majlis elections: the hidden dynamics" (11 April 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Iran and the American election" (5 June 2008)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow-war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: the waiting game" (24 March 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Plus: regular reports in openDemocracy's 50:50 section

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


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