A Bad Bargain for All

While still recovering from the shock of seeing the Islamic Republic of Iran sitting on the UN Commission on Women's Rights (CSW), we discover that it is being elected today -- November 10 -- by the Asia Region, to the executive board of UN Women. UN Women is the newly created UN entity dedicated "gender equality and the empowerment of women," their efforts aimed at eliminating inequalities in law and practice. Iran is notorious for imprisoning and punishing women's rights activists as acts against national security. Having a state that rejects gender equality sit on the executive board of a body mandated to coordinate policies and set priorities to promote gender equality worldwide is bad news for Iranian citizens. Worse, Iran's influence will be a threat to the progress achieved by decades of persistent advocacy by women's rights movements in Muslim countries that still linger under centuries-old traditions and autocratic regimes. It would also undermine international law and the CSW's and UN Women's mandate.

For too long, people like me have been intimidated, inside and outside their countries, sometimes even by their own peers in the West, into believing that they are irrelevant because they aspire to universal human rights. I was born in a Muslim family in a conservative town in Iran and my grandmother never left her house without a chador. My mother and her sister were married to men who were chosen for them but they did not wear the veil and were not practicing the way their mother was. They were respectful of their religion and were never considered "bad Muslims." My father had five brothers. All were raised in the same household by the same parents. Each grew-up with a different understanding of his religion and his culture. Each adopted a different life style. This is the case in many practicing Muslim families when there is no coercion or violence.

In Iran, women are second class citizens in law and in practice. A woman, for example, cannot aspire to high public offices where she could bring about change, inherits 50% less than her brothers, cannot marry without the consent of her father, cannot, unlike men, divorce her spouse unless the latter agrees, cannot have custody of her children if they are above the ages of two (boys) and seven (girls), cannot be judges and their testimony in court counts as half of that of men. So a raped woman's testimony does not count if she is the only witness. In Iran, married men can have an unlimited number of extra marital sexual relationships but married women can be sentenced to stoning for adultery without any evidence or witnesses, as is the case for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

Iranian authorities, and their supporters here and elsewhere, may argue that women's rights activists are women from the wealthy neighborhoods from the north of Tehran or other important urban centers. I have spent years following and documenting human rights cases and the backgrounds of the victims I see, year after year, mostly attest to the contrary: the stakes in Iran are much higher for those who do not have the means to buy their education, their right to a fair trial in courts run by seminary-trained clerics, their freedom from a bad marriage, or their security in an authoritarian regime where corruption thrives. Those who persist in calling for change are not necessarily familiar with the West, do not speak any foreign languages, cannot afford to start their own businesses or leave the country in search of a better future, or post bail when they are imprisoned. The fight for women's rights is the fight, above all, of those citizens with limited options.

A significant number of activists have been victims of state repression in Iran over the last decades for simply opposing discriminatory laws. For example, the One Million Signatures Campaign includes men and women who want a better present and a promising future for themselves, their sisters, their daughters, and their grand daughters. They are from Tehran, Esfahan, Kurdistan, Mazandaran, Guilan, Azerbaijan, Mashhad, and other provinces. They come from the middle class as well as from under-privileged families. Scores of them have been arrested and sentenced to prison terms for collecting signatures or writing about discriminatory laws. Scores have been forced into exile.

The Iranian leaders and other autocrats argue that the demands expressed by women's rights advocates, ie the reform of discriminatory laws, are at odds with Iranians' culture and religion. I am not an expert in religious law and will not argue on religious grounds though those who dare to do so, such as Hojatoleslam Saidzadeh, are imprisoned and defrocked. As for Iran's culture, no one can have the monopoly on defining it or imposing its interpretation on Iranians. Like Christians and Jews, Muslims are diverse culturally and have a multitude of interpretations of what their religion requires. There are also Iranian Muslims who do not practice and Iranians who are agnostic or non-believers. The beliefs of Muslims, as those of Christians and Jews, are part of an ever evolving culture. Those who call for an end to discrimination belong in what is too often called the "Muslim world" and are as relevant as those who oppose change.

If the culture promoted by the Iranian leaders is really that of the Iranian people, there would be no threat against national security from a group of women going door to door collecting signatures for changing discriminatory laws. At worst, they would come back empty-handed and Iranians would simply not sign their petition. But the multiple summons and intimidation by the Information Ministry, the detentions, the convictions, and other forms of harassments are not symptomatic of confident leaders but of fearful rulers whose priority is to conceal the fact that their views have little appeal among Iranians, most of whom are below the age of thirty.

The best way to fight an idea is with a better idea. The Islamic Republic authorities are lacking convincing arguments in a rapidly modernizing society. Their better idea is to imprison and silence activists or force them into exile.

By allowing Iran to sit on the executive board of the newly created UN Women, the international community is rewarding it for silencing Iranian voices that support gender equality and international law, the very basis of the creation of the commission and UN Women. It is a bad bargain for the international community and for countless women in numerous countries around the world. It also makes irrelevant those of us who risk prison and torture by persisting to call for gender equality. The sense of terrible disillusion that it instills will be hard to overcome.