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Iran's War on Women



Saba Farzan


By Saba Farzan and Benjamin Weinthal

July 9, 2014

As the world powers meet with representatives of the Iranian regime in Vienna in an effort to end its illicit nuclear program, the plight of struggling Iranian women can shed light on what is happening inside the country. We believe Tehran’s severe marginalization of women cannot be decoupled from the nuclear negotiations.

A little over a year after Hassan Rouhani was elected president, he has failed miserably in fulfilling his pre-election and post-election promises to end widespread discrimination against women. “Women must enjoy equal opportunity, equal protection and equal social rights,” he said in televised comments marking Women’s Day in Iran on April 20.

Still, Rouhani has taken no meaningful action to challenge, either in word or deed, his boss Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s statement: “One of the biggest intellectual mistakes of the West about the issue of women is ‘gender equality.’” Khamenei’s views are not mere rhetoric; they have been codified since 1979 in Iran’s system of Sharia law. The Islamic Revolution brought Iran back to the medieval ages with stoning, gender apartheid and systematic oppression of the country’s women.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014: Even under Rouhani — a self-described moderate — the barbaric judicial machinery continues to grind. Iran is slated to execute Razieh Ebrahimi, a child bride convicted of killing her husband in response to his domestic violence. Ebrahimi was forced to marry at the age of 14 and gave birth when she was merely 15. It is also worth recalling the famous (or infamous) 2006 case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery. International public pressure forced the regime to stay her execution.

One could argue that Rouhani has no power over Iran’s opaque judiciary. Nevertheless, he has not moved beyond nebulous phrases about women’s equality even in the realm he does control. His lack of forceful condemnations and advocacy of change in the country’s incorrigibly reactionary laws is a form of complicity.

Sadly, there is no shortage of repression of women in Iran. New educational restrictions were imposed on women in 2010, barring female students from access to certain social studies courses (women's studies and human rights) because they are deemed to be "incompatible with Islamic teaching."

In the context of a divorce, women lose custody of their children. There is no shared custody.

The legal system forces women to wear headscarves, depriving them of their freedom to choose.

Sports stadiums have long remained a no-go area for Iranian women. A telling example in June: Iran barred women from viewing the country’s national volleyball team in Tehran’s Azadi stadium. In the same month, Iran prohibited mixed gender viewings in cinemas of World Cup soccer matches.

The growing frustration of Iranian women from all walks of life with the stifling system has been on display over the last few months. The “Stealthy Freedoms” social media campaign shows women tossing off their headscarves as an act of personal freedom. The arrest of women who chose not to wear their headscarves during a viral YouTube video — to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” — naturally prompted justified international outrage.

For U.S. negotiators in Vienna, it cannot be overemphasized that Rouhani's failure in the area of women’s rights is a window into his regime’s expected behavior toward a nuclear agreement. Bad-faith negotiating and lack of compliance should be assumed. As a result, it is incumbent on the world powers to secure significant concessions from Tehran, including the full dismantling of its nuclear program and a prohibition on uranium enrichment.

Equally important, to show the pro-democracy demonstrators from the Green Revolution that the West has not abandoned them as it shamelessly did in June 2009, the U.S and the EU should link progress in women’s rights to the ongoing nuclear talks. Only then will Iran’s women enjoy the freedom they deserve — along with their male compatriots. And only then will the world community have the security that Iran will return to being the responsible and peaceful state it once was.

Farzan is a German-Iranian journalist and director of political studies at IMED, a foreign policy think tank. Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.