Women and equality in Iran: Law, society and activism

Tuesday 20 April 2021
Source: Iran Women’s Movement Documentation Center (IranWomen.Center)

Leila Alikarami, LLB, LLM, PhD.

Leila Alikarami is a lawyer, human rights advocate, and an academic. At the national level she is a well recognized human right lawyer and women’s rights expert. Internationally, she has been honored by the European Union as a 2016 Sakharov Fellow in human rights and received the Anna Politkovskaya Award in 2009 from Reach All Women in War on behalf of the One Million Signatures Campaign. Dr Alikarami was profiled by Manon SchickAmnesty Switzerland director, as one of her heroines in her book titled “Mes Heroines des femmes qui s’engagent” in 2017. 

Caterina Barbi is one of the MECACS interns and MLitt student at the University of St Andrews. Her research interests revolve around terrorism, migration and gender.

Many realists in political science believe that human rights law does not bring about actual change. What is the relevance of CEDAW and why do you believe Iran should ratify it?

CEDAW is the most important instrument in ensuring women’s rights. The Convention provides effective legal language and a framework that can be used as a legal tool by advocates to advance gender equality and address discrimination against women. It also provides minimum common standards on gender equality to persuade the States Parties to the Convention to guarantee and ensure the protection of women’s rights.

The ratification of CEDAW will give advocates of women’s rights a framework that they can invoke when pushing for better policies and laws. Moreover, through ratification, the State will submit itself to be reviewed by the United Nations bodies. This process has led to substantial legal reforms in certain Muslim countries, such as Morocco and Egypt, which have improved the status of women.

The ratification of the Convention by Iran should be considered from two perspectives: international and domestic. By ratifying the Convention, the Iranian Government would take a positive step towards enhancing its global reputation and responding to the adverse publicity generated by its violations of human rights, in general, and women’s rights, in particular. Domestically, the Convention would impose responsibility on its signatories to take all appropriate measures to ensure equality of rights between men and women and to eradicate any kind of gender-based discrimination. It is a well-known fact that the process of improving the status of women in a society depends on its social, political, economic, and cultural structure. Therefore, the accession of Iran to the CEDAW could bring about considerable changes in the legal status of Iranian women as the Iranian Government will be held responsible for amending or reforming the laws and practices that discriminate against them. These changes could include acceleration in the pace of reform of laws concerning gender inequality.

Do you think the friction between CEDAW and Sharia -as Iranian clerics sometime argue- truly exists? Do you believe in more regionally focused approaches to human rights and women’s rights such as the Cairo Declaration of human rights?

Given that most Islamic countries have ratified the CEDAW, I think the reason why countries such as Iran have not ratified it is not due to its possible incompatibilities with Islam, but to the fact that women’s rights conflict with the interests of the predominantly male political elite. The political and legal system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is complicated to a large extent, which slows down the progress of any changes in favour of women. We should also bear in mind that the Islamic legal tradition, like any other legal tradition, holds within itself different perspectives on gender rights and is open to change. 

Gender equality is a universal principle, which I feel is innate in us as human beings, no matter the culture or religion we happen to be born into. Therefore, I believe in a universal approach. However, we should make use of every local and international strategy available to confront and combat legal discrimination. For example, the equality provision in Article 6 of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam is one of the tools available to advance gender equality. 

CEDAW is the most comprehensive international tool to advance gender equality. It is designed to eradicate discrimination against women and improve the individual, family, social, political, economic, and cultural aspects of women’s lives in ratifying countries. CEDAW urges the States Parties to amend laws, practices, and customs that discriminate against women. CEDAW’s objectives have the aptness to be universally accepted, and the Muslim world is no exception in being apt to adopt the universal standards. 

What do you think is the biggest threat to women’s rights in Iran right now? Does it stem more from legal discrimination or social practices?

Legal discrimination is the biggest threat to women’s rights in Iran. Iranian women, like women around the world, have been fighting for their rights for a long time. From the period of the Persian Constitutional Revolution until the present, they have been seeking an end to legal discrimination, as well as a host of other civil and political discriminations. Iranian women succeeded in restoring some of their rights over the course of the past century but then lost some of these again following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the past forty years, a number of different campaigns have demanded an end to legal discrimination, with a particular focus on foregrounding women’s choice and agency, i.e., to wear/not to wear the hijab. I am confident that, regardless of the political climate,Iranian women will persistently seek to secure the civil liberties and social freedoms they are rightfully entitled to. 

In 2006, you actively participated in the “One Million Signatures” campaign. How was the campaign received from the wider Iranian public? 

The campaign succeeded in easily gaining notoriety within different social groups and families. The adoption of face-to-face and social networking strategies for the campaign helped it to transfer a sense of commitment to gender issues and social resistance from among women’s rights activists to the general public. 

If you compare 2006 and now, which social groups do you think have shown a change of heart?

One of the successes of the campaign was to engage all social groups through its awareness-raising efforts. However, there were limitations to such engagement due to different obstacles, including state repression and restricted media access. Nevertheless, the comparison of the year 2006 withnow makes us realise the importance of online and social media in reaching out to a wider public. For example, Iranian men have actively participated in the campaign to demonstrate that they have realised the importance of recognising the rights of their female counterparts. However, I believe Iranian men’s engagement is even stronger now than they were back in 2006. 

Some discriminatory behaviour towards women is the result of a lack of knowledge of women’s issues and misinformation publicised through incompetent sources. There are many media platforms available at the moment discussing gender equality and women’s rights issues. I believe that women’s rights advocates have managed to mainstream gender in debates, discussions, and analyses in media and social media. Activists have also been successful in using social media to campaign for the eradication of discrimination against women. One of the most successful campaigns is the My Stealthy Freedom campaign, which started in 2014 as a Facebook page to oppose compulsory hijab. One Million Signatures Campaign did not adopt the mandatory headscarf as one of the issues in its crosshairs for an obvious reason. Women activists and the founders of the campaign believed that given the political intricacies at the time, including the power wielded by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there was no way to challenge the mandatory veil wearing effectively. They saw no ray of hope in changing the law. Therefore, they searched for cracks to challenge and change the discriminatory laws in other areas within the existing legal structure and the prevailing political context. The new approach to fighting the mandatory dress code — although not particularly sophisticated — is nonetheless proof that the forced veil wearing remains a key concern for many Iranian women.

My Stealthy Freedom began as an online movement with Iranian women sending Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and women’s rights defender who started it, photos and videos of themselves unveiled outside the confines of their homes. This movement gave rise to another campaign, also launched by Alinejad, which is called White Wednesdays. In the White Wednesday’s campaign, women wear white head coverings or white clothing on Wednesdays to protest the mandatory dress code. The strategy underlying Alinejad’s initiatives is the communication of relevant events and activities in such a way that invites the participation of everyone regardless of individuals’ political affiliation. The campaigns rely on the latest technology: smartphones — simple and effective tools accessible to most Iranians. 

Iranians are set to vote in June. What are your hopes for reform as a human rights lawyer advocating for women’s rights? Do you think you will see any?

Gender equality is a pre-condition for democracy, sustainable development, and the creation of a society without violence, poverty, or injustice. Therefore, it is essential for Iranians to work together to fight ideologies that oppress women’s rights and ignore human rights. If the general atmosphere is de-securitised, 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 improve its human rights record in the international arena. 

I was one year old when the revolution happened in my country. I witnessed eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. I was a law student at Tehran University when the Iranian student protests of July 1999, also known as Kuye Daneshgah Disaster (or the fatal attack on university dormitories),happened. I started my law practice during the presidency of Khatami or the reform era, and I defended women’s rights activists in the revolutionary courts during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Still, I am hopeful that Iran’s human rights record will be improved because we have a strong civil society and human rights defenders who are willing to pay a price for freedom, whatever that may be. 

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