Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Post #94 - Women's Rights

"All oppression creates a state of war." (Simone de Beauvoir)

In April of 2006, Iranian professor and philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who holds dual Canadian and Iranian citizenship, was detained by the Iranian authorities as he was boarding a flight to Brussels. A delegation that included Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division, Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council [Full disclosure:  I serve on NIAC's advisory council], Joanne Leedom Ackerman, vice president of the International PEN (writers' association), and Zahir Janmohamed, Amnesty International's advocacy director for the Middle East went to the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, DC to protest Jahanbegloo's detention. One of the organizers said, “we ask for the freedom of all political detainees who are held in Iran's various prisons for participating in peaceful gatherings.”

In such situations, a prison term may be given, in some cases even capital punishment, for those who are deemed a threat to the government.  A Washington Post article mentioned also reported: "With 159 people executed by the state in 2004...Iran was second only to China in the number of death sentences it carried out last year." (For comparison, the figure for the United States in 2004 was 58, for Saudi Arabia about 85; in 117 other countries the death penalty had been banned. Another half-dozen nations have since joined in rejecting the death penalty.)

Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights activist, a key figure in the reform movement and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, led an initiative to gain one million signatures for a petition to press the Iranian government to reform laws that are discriminatory toward women. Sharia law [law that conforms to Islamic principles and traditions] gives different weight to men's and women's testimony, prescribes different amounts of compensation for torts and sometimes gives different punishments for the same crimes.

A few days prior to International Women's Day (March 8) in 2007, thirty-three activist Iranian women were jailed as they protested the trial of five others. Those in custody objected (as reported in the Washington Post of March 6) to provisions of the “penal laws, family code and blood money practices.” The article went on: “Practically the entire top layer of the women's movement in Iran, except for...Ebadi, who happens to be in Italy, is in jail,” said Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch, who was in New York at that time.

Though most of the women arrested on March 4 were released in a few days, the Organisation for Women's Liberation, in its communiqu├ęs, painted a picture of a much wider crisis in this chronology of events:

March 4:
Allameh University -- 700 gather to oppose a new dress code; students chant slogans condemning the "fascist method of controlling the university." A male student said "this new more restricted dress code is not just against females; it is against us and all humanity, too".
Sharif University -- protesters sing progressive songs, make speeches and hold banners saying "Women's freedom is the freedom of society," "women are the main victims of war, poverty and violence," "No to gender apartheid" and "Students' movement in unity with women's and workers' movement." 

March 5:
100,000 teachers go on strike; many students and the women's movement show solidarity with the teachers; several thousand factory workers join the teachers to demand their unpaid wages. Many workers' committees issue messages to commemorate International Women's Day. 

March 6:
Tafrash University – a gathering is held at the electrical engineering faculty where many students take part; the assembly issues a statement saying: "Freedom of society is measured by the freedom of women." 

March 8:
Tehran demonstration, 2006
Tehran – 1500 people gather to protest gender segregation, "dictatorship" and "police state;" 3,000 gather in Vali-Asr Square; 10,000 teachers stage a picket outside the Parliament building demanding justice and better wages.
Esfahan -- two events, one in Boostan Park and the other in the main library; women take their veils off for a few minutes and read out a resolution demanding freedom of clothing and condemning gender apartheid.
Sanandaj (Iranian Kurdistan) -- police and secret police attack an annual ceremony and arrest many; a gathering in the main city center is attacked by Islamic guards, some are arrested and a few injured.
Sagez (another city in Kurdistan) -- people celebrate International Women's Day; women make speeches about women's rights and abolition of gender apartheid.
Kamyaran -- people gather by the grave of women who were victims of honor killings or had committed suicide and read out a resolution in defense of women's rights.

(Remember that this was two years before the much-covered events surrounding the 2009 Iranian elections and the "coming out" of the Green Party.)

There have been some gains in the position of women in Iran since 1979, and a new atmosphere is becoming evident. Washington Post reporter Steven Knipp shared these observations:

"What astonished me the most about Iran were its women. I met and spoke with scores of them from all parts of the country. And everywhere they were wonderful: vivid, bold, articulate in several languages, politically astute and audaciously outward-looking. While some men demurred, the women weren't afraid to voice opinions about anything under the sun. In fact, women in Iran can work and drive and vote, own property or businesses, run for political office and seek a divorce. The majority of Iran's university graduates are women.

Hijab chic
"But socially, Iran's women still live under Islamic edicts: they must wear the hijab when leaving the house, and they cannot normally associate with any male who is not their father, brother or son, or shake hands with a man. Despite these restrictions, they manage to remain utterly feminine. They are keen on bright lipsticks, nail polish and eye shadow. And they have a passion for imported handbags and shoes. It's the women who give me the most hope that this once noble nation will one day return to its tolerant roots. Most of the young people I spoke with insist that change is coming."

A report called "Women’s Rights and Democracy: Peaceful Transformation in Iran" was published in May 2006 by the Policy Commission of the Initiative for Inclusive Security. “One sector often overlooked and underestimated,” the authors wrote, “is women.” They noted that UN Security Council Resolution 1325 called for women’s participation in peace processes. Recognizing that over 60% of those attending Iranian universities are women, that women are a key constituency in Iranian politics, and that Iranian women have shown remarkable adaptability in coping with the vagaries and restrictions of Islamic Republic officialdom, the report recommended that “new strategies of activism” should be– and are being – created. “Women’s efforts,” they wrote, “are emblematic of the larger public’s desire for increased democratic and human rights and economic justice.”

Our righteous condemnation of such abuses needs, however, to be placed in a wider context. Saudi women fare worse than Iranian women in many respects, for example; Iraq's new constitution has actually limited women's rights more than some earlier legal structures that existed in that country. Amnesty International, in its Report 2000 cited the following examples of human rights violations (in that year alone) in some of the countries that we considered friends and allies in the “war against terror” (none of these countries, of course, made it onto President Bush's “Axis of Evil” list in January of the following year):

Battle for a Rio favela
Brazil: Torture and ill-treatment were reported to be common in many police stations...”death squads” linked to the security forces continued to kill civilians, including children, in circumstances suggesting extrajudicial reform activists in a number of states were harassed, assaulted and murdered by gunmen hired by local landowners, with the apparent acquiescence of the police and authorities. [I met with the victims of some of these crimes during a 1992 visit to Rio de Janeiro for a UN Summit on Environment, though most of the poor people had been cleared out of the parts of the city that hosted international conferees.]

Colombia: Widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law...principal victims continued to be unionists, political and social activists, human rights defenders, judicial officials, church workers, and journalists were among those targeted...”death squad”-style killings continued...torture – often involving mutilation – [was] widespread...impunity for for human rights violations remained the norm.

Egypt: Fourteen prisoners of conscience were sentenced to prison terms...thousands [were] held without charge or trial, sometimes for years...torture and ill-treatment of prisoners continued to be systematic...prison conditions amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading least 108 people were sentenced to death and at least 16 were executed...several detainees just “disappeared” and were unaccounted for. [In addition, from 1972 to the present there have been scores of incidents in which Coptic churches have been bombed and burned in Egypt; monks, priests and parishioners murdered or tortured, and acts of mob violence carried out against the Copts. These occurrences never put a dent in U.S. aid to Egypt, which was second only to that given to Israel.  Unfortunately, in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall, Copts are still sometimes the target of assaults or discrimination.]

Israel: About 1500 Palestinian political prisoners were being held...houses in the West Bank were demolished because their owners had been unable to secure building permits...150 Lebanese nationals were held without charge or trial in Khiam Detention Center in Israeli-occupied South Lebanon...Israeli security forces killed at least eight Palestinians in circumstances suggesting that they were unlawfully killed.  [In addition, here is an interesting excerpt from an article in Washington Post opinion piece by Ruth Marcus (December 2011):  "Women are forced to board pubic buses from the back and stay there.  Billboards with images of women are defaced.  Public streets are cordoned off during religious holidays so that women cannot enter.  Saudi Arabia in the misogynistic grip of sharia law?  Sadly, astonishingly, infuriatingly, it is Israel under the growing influence and increasingly assertive demands of the ultra-Orthodox."]

Pakistan: Law enforcement personnel carried out arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial executions with impunity...258 people were sentences to death...abuses by private individuals, including the honor killings of hundreds of girls and women, were not investigated or punished...rights of religious minorities, journalists and other human rights defenders continued to come under threat. [Iran was a party to over half of the nine major human rights conventions in effect at that time; Pakistan only two.]

Things are changing in Iran, if slowly -- in part because so many of its citizens are young and have access to the internet. Grand Ayatollah Sanei finished one of his lessons in Qom's Seminary School in a recent year by condemning laws that discriminate against women as “indefensible.” According to a story of the Rooz (“Day”) webblog, Sanei said: "We all have a duty to to try to fulfill the rights of women and every human being: clerics and academics by carrying out research, Majlis deputies by passing laws, as Ayatollah Rafsanjani recently requested." (Rafsanjani had advocated making the compensation paid to the families of male and female crime victims identical.) Another prominent conservative cleric, Mohsen Gheravian, was quoted as saying: “...we are moving in a direction in which jurists must rely more heavily on logic and reason in forming their opinions [rather than tradition].”

Dr. Ebadi served a jail sentence in her country and has been subjected to continuing intermittent harassment by the current government. She has said that while she calls for democratic reforms in Iran, she feels that change can only come from within the country. "The intervention of the American army will not improve the situation -- the experience of Iraq has demonstrated that," Ebadi said (according to an Associated Press story), adding that Iranians would "not allow another Iraq to happen." Iraq, according to correspondent Patrick Cockburn, “is a country that's been 'hollowed out.' Two million people have left. At least 3,000 civilians are murdered every month. The rest live in terror...Of the 32,000 physicians who were there before the war, 2,000 are dead, 12,000 have left, and the remainder, who are seen as having money and are thus targets for kidnappers, must work from armed-guarded clinics...” "We will defend our country,” Ebadi said, “till the last drop of blood." (She reiterated this to me in person.)

Scott Ritter spent some time with Dr. Ebadi in 2006 and cited her position (in an article in The Nation, November 20, 2006) as evidence of the relatively loose hold the Islamic Republic's now has on its dissidents:

"Ebadi is permitted to travel abroad, speaking and publishing words harshly critical of the Iranian theocracy. She has been harassed by the government but still operates freely, unlike her fellow Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, again under house arrest in Myanmar." [the Myanmar leader has, of course, since been released from house arrest, and persists in her activism]

Ritter himself came to a similar conclusion about the Iranian populace as Ebadi's:

"While most Iranians welcomed the elimination of Saddam, the horrors inflicted and unleashed by U.S. military forces next door have left many...with the realization that the dream of American intervention may turn into a nightmare. My trip convinced me that support for U.S. intervention does not exist to any significant degree but rather resides solely in the minds of those in the West who have had their impressions of Iran shaped by pro-Shah expatriates who have been absent from the country for more than a quarter-century."

Dr. Ebadi joined forces with an American Nobelist, Jody Williams, in forming Women's Nobel Laureates, a group whose membership crosses religious lines and national boundaries and unites its members in protesting the saber-rattling of self-interested national actors. (Williams helped spearhead the international movement to find, eliminate and prevent the further dissemination of landmines – some of the most vicious weapons ever devised in their capacity to inflict harm or death on civilians both during and long after conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, El Salvador, Panama, Yemen and others. A similar campaign is underway to deal with cluster bombs, which kill many innocent civilians as well.)

Haleh Esfandiari, PhD
Epilogue: Sadly, in 2007 Dr. Ebadi took on another client (a colleague of mine), the respected Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.  She was jailed by the Iranian authorities on a trip back home to visit her ailing mother, and became another pawn in the struggle between our two governments. (Esfandiari was able to return to the United States in early September of that year, after being released on bail, and has written a book about her incarceration, My Prison, My Home:  One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran).

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