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Why Iranian Women Can’t Have Any of It

Gissou Nia on why denying women the right to run for President is only a small part of the regime’s apparatus of repression.

By: /
22 May, 2013
By: Gissou Nia
Executive Director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC)

In recent weeks, the political theater of women registering as presidential candidates in the Islamic Republic of Iran, followed by what appeared to be disqualifying remarks by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi—a conservative cleric—has distracted from the real issues at hand. 

Regardless of whether Yazdi’s remarks that women cannot run for president of the Islamic Republic can be attributed as an official pronouncement of the Guardian Council—the 12-member body that Yazdi is a member of and which is charged with vetting election candidates according to their Islamic credentials—it matters precious little for the women that make up more than half of Iran’s total population of around 77 million people.

The real issue is that hijab—or proper Islamic dress—is still compulsory for women in Iran’s streets and public places and failure to cover accordingly can result in imprisonment or a hefty fine.

The real issue is that in today’s Iran divorce is a husband’s unilateral right but if a woman seeks to divorce her husband she must prove he has either abandoned her or is mentally ill, abusive, or a drug addict.

The real issue is that the Islamic Republic’s child custody laws favour the father, inheritance and ownership laws overwhelmingly favor men over women heirs, and since 1979 women have been barred from being judges.

The real issue is that a husband is allowed to kill his wife and her lover if he catches them in the heat of passion, whereas no such exemption from a murder charge exists for a wife should she catch her husband in a similarly compromised position.

The real issue is that convictions and punishments for sex crimes such as adultery are applied disproportionately to women in Iran’s criminal courts.

The real issue is that despite the propensity of Iran’s courts to hold women accountable for sex crimes and other moral offenses, when it comes to the evidence that will be used against them to secure such convictions, the testimony of a woman is worth half of that of a man’s.

Among analysts and monitors of the political and human rights situation in Iran, there are no illusions that the ballots cast on June 14 will be part of a free and fair election.  The Islamic Republic can be best described as a “post-modern dictatorship”—that is, a dictatorship that attempts a veneer of democracy with its efforts to engage at the United Nations and to maintain an electoral process, but which lacks any substantive indicia of upholding basic rights and freedoms for its citizens.

So why is the international media lamenting the supposed end to a debate on the potential candidacy of women as if a woman running for president was ever a viable possibility in the first place in today’s Iran? 

The only hope for real gender equality in the Islamic Republic does not lie with its morally bankrupt ruling class, particularly when the current range of prospective presidential candidates include Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president now in his late 70s who presided over the Islamic Republic’s policy of extrajudicial assassinations of regime opponents abroad, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran who has reportedly admitted to beating peaceful protesters in the June 2009 election aftermath.

Rather the real hope for change can only come through Iran’s civil society leaders and grassroots opposition.  Indeed the leadership of the Islamic Republic is so keenly aware of the power of civil society that it has taken brutal action to dismantle it in recent years. 

No where does this hold more true than in the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on the women’s rights movement in Iran.  The government’s allegation?  That women’s rights activists played a role in organizing, training and mobilizing Green Movement supporters in the civil demonstrations following the disputed presidential elections four years ago.

Iran needs a major change to its institutions and laws when it comes to women and a reform of antiquated and gender biased Shari’a rules.  No amount of political pandering and photo ops of women lining up to register as candidates will affect that for the better.

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Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran’s painful past to get to a democratic future.

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Ali Ansari on the historical context of the Iran’s push for human rights.

The Key to Religious Freedom in Iran

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Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on why the rights of Iran’s religious minorities won’t be respected until those of the majority are as well.

John Baird on Canada’s New Dialogue with Iran


Minister John Baird on Canada’s advocacy on the issue of human rights in Iran.