Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher with the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that Iranian authorities are holding at least 12 women activists, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a distinguished human rights lawyer, and Narges Mohammadi, a civil liberties campaigner.
Far says that on May 1, International Labor Day, several activists were arrested, including five women for protesting a compulsory hijab law that requires adult females to wear a headscarf and cover much of their bodies.
Omid Memarian, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said that “the Iranian judiciary has been politicized for a long time. It doesn’t tolerate dissent. People face grave consequences for such acts, which shows the lack of freedom of expression in Iran.
“The judiciary intelligence apparatus has blocked peaceful ways to bring about change” he continued, “and this has created a suffocating environment for activists in the nation. That’s why you see so many of them behind bars.”
Soraya Fallah of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the US National Committee for United Nations Women (UN WOMEN USNC LA) was previously imprisoned by the Iranian regime, and argues that females in the country face more challenges than their male counterparts.
“Fighting for human rights by a woman is very different than for a male colleague due to gender-specific challenges that women face,” she said. “There are also many human rights issues…(that) must be addressed not from a gender-neutral perspective but from a gender-sensitive and awareness point of view.”
One such issue is the compulsory hijab law, which the current regime implemented soon after coming to power.
“There has been consistent pushback by everyday Iranians over being told what to wear,” Fallah said. “Our right to choose an outfit and decide on our public appearance has been denied since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.”
HRW’s Far contends that nation-wide protests last year changed the nature of the debate in the country.
In fact, the Iranian government recently released two studies indicating that public support for prosecuting violators of the hijab law has declined. The Iranian parliament’s research center study showed that 70 percent of women do not even adhere to the regime’s strict religious interpretation of the law.
“I think the Hijab law will change because you can’t force people to observe what they don’t believe,” Fallah affirmed. “Iranian society has evolved a lot in terms of social issues, and it is inevitable that it will continue to do so. The government should realize that the compulsory hijab policy failed a long time ago.”
According to Fallah, women contend with many other inequities such as being “discriminated against in all arenas…(including) gender-specific education and segregation.”
HRW’s Far likewise stresses that Iranian women are treated unfairly when it comes to marriage, divorce and many other legal issues. “A woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s so if you need two witnesses in a trial, you would have to bring in four women,” she noted.
For his part, Memarian from the Center for Human Rights in Iran suggests that the work of Iranian female activists has been hindered by the government’s crackdown on public demonstrations.
“The (regime) has raised enormously the cost of peaceful activism, which poses a major challenge for agents of change in the country,” he said.
Despite this, Memarian has a positive view about the future.
“Regardless of the situation, women continue to ask for change and push boundaries because of the very determined generation now in Iran that dares to challenge the state. The enthusiasm and the will of the women activists make many people hopeful,” he said.
Memarian points to recent successes such as the draft nationality law, approved earlier this week by the lower house of parliament, that if green-lighted by the upper house would enable mothers (like fathers now) to pass on their nationality to their children.
Overall, Memarian emphasized that one of the top issues for Iranian female activists is the promotion of draft legislation to address violence against women. While the bill has not been passed, women continue to apply pressure on the government to approve the motion.
“It shows how civil society in the country and beyond can lead to grand change,” he said. “(The proposed legislation) does not go far enough, but it is keeping women activists (confident) that by insisting on their rightful demands they can have a (positive impact).”
By contrast, Fallah from the UN WOMEN USNC LA insists that “it is unlikely big changes are on the way in Iran. Sharia (Islamic) law is far more powerful than allowing women to gain more rights,” she concluded.
Article written by Tara Kavaler
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line