GENEVA, May 3, 2021 — In reaction to the recent election of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the independent human rights group UN Watch, together with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, organized a press conference today featuring leading Iranian human rights activists and experts.
UN Watch had reported that at least four EU and Western Group democracies voted for Iran’s candidacy, by secret ballot. The commission describes itself as the “principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”
Panelists today called on democracies to clarify how they voted, and condemned Iran’s election.
Watch and read the panelists full remarks below.
Mariam Memarsadeghi, leading activist for a democratic Iran
To many, the United Nations represents a force for human dignity and progress. But the reality of the United Nations today is a far cry from its historic commitment to freedom and equality. It is an open secret, in fact, that the global body has devolved into a primary mechanism for the world’s most brutal regimes to legitimize and sustain their rule.
A most glaring example concerns my homeland Iran, where women are subject to among the world’s most sexist laws. One would hope the UN would work to punish a gender apartheid state like Iran for its infringements of women’s equality and lend a helping hand to women’s rights activists there.
Not so. Instead, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been elected by the UN to serve a four-year term on its Commission on the Status of Women, the “principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”
This is a mockery. It is akin to electing apartheid South Africa to a commission on the elimination of racism. A nation that once led the Middle East in advancing women’s equality is today ruled by an Islamist theocracy that denies girls and women their most basic rights – one that commits violence, rape, sexual harassment, discrimination, and confinement upon them.
Girls are separated from boys in school and all spheres of life, taught literally they are worth half a man. Domestic violence and marital rape are legally permitted, and rates of punishment for so called ‘honor killings’ are disproportionately small. The parliament of “moderates” recently raised the age of marriage for girls to 13, and still allows marriage of girls as young as nine with a judge’s order.
Every day, women and girls are subject to forced veiling, segregation, and humiliation in public life. For women, there is similarity between the medieval practices of Iran and the policies unleashed by ISIS. Only in Iran, these egregious human rights violations are perpetrated by a regime with a seat at the UN and a foreign minister many Western diplomats are all too eager to embrace.
Even some Western democracies – voting by secret ballot – have elected to include Iran in the commission. That all this coincides with the active appeasement of the regime by many world powers is not an accident. The Biden administration has joined Canada and Europe in a most disciplined reticence to criticize the Islamic Republic’s mounting repression, in the hope that the lack of scrutiny will be seen by the regime as another concession to curb its nuclear program.
Feminists in the West, meanwhile, have also taken what amounts to an oath of silence about this all too obvious affront to their purported convictions. “Microaggressions” on college campuses and correct use of gender pronouns elicit more attention than millions of Iranian women denied the most basic rights as their oppressors. Sisterhood, so it seems, is not global.
The regime is welcomed to the commission while the UN’s own Secretary General and Special Rapporteurs have documented time and again the “serious” violations of women’s rights in Iran as well as the violation of human rights more broadly. To this day, it is no wonder why Iran is one of only a handful of countries that has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
This is by no means the first time Ayatollah Khamenei’s cabal has derided the UN and been rewarded for its brutality. In the past, Saeed Mortazavi, a chief prosecutor personally culpable for brutal interrogations and torture of dissidents, led Iran’s delegation to the Human Rights Council.
As the regime sits on a commission meant to advance equality for women and girls, it will hold in its dungeons courageous women’s rights activists like Saba Kordafshari, who, at age 23, is serving a 24-year prison sentence for demanding Iranian women’s right to dress as they choose.
If what could reasonably be called the world’s most sexist regime belongs on a UN commission devoted to the elimination of sexism, what is the UN good for exactly?
The UN was formed in large part as a response to the rise of fascism. What hope do Iranians and others struggling for freedom and equality have for moral solidarity from the international community if the world’s chief international organization betrays them? The latest travesty at the UN is an insult not only to the women of Iran but to the democratic world’s own most exalted values.
“Democracies are appeasing the regime in all kinds of ways, not just the nuclear negotiations. Secretary Blinken today singled out a number of countries that violate the rights of journalists, but he did not mention Iran. The regime is increasing its repression of Iranian people while democracies are appeasing it, so it’s no accident that this is occurring. There are very large sums of money going to the regime as a result of negotiations on nuclear arms, so we can only expect this to get worse with terrorist proxies and wars,” said Memarsadeghi.
Kaveh Shahrooz, human rights lawyer and policy expert
I want to thank the organizers of this event, in particular UN Watch. And I want to thank the journalists in attendance. I hope that they will be the voice of Iranians who have been silenced by their regime.
Let me begin by quoting several sentences from a recent press release:
“Women and girls continue to be treated as second class citizens in Iran.”
“Gender discrimination permeates almost all areas of law and practice, treating Iranian women as second-class citizens.”
“Blatant discrimination exists in Iranian law and practice that must change. In several areas of their lives, including in marriage, divorce, employment, and culture, Iranian women are either restricted or need permission from their husbands or paternal guardians, depriving them of their autonomy and human dignity. These constructs are completely unacceptable and must be reformed now.”
These quotes are not from a press release put out by an Iranian opposition group, or the US State Department, or even an international human rights organization.
They are from a press release, published on International Women’s Day (March 8) of this year, by the UN itself, in announcing the report of its Special Rapporteur on Iran, Javid Rehman.
The outrage of the United Nations declaring in March that Iran’s women are second-class citizens, and then in April electing it to its Commission on the Status of Women, is why I join my colleagues today in expressing shock and revulsion at the result of that vote.
The Commission on the Status of Women describes itself as the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.
It is precisely the institution that the women of Iran should be able to look to defend them against the misogyny and gender apartheid to which they have been subjected for four decades.
Alas, thanks to the votes of UN members, that institution is now itself a tool of oppression.
Let’s spend just a moment speaking about the exact nature of this oppression and apartheid. Of course, nothing I say can match the knowledge possessed by the women at this event who have experienced this injustice firsthand and have bravely fought against it, at great risk to their own lives.
This is a regime that, upon coming to power, made women its top enemy.
It controlled their choices large and small.
It took away their right to determine for themselves what to wear; something that we in the west take as so basic a right that we don’t even think about it.
It imposed an interpretation of Islamic law in its legal system that literally values women’s lives as worth half of men. Again, I want to emphasize, that is not figurative language. It is literal.
A woman was made the property of her father and then her husband. Her ability to work, travel, or even to leave the house is legally conditional on the permission of a male figure. Her ability to get a divorce is severely, severely restricted. She is, first and foremost, an object for sexual satisfaction for her husband.
Her testimony is worth half of a man. Again, not figuratively. Literally.
Her right to inheritance, relative to her brothers, is severely limited.
Where women have fought for their rights, a common tactic by regime supporters has been to throw acid in their faces to permanently disfigure them.
Women are not allowed to enter stadiums. Women are not allowed to sing solos in public.
Women are stoned in Iran.
Based on a religious theory that virgin women get into heaven, female political prisoners have been raped by prison guards (or “married” to the prison guards against their wills) prior to their executions so that they will not get eternal rest.
In Iran, a father that cuts off his daughter’s head in an honour killing gets less punishment for that crime than a woman who organizes against compulsory hijab. There are currently women – Monireh Arabshahi, Yasamin Ariany, and Mojgan Keshavarz – sentenced to decades in prison for doing just that.
The word ‘evil’ has fallen out of favour in international affairs in describing the behavior of states. But I feel no reservation is saying that this treatment of women is evil.
But now it is evil that has the imprimatur of the United Nations. And we now know, thanks to the work of Hillel and UN Watch, that it is an evil that was supported with the vote of at least 4 EU & Western democracies.
So I want to use this opportunity to denounce the election of Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women, and in particular denounce the support that Iran received from free and democratic states that respect the rights of women.
And I want to specifically call on those states to indicate how they voted. If you voted for Iran, say it publicly and explain to the feminists in Iran’s prisons, explain to the girl children who are legally married off, explain to the international community why you supported this misogyny. If the reason they put forth for their support is that having Iran as part of the Commission will improve their behaviour, I challenge them to show me on example where Iran’s behaviour, or the behaviour of any dictatorship, is improved by engaging them in this process.
And if the reason they supported Iran is because they want a piece of the financial benefits they may derive if there is a return to the JCPOA, then be honest and tell us that women’s rights are of no value to you.
And I call on states that did not vote for Iran to denounce this decision. Not the mealy-mouthed, equivocating, wordsmithing we heard from the US Department’s spokesperson Ned Price yesterday. What we are calling for a is a forceful denunciation and a true expression of revulsion.
Iran’s treatment of women does not belong in the 21st century. It does not belong to a civilized world. And it certainly does not belong on the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.
“What price are we willing to pay in order to keep Iran happy? We are seeing the cost of engaging with Iran. It was announced Iran may release hostages, and in response the West will release about $7 billion of Iranian money. That’s a price that we’re paying in order to appease a gangster, a mafia state essentially. Having Iran be part of the Commission on the Status of Women is part of the price we’re paying. This is incredibly costly, and the incentives that it provides for Iran and other states that now act badly because they know the Western world is willing to pay any price to preserve good relationships with dictators,” said Shahrooz.
Shaparak Shajarizadeh, Iranian activist imprisoned for removing headscarf in defiance of hijab law
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been elected to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. This decision is an insult not only to women in Iran but all the women around the world and destroys our trust in the United Nations and its commissions. The Islamic republic of Iran is internationally known for its background with regard to drastic violations of women rights. Iranian women are subjected to systematic gender discrimination deeply rooted in Iranian law, which is based on Sharia law. The Islamic regime uses hijab as a tool to repress women. The government and its followers routinely abuse and subjugate women, preventing women from having any important role in society.
Because I advocated against compulsory hijab law, I was arbitrarily detained three times, interrogated, beaten, and thrown into solitary confinement. It was the most frightening experience of my life.
Iranian women have been tortured by intimidation in streets, the assaults in public, the emotional abuse, being hit, assaulted and insulted by Morality Police Patrols also by the leader’s followers called Basiji because of compulsory hijab law. They are deprived of the right to choose their personal relationships, their sexual relationships, their sexual orientation and their lifestyle. They are subjected to forced marriage and to child marriage and have to obey their husband in every way, and for they are the victim of legal marital rape.
They are deprived of the right to divorce and child custody, the right to enter stadiums, to travel abroad without their husband’s or father’s permission, to enter certain jobs and certain fields of education, to do certain fields of sports, social and cultural activities in the way of their choice. and they are deprived of the right to become a judge. Their entitlement to inheritance is half as much as their brother’s.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been part of the UN commission on the status of women prior to this time but there has been no improvement in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s behavior towards Iranian women since then.
According to the UN Special reporter on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, women and girls continued to be treated as second-class citizens in Iran. This report was published on March 8th 2021. According to Amnesty International’s 2020 report on Iran’s treatment of women, Iranian women continued to face entrenched discrimination in law, including in relation to marriage, divorce, employment, inheritance and political office. This report clearly emphasizes that millions of women and girls are subjected to daily harassment and violence by the regime.
The Iranian regime has the highest rate of execution of women internationally according to the most recent report from Amnesty International for the year 2020. According to The Gender Global Gap 2021, Iran’s ranking is 150 among 156 countries and has dropped by 2 points during last year and by 42 points since 2006. Iranian regime has continued to to limit women access to job opportunities even more; to promote child marriage; to limit the access to contraceptives; to encourage gender discrimination and to deepen gender gap and to cause Iranian women more pain and poverty. The Iranian regime promotes oppression and practices injustice against Iranian women, continues to arrest and execute women rights activists, and oppresses any type of protest against gender discrimination.
Women like Saba Kord Afshari , Mojgan Keshavarz , Yasaman Aryani and her mother Monireh Arabshahi got 24, 23 ,16 and 15 year prison sentences for opposing compulsory hijab.
The regime imprison lawyers like Nasrin Sotoodeh, Giti Pourfazel and Najmeh Vahedi. They also imprison many journalists even photographers, like Alieh Motalebzadeh.
The Iranian regime use torture, rape and solitary confinement to get forced confessions. Last month they flogged a young female political activist Zohreh Sarv with 74 lashes. She is also sentenced to three year and six months imprisonment for expressing her political view on her social media pages. The Iranian regime suppress the activists even more in prison by charging them with additional accusations to extend the years of imprisonments. Atena Daemi and Grokh Iraqi are bothe serving the sentences they got for their activists during the time they were in prison.
The Iranian regime does not believe in freedom of speech or choice or belief. There is no room for change or improvement since the regime‘s laws are based on denial of basic human rights and women’s rights and those freedoms. The UN commission on the Status of Women has the responsibility to manage full and effective participation of women in decision-making in public life, elimination of violence and achieving gender equality and empowerment of all women. While Iranian law and treatment of women is incompatible with those responsibilities defined for UN CSW.
Iranian women and women all over the world expect the United Nations to respect human rights and women’s rights and to be abide by values and principles defined in the Declaration of Human Rights. International institutions such as the United Nations lose people’s trust if they prioritize to ignore those principles and to stand beside the Iranian regime in oppressing, torturing, imprisonment, raping and executing women and girls.
Last March on international women’s day, the subcommittee on international human rights of the standing committee of foreign affairs of Canada recognized Nasrin Sotoudeh as an international human rights champion . I attended the Canadian parliament webinar on her behalf
Yesterday the certificate was delivered to my house.
Now, I asked the Canadian parliament and the ministry of foreign affairs if Canada voted for Iran to be elected on UN CSW
If Canada voted No , what will Canada do about this decision while Nasrin is still in prison serving her 38 year sentence in Qarchak prison , the most notorious and dangerous prison for women in Iran according to human rights reports
In July 2020 I was invited by UN watch to speak at the United Nations human rights conferenceI , I asked the same question “ Why would the UN elect the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women ? It is still my question.
Iranian women’s rights activists are having a campaign against this decision and we all appreciate your support, we raised our voice, help us have it louder.
Professor Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Canadian Minister of Justice and MP, advocate for political prisoners
I have just three quick points which I am summarizing from the excellent testimony by your panel.
One, Iranian women are not only the most important and courageous of human rights movements in Iran but the most targeted, suffering from ongoing gender apartheid.
Two, close to three and a half years ago, Nasrin Sotoudeh, the iconic woman human rights lawyer who I have called the embodiment of the struggle for human rights in Iran and a looking-glass into the state-sanctioned persecution, was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes, a virtual death sentence for a woman in her late 50s. And Iran was then elected to the UN Women’s Rights Commission within two days of that outrageous conviction.
And finally, and to the point made by you and others. The election of Iran, simply put, is an outrage. The refusal to condemn it is a betrayal of the women of Iran, a betrayal of the mandate of the UN Commission with respect to the promotion and protection of gender equality, and a betrayal of the values that democracies are sworn to uphold and sustain.