In the modern world, when we speak of gender equality, we usually mean equal opportunities in work, education, and in civic participation for men and women. When we speak of equality between the sexes, we usually envision a country where women have the right to choose how many children to have and what to do with their bodies. In this regard, we can safely say that the struggle for equality between men and women in the West and in other civilized countries has more or less conformed to these requirements. Elsewhere in the world, however, presents a very dismal picture of the situation of women. Women being stoned to death and publicly hanged would seem unthinkable to some. Indeed, the medieval practice of lapidation or stoning is shocking to hear but this inhumane treatment is a reality faced by many women in Iran. Not only that, not conforming to the prescribed standard of dress is criminalized, and the failure to wear a veil or hejab can get you flogged and abused (Asia Pacific Women’s Watch). This paper argues that the barbaric and horrific acts of violence and discrimination against women in Iran must stop. The intervention of the United Nations will be helpful in saving Iran’s women from their current oppression.
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International law already prohibits the meting out of cruel and degrading punishment in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to which Iran is signatory to CEDAW Iran). However, Iran’s penal code and criminal legislation remain to be influenced by Islamic fundamentalism, and there have been alarming acts of violence against women committed and perpetrated by the State. A report from BBC News indicates that “public hangings, executions, stoning, arbitrary arrests, especially among youths and women, has taken an unprecedented pace” (BBC). As of 2007, international human rights group Amnesty International reported that there were 8 women in death row awaiting to be stoned to death by Iranian authorities. Since 1979, when the mullahs of Iran reverted laws to conform to fundamentalist Islam, the extent of violence has been unimaginable for women:
More than 40,000 women have been sentenced to die from 1979 to 2005 (Women’s Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran (WFAFI).
Over 34 women have been stoned to death between 2001 and 2005 (WFAFI).
Twenty-two Iranian women were publicly hanged between 2001 and 2005 alone (WFAFI).
Over 4,000 runaway girls were flogged or whipped 100 times, imprisoned, fined, or even sold for sexual slavery (United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services).
These statistics by themselves present an already grim general picture. However, the details of the execution itself point to the barbaric nature of the stoning of women. Stoning is the sentence meted out to women who commit adultery and other heinous crimes. According to Iran’s Penal Code, particularly Article 104 of the Law of Hodoud, the size of the stones used and the process of carrying out the sentence is specified in strict terms. The law says that the stones to be used must not be so large so that they cause instantaneous death after being hit two times and must be too small to not cause injury. In other words, the stoning of women as capital punishment is intended to inflict pain that is grievous so that it leads to a slow and most painful death (Stoning women to death in Iran: A Special Case Study). The UN Special Rapporteur from the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights sent to Iran, Maurice Copithorne, concluded in an independent investigation in 1997 that the act of stoning is a form of “a cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment” that is violative of international human rights laws (Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran). The actual process of stoning is graphic and too horrible to even depict in words, and some videos of actual stoning of women have been smuggled and used by advocacy groups to lobby for the eradication of women permanently. There are cases of stoning when the “Special Clerical Courts” of Iran rule that the children and family members of the woman sentenced to death would be forced to watch. If for some miraculous reason the woman is able to escape from the hole she is buried in up to the neck, she is immediately returned and stoned to death, or if she runs away, is immediately shot.
In 1994, Amnesty International reported the stoning of a woman who was found guilty of adultery by Iran’s clerical court. The judge ruled that the husband and her children should be present to witness the execution. Despite the woman’s protestations to spare her children, the authorites ensured that all were present. In the middle of the stoning, even if her eyes were already “gouged out,” the woman was able to free herself from the ditch and started to escape. However, she was recaptured and instantly shot to death. The same end befell on a woman from the city of Qom, who was also able to escape but was returned and stoned to death (Stoning women to death in Iran: A Special Case Study).
The sentencing process is arbitrary and the law leaves wide discretion to the judge. In some cases, the sentence is not only stoning, as in the case of Bamani Fekri. The newspaper Jomhouri Islami reported in 1991 that in the northern part of Iran, Bamani was found guilty of murdering her husband and committing adultery. She was sentenced to death by stoning, blinding of both eyes, retribution, and compensation of 100 gold dinars. Before she could face her executioners, she killed herself in jail (Stoning women to death in Iran: A Special Case Study). In another case, a woman found guilty of adultery was sentenced to die publicly in Neyshabour, Iran. She was sentenced to be thrown off a ten-story building in front of the public. She died immediately upon impact (Stoning women to death in Iran: A Special Case Study).
State-sponsored atrocities have been verified by the Special UN Rapporteur to Iran in his report (CEDAW Iran). In 2002, Rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy verified that women who are incarcerated in Iran’s prison system are being “systematically subject to rape by judges and high-ranking officials” (United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services). This was especially true for women imprisoned in Evin prison in Tehran, Iran, where the prison itself has become a place of sexual torture.
Adding the violence and human rights violations, the women of Iran are also subjected to poor socio-economic conditions because they are considered subordinate to the men in all respects.
Almost 90 percent of Iran’s runaway girls are sold in the Persian Gulf in prostitutions rings or in the international human trafficking market (WFAFI).
About 700,000 children with ages ranging from 10 to 14 are sold in Iran’s black labor market. aged 10 to 14, work in black labor market in Iran (WFAFI).
More than half of Iran’s population live below the poverty line and 20 percent of its people go hungry on a daily basis (WFAFI).
Sixty-seven percent of Iran’s young women between ages 11 and 16 are deprived of basic education (WFAFI).
Twenty-six percent of Iranian women suffer psychological problems, and over 70% of the suicides in Iran are women casualties living in the rural countryside (WFAFI).
The World Health Organization places Iran as third country with the highest suicide rate (WFAFI).
The oppression of women in Iran is the result of Islamic fundamentalism and the refusal to abide by the international laws it has signed and the international conventions it still refuses to sign. In this regard, the United Nations and international pressure can help in forcing Iran to abide by international human rights standards in its treatment of women. Iran’s penal laws have been established by religious fundamentalists once the Shah was overthrown and the Revolution installed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in power in 1979 (Shahidian 65). The so-called “Revolutionary Law” supposedly incorporates passages of the Qur’an, the Islamic world’s Holy Book, into the penal system as a way of “rectifying” the morality of Iran and purging Western influence. Women were viewed as “seductive beings” whose behavior should be regulated in order not to inflame “Satanic desires” in men (Hughes). It was essentially an act to remove decency and civilization out of the penal code and replacing it instead with Byzantine-period punishment. The main idea was to preserve Islamic culture and moderate the effects of modernity that were seen to be slowly eroding traditional Muslim values (Shahidian 70). This move pushed behind several decades of resistance and struggle from Iranian women who have been fighting for their rights since the rule of the Shah (Hughes). What is worse, is that the subordination of women and the misogynstic practices against them were given binding and legal force (CEDAW Iran). Hence, women’s oppression became a State policy. In fact, Iran is one of the few countries that has not ratified the CEDAW or the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Abbasgholizadeh 1). As a result, Iran puts limitations on the development of women and legalizes them so that they are prohibited from aspiring for the presidency, becoming judges, becoming leaders, becoming educated in the universities, and in inheritance. Iran’s constitution is rooted in the religious principle of vali-e-faqih, where the State can control the private and public roles and encroach on the lives of women. Patriarchy is part of the State structure and the concept of “male surrogate and guardianship of females” gives legitimacy to the rule of Iran’s Islamic Fundamentalism. In effect, Iranian women do not have the freedom to choose and control several aspects of their personal lives. (WFAFI). Defenders of Iran’s practices invoke respect for religion and culture and present the Qur’an as its ground. However, even Islamic scholars have denounced the ill treatment of women and the fundamentalist view that women should be limited in their civic and political participation. Islamic feminists stress that the equality of men and women in the Qur’an is clearly indicated:
“Those that do evil shall be rewarded with like evil; but those that have faith and do good works, both men and women, shall enter the gardens of Paradise and receive blessings without number” (Shahidian 84).
Admittedly, using scripture to prove the compatibility of women’s rights and Islam depends on interpretation. In actual practice, however, Islam and women’s liberation have been found to be compatible in the experience of Islamic countries such as Turkey. Iran cannot claim that it is impossible to reconcile respect and dignity for women on the grounds of Islam because other Muslim countries have paved the way for greater women’s participation and the observance of human rights laws pertaining women.
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Turkey’s experience suggests that only through modernization in laws can once-misogynistic regimes end oppression to women. Modernization in Turkey commenced in 1922 under the leadership of Ataturk who was responsible for inspiring legislation that made women an equal partner in nation-building. The struggle for attaining women’s rights to equal participation and equaliy in Turkey has a rich history. With the founding of republican turkey under Ataturk’s leadership, the law provided that women were equal than men. This principle was enshrined in the new Consitution because of heavy influence and pressure by the European feminist movements and the local feminist struggle. Turkey’s new republican Constitution provided that in order to become truly civilized, the “improvement of women’s status” must be the primary aim (Gurpinar 72). From fundamentalism, Turkey turned toward secularization and the eradication of anti-women laws. In place of fundamentalism, Western aspirations for human rights and gender equality were adopted in order to pursue improvements in education, family life, and civil rights (Gurpinar 78). After suffering a military coup in 1980 and experiencing military rule for next three years, feminist movements and mass resistance in Turkey fueled the need to change the Constitution and adopt laws that would benefit women. What is important to understand is that the changes in the Constitution that allowed for Turkey’s conformity to international human rights standards particularly international instruments such as the CEDAW was made possible with the coordinated efforts with the United Nations. Article 90 bound Turkey to conformity with international standards in human rights and treatment of women in lieu of local laws. Article 90, par. 5, states:
“International agreements duly put into effect bear the force of law. No appeal to the Constitutional Court shall be made with regard to these agreements, on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. In the case of a conflict between international agreements in the area of fundamental rights and freedoms duly put into effect and the domestic laws due to differences in provisions on the same matter, the provisions of international agreements shall prevail” (Vital Voices Global Partnership).
What is the significance of this provision and what is its implication to ending oppression of the women in Iran? Basically, Article 90 makes Turkey an active participant to international treaties regarding human rights. It made modernization and women’s emancipation possible because it gave legal force to pro-women treaties such as the CEDAW, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), among others (Gurpinar 98).
Simply put, because of the inclusion of Article 90 into its Constitution, Turkey had to adjust its laws so that it complies with international laws and instruments. Turkey’s experience proved that the involvement of the UN in pressuring for constitutional change is important in boosting feminist movements and the citizens themselves in creating reforms for the benefit of women.
The case of Iran is not very different. It has been proven to be sensitive to international pressure and local pressure in the past. It must be understood that resistance has been waging in the country for decades and the feminist movement in Iran works closely with organizations such as Amnesty International to international support (Amnesty International). In 2002, after successfully lobbying for the European Union to pressure Iran into issuing moratorium on its stoning practices, Iran announced that it was temporarily stopping judgments of lapidation. However, reports leaked that the stoning of women never really stopped, especially in the provinces, because there was no official directive from Iran’s government (Amnesty International). Amnesty International believes that without repealing the law the provides for the stoning of women, this barbaric punishment will not stop. Article 19 of Iran’s Constitution provides that discrimination based on race, color, or language is prohibited but Article 20 provides for a reservation clause “conformity with Islamic criteria” that is often invoked as legal basis to discriminate against women (United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services). Moreover, it has been found that Iran practices duplicity in terms of what it says it is currently doing to end the oppression of women compared to what it actually does. The UN Special Rapporteur indicated that in Iran, “the domestic application of the standards in place falls short of ensuring that women in Iran enjoy de jure and de facto equality. This situation sustains unequal power relations between women and men” (CEDAW Iran, 2009).
The United Nations, working together with leading powers such as the US and EU, must exert international pressure to demand an end to the violence and oppression of Iran’s women. It is a moral as well as a legal responsibility for the UN, being the body of the community of nations, to enforce the compliance of Iran on the international instruments which it is party to, such as the UDHR. If Iran is sincere in providing equality, as it says in its Constitution (Art. 3, sec. 4) and considering its signature in the international covenant on human rights, it must be held accountable for the State-sponsored atrocities it has subjected its women to. Intervention can be in the form of economic and political actions of States such as:
Pull-out of all direct and indirect investments of States out of the Tehran.
Enforcement of military and political sanctions for violations of international human rights laws.
Boycott of international non-government organizations (NGOs) sending aid to Tehran.
Experience has proven that strong UN intervention and the support of international human rights organizations and NGOs can pressure compliance (WFAFI). This has been demonstrated in the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa and campaigns against genital mutilation (WFAFI). The impact of successful intervention of the UN in putting an end to barbaric violence against women in Iran would be a victory not only for Iranian women, but for women all over the world. Laws that repress women and subject them to cruel and inhumane treatment are not confined within the boundaries of Iran, making the problem a crux for intervention by the United Nations. Other Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia and Somalia would comply with the international human rights covenant and end repressive and oppressive practices made possible by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Holy Qur’an. Many countries still condone misogynistic practice of female genital mutilation in Africa and in Saudi Arabia, public hanging and the so-called iron fist of “religious police” have restricted the rights of women to the point of risking their own lives. Take the plight of the women in Saudi Arabia. One night, a fire emerged that started in an all-female boarding school. More than 200 young women fled the building wearing only their pajamas in order to flee the fire. When they reached safety, however, they were insulted and threatened by the religious police who demanded that they return to the building and put on the hejab. In the process of retrieving their hejab, 12 young women burned to their deaths. All for the sake of moral conformity and to avoid the brutal punishment that awaits them should they violate the moral laws, Saudi Arabia’s women suffered an unspeakable and avoidable death (Amnesty International).
It is time to open our eyes to the brutal realities that face women in Iran and other fundamentalist nations. It demands us to know more, to speak more, and to do more, in a world where human rights and justice are blatantly disregarded. In a world where there is no freedom to choose how to dress, in a world where women are stoned to death and publicly executed for moral crimes, and in a world where you are punished simply because you are a woman – this is a world that we must do more for change.
The oppression and violence against women in Iran must stop. Register your indignation to the misogynistic practices of the Iranian government by writing to the United Nations Secretary General, to the President of the United States, and to the Head of the European Union.
Participate in the on-line petitions to end stoning of women in Iran and to pressure Iran to amend its Constitution and ratify the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Join Amnesty International’s online appeals by visiting http://www.amnesty.org/en/appeals-for-action.
Stay informed. Visit the website of the Women’s Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran at http://www.wfafi.org/ and know how you can help the women in Iran.
In the end, when faced with the reality of unspeakable oppression, it is our moral and humanitarian responsibility to do something. Should you just stay and watch while women are bludgeoned to their deaths with stones? Should you just stay and watch while women sexually abused, mutilated, and thrown off a building simply for moral crimes? By doing nothing at all, are you not also allowing the Iranian government to oppress and violate their women?
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