Last week, the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council elected Iran to its Commission on the Status of Women. The commission defines itself as “the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.” Beginning next year, for four years, this entity will include one of the world’s most brutal violators of women’s rights.
The commission will have in its ranks a country where the testimony of a woman in a criminal trial is valued as half that of a man’s, and “the monetary compensation awarded to a female victim’s family upon her death is half that owed to the family of a male victim,” said Freedom House in its 2021 Freedom in the World report, noting that in Iran “women do not receive equal treatment under the law and face widespread discrimination in practice.”
While the United Nations Children’s Fund has declared “marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights,” the council has voted to include on the commission representatives of a government that has reduced the marriage age from 18 to 13, and younger with a judge’s approval. Human Rights Watch reported last year, “According to official statistics, between March 2017 and March 2018, the state registered 217 marriages of girls under age 10, 35,000 marriages of girls between 10 and 14.”
What makes this U.N. farce utterly tragic is its implications for feminist activists inside Iran. Courageous women who have risen up against these discriminatory laws and have subsequently been arrested and imprisoned cannot but feel forsaken by the international community.
The U.N. council has extended an invitation to a government more deserving of reprimand: Tehran lately has escalated its longstanding war against women. Last year, when the popularity of the #WhiteWednesdays campaign — a peaceful grass-roots movement against the mandatory veiling laws — had reached new highs, the authorities instituted “bad veiling” fines.
If female drivers appear without headscarves in their own cars, traffic cameras will record the incident, tickets will be issued and their vehicles impounded. If women riding Snapp, Iran’s equivalent of Uber, are found without their headscarves, the drivers will be ticketed. Most recently, if the same happens at a restaurant, the owner will be issued a fine. Thus, the regime is now systematically tying the women’s civil disobedience to the economic interests of ordinary people, turning citizen against citizen.
In lending legitimacy to a misogynist regime, sympathetic regimes in the United Nations do not shoulder all the blame. Western democracies have also played a part. To begin with, the U.N. council’s secret-ballot vote — 43 out of 54 members — had to include at least four votes in favor of Iran from among the 15 European Union and Western Group democracies, which include Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland the United Kingdom and the United States.
But European leaders in particular have long tended to play down Iran’s violations of women’s rights. They may proclaim themselves feminists at home, but when visiting Iran, they readily don the hijab, as if the most blatant symbol of gender inequality were just a breezy fashion statement. Thus is the historic struggle of Iranian women to gain the right to determine their own dress code reduced to a minor cultural squabble, and the hijab to far less than the symbol of oppression that it is for those upon whom it is imposed by law.
Time and time again, Europe has extended this kind of leniency toward Iran, undermining its own cultural principles, even on its own soil, as when Italy covered its nude statues when former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani visited in 2016. Only in rare moments have European leaders shown pluck and rejected Iran’s demands. Former French president François Hollande canceled a lunch reception in 2016 because Rouhani refused to attend if alcohol would be served. If only the significance of women’s plight would rise to the level of wine, the future of feminism in Iran could appear vastly brighter than it does today.
The United States, too, through its increasing disengagement from the United Nations during the previous administration, bears some responsibility for Iran’s membership in the commission. Iran’s former minister of women’s affairs, Mahnaz Afkhami, commenting on the U.N. council’s vote, told me, “The U.S.’s attitude and lack of support for the United Nations has weakened the reach of the institution to the degree that it makes the occurrence of such outrageous decisions easier.”
For years, friction between the West and Iran over nuclear matters has never tripped over into war. That is a blessing. But as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Iranian women will no doubt continue their fight for justice, but the United Nations has dealt a great blow to the valiant women engaged in that battle.
Roya Hakakian is co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the author, most recently, of “A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.”