Gender Discrimination and Human Rights in Iran

Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s clerical rulers have been preoccupied with setting limits on the rights and role of women and have taken many initiatives to impose gender discrimination under the rubric of applying Islamic law. Laws have been enacted sharply restricting women’s educational and professional opportunities, reinforcing male control over women in the family, imposing gender segregation in many arenas such as sports activities, requiring all women to wear dark and concealing uniforms, and adding discriminatory features to the criminal code. However, Iranian women have fought to roll back such discriminatory laws and have managed to pressure the government to make some concessions to their demands for enhanced rights and opportunities.

Since these policies could have been expected to remain constant if they had been dictated by settled cultural norms, the frequent alterations in the policies on women demonstrated how the regime’s treatment of women reflected political shifts. There have been certain initiatives to impose gender segregation or discrimination that were followed by readjustments, such as the abrogation of the pre-Revolutionary Family Protection Act, only to allow subsequently certain modest reforms enhancing women’s rights in personal status. Similarly laws removed women from all roles in legal practice and judiciary, only to allow them back later in various capacities. The level of gender discrimination enforced could also vary with the locale. In the holy city of Qom, where restrictions and repression are high, the government’s own statistics has shown a much higher rate of depression among young women than has been found in the more liberal environment of the capital.

Although Iran has engaged for over two decades in systematic and often egregious discrimination against women, it has never been as vigorously condemned by the international community as the Taliban have been. International law is currently inequitable in failing to criminalize systematic gender discrimination where this closely resembles racial apartheid in its scope and impact. The attitude of the international community needs to change on this score. Although gender apartheid and racial apartheid are not perfectly congruent, they are close cousins. In the discriminatory treatment of women in Iran, and in most other Middle Eastern countries, one finds inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one group (men) over another group of persons (women).

Ann Elizabeth Mayer
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