Category Archives: Iran

UN Women and Iran

I don’t mean to differ too starkly from my usual diatribe, but the hoopla about Iran joining the board of the newly formed UN Women, and comparing its track record to that of Saudi Arabia on women’s issues, is really misplaced.

Through my research, and personal experience, I’ve had to make note of the fact that women fare far better under the patriarchal control of Iranian laws than they do in Arab countries under the control of authorities that impose a tribal version of traditional Islam that, simply and unequivocally, dis-serves women.

Tehran - Summer 2010

Not to say that Tehran looks like Paris, but neither does it feel like Riyadh. To begin with, we in the West seem to believe we corner the ideological high ground on women. To be sure, we do intellectually. That is not to say that women everywhere are not as bright as those in the West, but that as women of the west we spearheaded (at least 1.5 generations ago) the movement toward empowering women intellectually, legally, culturally and constitutionally. As a result, women in the west began seeking college educations, entering the workforce, and succeeding in a manner that gave them credibility and by extension, the ability to speak out. It is by virtue of women’s achievements in the Western world that so many aid groups have cropped up in the Western hemisphere to help countless women in the East. I would list them, but there are too many to list. A “google” search will yield hundreds of pages with organizations large and small. Each is dedicated to the empowerment of women – from the ones with a global reach to the smallest grass roots movements that focus-in on intimate groups of women and lift them by sheer will and financing cobbled together by — well, women.

But the intellectual empowerment that led to financial strength, which enabled women to begin to spread the word does not equally apply to sexual empowerment. Western women are credible because they are educated and wealthy, by a global standard. The combination garners due respect around the world. But their sexual emancipation does not garner the same respect, nor does it lend us any credibility around the world. It is here that I scoff at the collective western cry against the inclusion of a country like Iran on the board of UN Women. Iran has proven not to be against the intellectual empowerment of women.

Saudi studentIran is not Saudi. To begin with, Iran was not a Muslim society. Islam was brought to Iran (Persia at the time) by the Arab conquests of 633-651AD, and foisted upon its people. Persians will pledge that Islam never really took root of their soul and that to this day, they separate themselves from its strictest scriptures. In fact, women in Iran have the undeniable right to drive, go to school and on to universities where they now comprise statistically more than 50% of the nation’s students, vote, inherit (although at half the rate of men if intestate), divorce, re-marry, work outside the home and even roam the streets without a burka or chador. Yes, they do have to cover their hair and can’t wear revealing clothes. But Iranian women constantly test those perimeters and live to tell about it.

Iranian women in protest in Tehran

 

To the Muslim eye, the “freedom” in the West that is defined by the freedom of thought is applaudible, but the freedom of sexual expression is frowned upon. Ask a Muslim and they will tell you that they treat their women better. I can’t agree. But I comprehend what they are trying to convey. They believe that the instinct to protect women from the male predator is a respectful thing, but that the forward impulse by western women to be with multiple men is a disrespect to the female entity. In Islam, the chastity of the woman is equivalent to the honor of the family, and by broader definition, society. For this reason, a raped woman is an embarrassment to her family. But again, by statistic, fewer raped women are shunned by their communities in Iran than in most of its Arab neighbors. I remember Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani and her stoning sentence.  (see post at http://womenfound.org/2010/07/09/honor-stoning-stomach-turning/). That sort of state action cannot be condoned or qualified in any way. But  in relation to the area, Muslim Middle East, Iran is a sanctuary for women, dare I say it. Not that I propose Iran is an oasis of freedom and equality, but for every horrific tale of discrimination that comes out of Iran, there are plenty of instances of triumph for women. Today women in Iran occupy positions as scientists, lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, movie-makers, members of parliament, teachers and professors, as well as mothers, wives and daughters. The older they get, the higher they are held in regard as the matriarch of the family, and the ones with the greatest decision making power in the household. This is true of families who are poor with multiple children, to the more modern families who are educated and have fewer children. Across the board, the girls are expected to be as smart as the boys and if the resources exist, they are to study as hard as the boys and achieve as well as they do. The difference is that as a traditional society, the women are expected to marry earlier and bear children after marriage. ‘Stay-at-home Dads’ are still a non-starter. But that is a cultural referendum, not a legal one.

Iranian women in Iran

 

Saudi is a different matter. It is the only country in the world where women cannot drive, nor can they vote. They are rarely seen in the public sphere and when they do venture out, they must be accompanied by a male relative. They do not comprise a surprisingly large percentage of the university population in the country, nor can they be elected to public office. They are subservient to their men in far greater numbers than in Iran, particularly in the villages outlying the cities; and stoning as a form of punishment for immoral digressions are far more frequent. Even within the cities, abuse and beatings within the family nucleus are appallingly widespread and tragically tolerated by authorities and communities alike. Children are married off at an early age, and not much is expected of them other than reproduction.

Women on the streets in Saudi Arabia

 

So if there is protest against Saudi having a say in the global empowerment of women, perhaps it is well-placed. But in fairness, Iran is a respite for women in Muslim Middle East and certainly cannot be compared to Saudi Arabia – no matter how much we may prefer King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to President Ahmadinejad. To the extent that UN Women; “The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women” is looking to empower women, not sexually – but intellectually, emotionally, culturally and financially, they will be enriched by the participation of Iranian women who have succeeded in navigating a decidedly up-hill thoroughfare obstructed by a patriarchal system that could have impeded their progress, but ultimately didn’t. 

 

young Iranian women demanding equality

 

For perspective see also:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2010/10/iran-saudi-arabia-women-united-nations.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/03/world/03nations.html

http://www.frumforum.com/iran-saudis-poised-to-join-un-human-rights-body\

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_women_in_Iranian_parliament

http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2008/0305_education_salehi_isfahani.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia

http://www.ideationcenter.com/home/ideation_article/47143812

http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=182

http://payvand.com/news/09/aug/1264.html

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Honor Stoning… stomach turning

Today, Iran, a country that racked up 388 executions last year nearly leading the world as state executioner – second only to China – suddenly announced that it would commute the impending stoning to death of a 43 year old woman accused of adultery. 

Sakineh Mohamad Ashtiani

Sakineh Mohamad Ashtiani has already served 5 years in prison and endured 99 lashes of a whip for her “crime”, which was proven in a court comprised of Shiite Muslim male judges who based their decision on “judges knowledge” versus established fact. 

Ashtiani is not alone. There are at least a dozen other women in Iran who are under a legal death threat by stoning, according to Mina Ahadi, a human rights activist in Germany who helped Ashtiani’s children launch an international campaign opposing their mother’s stoning. It was that campaign and the pressure it leveled against the Iranian government and its image around the world, that many believe stopped the imminent inhumane punishment. 

I have always urged in this blog that as civilized people in lawful communities, we practice the collaborative howl and cry that rages against injustice around the world. Today, as I contemplated arguing that it is our duty as civilized people to demand that stoning be banned worldwide, not as policy interventionism but as part and parcel of human rights, I tuned into the BBC which was having a discussion on Ashtiani’s stoning. To my surprise, there was a guest, an Iranian woman named Leila, who was arguing that adultery is a crime worthy of punishment. Hu?? She must have been the speech writer who inspired Ahmadinejad’s declaration at Columbia University in 2007 that “there are no homosexuals in Iran”. 

In the meantime, it remains an open question whether Ashtiani actually committed adultery. According to aid groups, she was forced into prostitution by a husband who could not provide for the family. Her children: son Sajad, 22, and daughter Farideh, 17, have said that their mother had been unjustly accused and punished for something she did not do. Ashtiani herself recently recanted a confession she had made at the time of her charging, claiming it was made under the duress of Iranian style interrogation. 

Adultery, may we open our eyes, exists. It’s not particularly Western or Eastern. It knows no race, religion or nationality. It is an act combined with emotion attributable to the human condition, and although it can not be said that all people do it, it can be surmised that many across this globe do. If it were to be punishable by death, we would likely be looking at a globe with a 50% population reduction. Clearly, I jest but you get the idea. 

eyes behind Muslim veil

All this comes against a backdrop of France debating a law that would fine veiled women and subject their, presumably Muslim, husbands to incarceration for forcing their wives to wear the veil. The issue points to the ownership control wielded by men over women in traditional Muslim societies. In Ashtiani’s case she was forced into prostitution. In many other cases male control encompasses a wide range of directives on life style and conduct that is dictated from the top down.

Male control is hinged on the “patriarchal gender system” that prevails in wide swaths of the Muslim world from East Asia to North Africa. The system, regardless of religion, features kin-based extended families, male domination, early marriage (and consequent high fertility), restrictive codes of female behavior, the linkage of family honor with female virtue, and occasionally, polygamous family structure, according to a Library of Congress study entitled: Women in Muslim Societies. http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/Women_Islamic_Societies.pdf . 

The linkage of “family honor” with female virtue is the sticking point. That is the kernel that breeds the rest of the inequitable, often non-sensical and abusive control wielded by uneducated and uninspired men over their women. The veil and the segregation of the genders in every aspect of public life form part of that “gender system”. 

Amnesty International defines “Honor” or “women killings” as killings that are carried out by men based on the deeply rooted belief that women are objects and commodities, not human beings endowed with dignity and rights equal to those of men. “Women are considered the property of male relatives and are seen to embody the honor of the men to whom they ‘belong’.” 

Women’s bodies are considered the repositories of family honor. “Honor” killings occur because women are viewed as harboring the responsibility of upholding a family’s honor. If a woman or girl is accused of, or more commonly suspected of, engaging in behavior that could taint male and/or family status, she may face brutal retaliation from her relatives that often results in violent death. Even though such accusations are not based on factual or tangible evidence, any allegation of dishonor against a woman often suffices for family members to take matters into their own hands. http://www.amnestyusa.org . 

Tragically, women in these restrictive  societies can die for conduct that hardly rises to the level of criminal. Among the offenses women have been murdered for in the name of “honor” are: talking with an unrelated male, consensual sexual relations outside marriage, being a victim of rape, seeking a divorce, or refusing to marry the man chosen by one’s family.

Last year the LA times ran a series of stories on life in Iraq. Honor killings remain one of the most thorny issues for post-invasion Iraq’s women. Women have been documented to have been knifed, hanged or shot to death in front of their young children, for alleged conduct that was supposed to have compromised the honor of the men in the family. In the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian who’s plight has made it into the main-stream western media, it was her grown children who ultimately succeeded in making her case appealing to the world’s conscience. Thousands of other women are murdered violently in front of their children, who traumatized, turn their untreated grief into psychosis and continue to perpetuate cruelty for yet more generations ahead. 

 http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/23/world/fg-iraq-woman23 

In an increasingly public globe, threaded together by the world-wide web and an insatiable media, public pressure and a global outcry against state murder, crouched behind honor can make a difference. It did in Iran today. And in India New Delhi announced on this very same day that it would take “a tough stance against the increasing number of honor killings in the country”. It has established a Group of Ministers to seek advice from the state governments regarding changes that could be made to the Indian penal code and other central provisions to end honor killings. “The main aim of the law would be to bring such killings under the ambit of law of land,” according to one minister. 

Women News Network image

Read more: http://www.allheadlinenews.com/articles/7019226435?Indian%20Government%20Gets%20Tough%20On%20Honor%20Killings#ixzz0t8bbrwFL
 

Pakistan (http://www.gendercide.org/case_honour.html) and turkey (http://www.jihadwatch.org/2010/02/girl-buried-alive-in-honor-killing-in-turkey.html) seem to endure the largest number of honor killings. While stoning may not be the method of choice, the killing of women for their “actual or perceived immoral behavior” (Yasmeen Hassan, “The Fate of Pakistani Women,” International Herald Tribune, May 25, 1999) is unconscionable and should be flatly and unequivocally rejected by the people who share this earth. 

It’s not tradition, or culture, it’s just wrong. Say it. Believe it. Demand it.

50 Years of the Pill… hundreds of years of everything else…

So, as it turns out, a Senator from Nigeria’s parliament wed a thirteen year old Egyptian girl a few weeks ago (see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8649035.stm). Tehran’s police chief declared today that women with suntans run the risk of being arrested (see: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/04/28/women-suntans-arrested-iran-police-chief-warns/). This week more than 80 Afghan girls were poisoned by gas at their schools (see: http://law.rightpundits.com/?p=1509), an attack apparently undertaken by those who would propose women be banned from education.

Nice…

Here at home the famous birth control pill celebrates its 50th year in the mainstream of female reproductive health (see: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1983712,00.html). “The pill”gave western women the freedom to decide their own destiny and today an estimated 80 million women take the birth control pill worldwide (See: http://www.womensenews.org/story/health/030218/birth-control-pill-may-protect-ovarian-cancer). Not only do women take the pill to prevent unwanted pregnancies, they take it to regulate an array of functions associated with the complex system that keeps women’s bodies running regularly. Miracle drug, if there ever was one. One little pill can solve so many ills.

But then, behold the rest of the world. Women in developing countries like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Angola and beyond still lack access to medical clinics that offer exams and prescriptions for the pill. Many women in sub-saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East still preside over families that are too big to support on the meager earnings of hardly educated parents who struggle just to stay alive from day to day.

So why would a family ship their 13-year-old to another country to marry a man decades older? Perhaps because they have too many children – too many mouths to feed. Marrying off their daughters as best they can is a way for these families, emboldened by custom, to get rid of their kids and stop having to feed or look after them. Nevermind that their daughter may be unrecognizably bruised and battered inside and out by the time she’s 30.

 Around that same age, a woman in the Western world may just be emerging from graduate school and eyeballing her future with excitement –  that is if she hasn’t been date raped while in college. Even so, she was probably on the pill and doesn’t run the risk of being pregnant thereby slapping a lid on her dreams. Most women in their 30’s are just beginning to realize what they can achieve and what opportunities lie ahead – whether by virtue of marriage and a controlled family; or by virtue of a career and financial success. A woman’s 30’s, in the West, are her gateway to the prosperity that life holds. In the East, they may be the gate closing in on the twilight of hope.

 I remember 30. I lived in NYC and was in my first year of law school. I could barely contain my glee at the prospects of ‘tomorrow’. I took a daily jog along the banks of the Hudson and remember every morning thinking how excited I was to tackle the day – and the rest of my life. I could see only success ahead of me. I was wrong. But nothing stopped me other than my own decisions. Not tradition. Not an old guy in another city waiting to take my dreams away. Not a brother and sister who needed me to work and feed them instead of go to school. Nothing but my own bad decisions.

 Today I look at the plight of women around the world and can’t help but wonder about the random allocation of fortune versus misfortune. Women in the East are born into their destiny, it seems, and no little pill can pierce that. As often as I meet women from Africa and the Middle East who are emancipated, educated and successful in their own right, I read stories of women and girls who are mired in a tradition that dis-serves them. I wonder what makes the difference between an Eastern family that sends their kids to school in the West and expects no less of their daughters than their sons, and the families that keep their daughters locked at home and married off before they can identify where their own lives begin and their parents’ lives end. Education is one key, no doubt. But the other is mere birth control. Having no method to control the number of children these families have necessarily endangers the families’ well-being. Having more children than money to feed them makes families have to make horrific choices, that to people who don’t face those stark circumstances, may seem extreme.

 That said, I don’t think a family that has access to a member of parliament from another country was making a financial choice. They were likely making a social decision to “marry up” using their young daughter as currency. She just paid for her parents’ enhanced social status with her precious life. This kind of conduct should be globally condemned. But that is, again, where tradition comes in. This is how it’s been done for generations, and to change Tradition takes generations of education, years of protest and a global howl against child exploitation in all its forms. In the meantime, something as simple as the birth control pill could get shipped off to far-away lands where women and girls need all the miracles they can get.