By: Fern Sidman
Graphic depictions of the most egregious forms of human rights abuses against women in Iran took center stage at a special seminar in New York City on March 3rd. Sponsored by “Iran180,” an organization dedicated to spotlighting the litany of human rights abuses that take place on a daily basis in Iran, the seminar was entitled, “Securing Gender Equality: Iran and the CSW.” Held at 777 UN Plaza, a building directly across the street from the United Nations, the objectives of the gathering included raising awareness of Iran’s violations of women’s rights and the staging of symbolic protests against the welcoming of the Islamic Republic of Iran as the newest member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women at its 56th session.
Among the speakers were the Honorable David Kilgour, J.D., co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran – Shabnam Assadollaki, host and producer of Hamseda Persian Radio in Canada – Fakhteh Luna Zamani, CEO and co-founder of the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran – Renee Redman of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center – Reza Khalil, former Iranian Revolutionary Guard member and author of “A Time To Betray,” winner of the 2010 National Best Books Award – Fariba Davoodi, a formerly imprisoned Iranian women’s rights activist and Mertash Rastegar, an Iranian blogger and international law expert.
Quoting the findings of exiled Iranian lawyer, Zohreh Arshadi, Mr. David Kilgour, co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran intoned, “The Iranian penal system is a principal means of sustaining inequality of genders. Its ludicrous premise is that women are deficient in abilities.” He added that Arshadi stresses that Iranian women, “Have managed to achieve equality in one field only: equal right to imprisonment, exile, torture, being killed and now being slaughtered…”
Speaking of the many Iranian women who are unjustly imprisoned, tortured and often sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit, Mr. Kilgour relayed the narrative of Sakineh Ashtiani, a mother of Turkic descent (a minority known to be targeted for human rights abuses, especially in Teheran) who did not speak Farsi or understand her charge of alleged adultery. “She was incarcerated and beaten, then humiliated in front of her family by a public lashing. Her plight and narrow escape from death by stoning became a successful test case for the global community’s response to the regime’s misogyny,” he said.
Mr. Kilgour also spoke of Irwin Cotler, a Canadian member of parliament and chair of the International Responsibility to Protect Coalition who recently warned that Iran is on an “execution binge,” while engaging in a “wholesale assault on the rights of its own people.” He added that, “In 2011 alone, the Iranian regime has already executed at least 120 people. It now leads the world in per capita executions, many of which are in secret, taking place after arrests, detentions, beatings, torture, kidnappings, disappearances and brief trials in which no evidence is presented.”
Calling for the disqualification of Iran’s membership in the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Mr. Kilgour suggested that the CSW convene a special session to discuss women’s rights in Iran and act in its capacity to stop the repression of women. “It is our responsibility to act in robust solidarity with the struggle for women’s rights everywhere across Iran,” he concluded.
Addressing the issues facing ethnic minority women in Iran, Fakhteh Zamani of the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran (ADAPP) said, “In Iran, as throughout the world, women are victims of violence on a daily basis, but Iran’s justice system provides little or no remedy to the obstacles and violence facing women and girls.” She noted that women are not encouraged to bring complaints against their attackers for fear of bringing, “dishonor” on the family as well as reprisals from the attacker and relatives.
Quoting the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms. Zamani said, “discriminatory law in both the civil and penal codes in Iran play a major role in empowering men and aggravating women’s vulnerability to violence. In particular, discriminatory provisions in the civil code relating to the areas of marriage, child custody, freedom of movement and inheritance, may lead to, perpetuate or legitimize violence against women perpetrated by private actors.”
Highlighting the ubiquitous phenomenon of trafficking in girls and women, Ms. Zamani said that the UN Special Rapporteur reported that, “most of the trafficking is said to occur in the eastern provinces, which are mainly Baluchi areas, where women are kidnapped, bought or entered into temporary marriage in order to be sold into sexual slavery in other countries.” Concluding with an oft quoted phrase used amongst Iran’s women’s human rights defenders, she said, “We are both women and minorities; so, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, we are doubly accused.”
“I am absolutely opposed to the imposition of Sharia law,” declared Shabnam Assadollahi, the producer and host of the Canadian based Hamseda Persian radio program. “Sharia law tells us that female hair has evil energy and those women’s rights activists in Iran who refused to wear head coverings were beaten and tortured while their children watched,” she said. She detailed gruesome accounts of torture of women in Iran saying, “Young girls and virgins were raped prior to being executed and after execution their bodies were burned and electrocuted.”
Fulminating at the decision to include the Islamic Republic of Iran on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Ms. Assadollahi said, “There is no place for Iran on this commission. Just think about the arrogance of this regime to judge others concerning gender equality and human rights.”
Speaking in her native Farsi with an interpreter, Fariba Davoodi, an Iranian women’s rights activist told of her incarceration in Iran and the barbaric tortures that were inflicted upon her by her captors. “It is the common aspiration of all Iranian women to be free,” she said. “When the regime came to arrest me for my activism on behalf of women’s rights, they beat me up in front of my children and brought me to their notorious prison where I was kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell where I was interrogated for long periods of time; where they kept the lights on all the time and forced me to shower in front of them.”
“The fear that women’s rights advocates in Iran have is not only from the repressive government but from male family members including husbands, fathers and brothers,” she said. Trying to remain optimistic about the future of Iran as it pertains to women’s rights is a daunting challenge for women such as Ms. Davoodi. “We hope that very soon we will live in a free and democratic Iran, but so long as the regime stays in power, our hopes will not be realized,” she said.