By Edward Carney
On Monday, the Associated Press reported upon new developments related to Iran’s longstanding and globally condemned ban on female attendance at male sporting events. The report noted that FIFA, the international soccer body, received advice on the issue from its Human Rights Advisory Board, whose mandate has just been extended through 2020.
The board urged FIFA to set explicit deadlines for Iranian compliance with the prohibition on gender discrimination. In the past, FIFA and other international sports organizations have come under fire for opposing Iran’s institutionalized discrimination in word but not in deed. But if FIFA now follows the advice of its human rights experts, it will define specific sanctions that the Islamic Republic would experience if it continued to bar women from stadiums.
The controversy over this ban has been variously highlighted in international media over the past several years, especially at times when women’s rights activists were detained and threatened with long prison terms for openly attempting to gain admission to major sporting events. Similar social and legal consequences have faced certain female sports fans who were caught entering stadiums while disguised as men.
The Iranian regime justifies the ban, alongside various other instances of gender segregation, with the assertion that male crowds and an environment of high excitement undermine women’s safety. But this claim is undermined simultaneously by reports of women safely infiltrating sporting events and by the fact that many of Iran’s other laws are detrimental to women’s safety.
This fact is perhaps especially obvious in the domain of the Iranian household, where women are recognizably afforded fewer rights than their male relatives and husbands. Iran Human Rights Monitor highlighted some of the relevant laws and pointed out that the most reliable data indicates that Iran has approximately twice as many instances of violence against women, per capita, than the global average. Even according to information from the Iranian regime’s own experts, about two thirds of all Iranian women have experienced some form of violence at the hands of men in their lifetime.
On Friday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran highlighted the same statistic and added that some academic studies indicate that the rate of domestic violence may be even higher, partly because of the likelihood of underreporting in a society that does not take reports of such violence seriously, puts pressure on women to remain silent, and gives lesser weight to women’s testimony than to men’s in a court of law. Additionally, IHRM states that regardless of the exact figures relating to domestic violence, they are not sufficient on their own to demonstrate “the reality of women’s life in Iran.”
Both CHRI and IHRM issued reports on women’s rights issues to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Both quoted statements that urged the international community to use Sunday’s occasion to increase pressure on the Iranian government to halt institutionalized discrimination and implement safeguards on the rights of women. Both organizations also underscored that international pressure is necessary in this case, because the Iranian regime has repeatedly demonstrated its indifference to longstanding criticisms of women’s treatment in Iranian society and under Iranian law.
This indifference has been presented with particular clarity over the past eight years in the form of the government’s refusal to move toward the adoption of legislation that is expressly intended to protect women against violence. CHRI points out that the process for drafting the bill was begun more than seven years ago, though a draft was only presented to the judiciary in 2017. Afterward, it quickly encountered a series of obstacles.
In the first place, the judiciary gutted the bill by removing 40 of its original 91 articles. Then the judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani made the unusual decision to send the diluted bill to Qom, the capital of Iran’s Islamic jurisprudence, for further review. As well as not being part of the ordinary process for legislation’s passage, this move was largely redundant because the law already requires that all bills be reviewed by the Guardian Council to assure that they are in keeping with the regime’s interpretation of Islamic law, as well as the will of the supreme leader.
The added hurdle for the Bill for the Protection of Women against Violence is arguably indicative of an expanded effort to preserve hardline ideology in Iranian government and society, including hardline attitudes about the roles and rights of women. Human rights experts and critics of the Iranian regime have pointed to various instances of stepped-up enforcement of discriminatory laws. These include stricter penalties for attempted violations of the stadium ban, aggressive enforcement of the country’s forced veiling laws, and broader applications of gender segregation laws, which have in some cases been extended to young girls and boys as well as sexually mature men and women.
What’s more, the order for review in Qom may be only the first new obstacle in the way of the domestic violence bill or other seemingly reformist legislation. On Monday, Al-Monitor reported that “Iran’s institutional politics is about to become more complex.” And the complexity in question appears designed to serve the interests of unelected hardline institutions, at the expense of the Iranian parliament.
The report indicated that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has begun exerting still greater influence over the legislative process by using a body within the Expediency Council, called the Supreme Group of Supervision, to act as his proxy. The Expediency Council itself is ordinarily not involved in the passage or obstruction of new legislation unless it is called upon to resolve intractable disagreements between the parliament and the Guardian Council. But through the Supreme Group of Supervision, the clerical body has been able to act as a de facto senate, effectively giving conservative institutions a two-to-one advantage over the comparatively moderate legislature.
Al-Monitor quotes Iranian officials as saying that the declared purpose of the Council’s imposition is to make sure that individual instances of legislation are in line not only with Islamic jurisprudence but also with the “macro policies” being pursued by the regime. And in current conditions, it is clear that those “macro policies” trend toward the enforcement of hardline social attitudes and political positions.
The implication is clear for the rights of women, who have recently faced judicial defeats in the wake of challenges to regime authorities over the violent enforcement of the Islamic dress code. Not only is the regime cracking down on open defiance of forced veiling and other discriminatory government practices, but it is also cracking down on the mere public defense of women’s rights positions by government officials.
On Sunday, at the same time that human rights organizations were urging the elimination of violence against women in Iran and throughout the world, the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was accepting the forced resignation of one of its only female officials. Shahindokht Molaverdi had previously served as vice president of women’s affairs, and according to IranWire, she proved to be comparatively outspoken about her opposition to the status quo on forced veiling, the expanded presence of morality police, the requirement for women to receive permission for traveling abroad, and so on.
This naturally made her a target for hardliners. And while IranWire acknowledges that Molaverdi’s public statements had no concrete impact and that she was shunted into a purely ceremonial position for Rouhani’s second term, the report nonetheless characterizes the forced resignation as a heavy blow to prospects for reform and women’s rights, and further evidence “that Rouhani’s administration is unwilling or unable to introduce any real change in the way the government operates.”