As such, the committee’s decision has met with predictable backlash from human rights advocates and political groups with an interest in Iranian affairs. Among these are UN Watch, which declared that Iran’s appointment sends the “worst possible message” regarding the international body’s core commitments.
As UN Watch also pointed out, the committee’s move was announced just a day after it was reported that a renowned female human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, as sentenced to 33 years in prison on vaguely defined charges, in addition to the seven years she previously received for “insulting the supreme leader” and colluding with foreign states through her human rights work.
The Iranian regime routinely dismisses criticism of its human rights record, including its record on the rights of women, as instances of foreign imperialism, despite being a party to multiple documents that codify international standards in these areas. The work of Tehran’s own internal “human rights monitor” is dedicated almost entirely to disputing independent accounts of the regime’s abuses.
In view of this past behavior, it stands to reason that Iran will utilize its position on the Women’s Rights Committee to similar effect, either by opposing information that showcases the second-class status of Iranian women or by promoting its own backwards view of women’s rights on the international stage. This latter project has been a feature of Iranian propaganda, both at home and abroad, throughout the regime’s 40-year history but particularly in recent years.
Coinciding with the administration of so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani, the nation’s ultimate clerical authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has pushed for reinforcement of the status of women as wives and mothers, discouraging their entry into the workforce and their escalating push for equal rights.
Toward this end, the office of the supreme leader and other hardline institutions have reduced access to birth control, expanded the segregation of women and men in public places, empowered hardline militias to more aggressively confront women over perceived violations of the country’s mandatory veiling laws, and so on.
Meanwhile, state media and semi-independent purveyors of hardline propaganda have been hard at work controlling public imagery regarding women’s role in society. This trend was featured by IranWire last week, in a report marking International Women’s Day.
The article described billboards that have been erected by one media group, the Owj Organization, which is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Those public displays exclude women from images supposedly celebrating national unity, while actively promoting scenes of motherhood and no other female social roles.
This prompted one Iranian Twitter user to opine that by simply pretending that women do not exist outside of the home, Owj has undertaken a project that is even worse than “humiliation and insults.”
This is not to say that humiliation and insults have not also been elements of the regime’s counter-pressure against women’s liberation. Indeed, in recent months, there has been a veritable outpouring of viral videos depicting the nation’s morality police harassing, often violently, women whose manner of dress is deemed to be insufficiently compliant with the theocratic regime’s interpretation of Islamic law.
While such incidents constitute a longstanding phenomenon, the numbers of morality policy have been deliberately bolstered in recent years, and the latest upsurge in clashes presumably reflects their attempt to crack down on women’s rights protests in the wake of the movement called “Girls of Revolution Street.”
Referring to the location of the first protest in which a woman removed her white hijab publicly to hold it over her head like banner, the movement has grown to involve dozens of women since December 2017, many of whom have faced charges such as “encouraging immorality and prostitution.” It was for attempting to defend these protesters in court that Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested last year and subsequently sentenced to more than three decades in prison on the basis of seven politically-motivated charges.
Mohammad Moghimi, a fellow attorney who had represented Sotoudeh in other cases, identified the specific charges as: “assembly and collusion against national security;” “propaganda against the state;” “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the Legam group (Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty, and the National Peace Council);” “encouraging corruption and prostitution;” “appearing at the judiciary without Islamic hijab;” “disturbing public peace and order;” and “publishing falsehoods with the intent to disturb public opinion.”
The Iranian judiciary initially acknowledged only that seven years had been added to her pre-existing sentence, but a fuller accounting of her cases was provided via social media by Sotoudeh’s husband and fellow political prisoner Reza Khandan, among other advocates.
It remains unclear how much of the total 38 years she will be order to serve, however. Recent changes to Iran’s penal code call for prisoners to serve only the longest of multiple sentences when they are passed simultaneously.
As such, some reports indicate that Sotoudeh may effectively be sentenced to only 10 years, although this has hardly diminished criticism of the fact that she is being penalized solely for defending women’s rights and attempting to perform her work as an attorney.
An effective 10-year sentence would not be the worst to be passed against a woman associated with the Revolution Street protests. At least one of the public protesters has been condemned to 20 years’ imprisonment. Such reactionary sentencing arguably reflects a sense of panic within the Iranian regime regarding not only the upsurge in public advocacy for gender equality but also ongoing political and social rest in general.
Only one day after the first Revolution Street protest, the city of Mashhad became site to the first in what would become a string of mass demonstrations that generated explicit calls for regime change in more than 100 Iranian cities and towns.
The prosecution of Nasrin Sotoudeh is relevant to both the general and the specific crackdowns being undertaken by the regime. As well as being only one of dozens of women’s rights activists to be targeted over the past year, she is also one of at least seven human rights lawyers to be prosecuted during that same timeframe, according to the BBC.
The overall trends have been widely reported in international media, as have been the irregularities in the Sotoudeh case. As such, a number of governments and international organizations have issued nearly simultaneous condemnations of both phenomena.
For instance, the US State Department condemned the sentencing of Ms. Sotoudeh “ in the strongest possible terms,” calling it “beyond barbaric” on the same day that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented the Department’s annual human rights report and gave special emphasis to Iran’s arbitrary executions, attacks on peaceful protesters, and a 40-year “pattern of cruelty.”
On Thursday, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights issued a statement expressing “shock” at the length of Sotoudeh’s sentence and calling attention to the denial of due process through such practices as barring the defendant from selecting any counsel other than those lawyers who had been pre-approved and listed by the judiciary.
The commission joined a previous statement by European Union External Action in urging the Iranian government to immediately free both Sotoudeh and her husband, pending a review of their cases.
Days earlier, the UNHRC also issued a statement highlighting the general findings in the first report by Javaid Rehman, the current special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The statement began by saying: “Worrying patterns of intimidation, arrest, prosecution, and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, lawyers, and labour rights activists in Iran signal an increasingly severe State response to protests and strikes in the country.”
Although the general statements by the UN and the US State Department did not give special emphasis to women’s rights issues, these have been a common feature of criticisms levied against the Islamic Republic for many years. Furthermore, the relationship between those general statements and the Sotoudeh case should leave no question about the persistent nature of the regime’s negative record on women’s rights.
Even the general complaints about Iran’s crackdown on dissent might be considered sufficient to disqualify the regime’s delegates from commenting, via the UN Women’s Rights Committee, on some of the issues that were identified by UN Watch as being within the committee’s purview. Among these are “deaths and torture of women in custody,” “forced disappearances or abductions of women,” “threats or pressure exerted on women not to complain or to withdraw complaints,” and “violation of the rights of women human rights defenders to freedom of expression and assembly.”
Other designated areas of concern, like gender stereotyping, domestic violence, virginity testing, and legal discrimination call for a more targeted assessment of Iran’s record in order to judge the validity of its inclusion on the committee’s working group.
Iranian officials may try to dispute these assessments, for instance by highlighting the high level of education among women in the Islamic Republic. But as IranWire pointed out in another article published on International Women’s Day, these features of Iranian society exist in spite of the regime’s official attitudes on gender and sexuality, not because of them.
According to the article, institutionalized discrimination and legal incongruities, combined with the regime’s push for wider recognition of a confined female social role “challenge future prospects for Iranian women, positioning them as the country’s most vulnerable population.”