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Empowering Women in Iran

Hon. David Kilgour
Panel discussion, Iran Coalition 2011*
777 UN Plaza
New York
3 March, 2011

The current winds of change in the Middle East for equality, freedom and democracy must be part of the dreams of every Iranian woman and girl. 

Neda Agha Soltan has become a symbol of Iran’s long history, culture and principled people. Her murder by regime militia on June 20, 2009 still haunts the world. This talk is dedicated to the memory of Neda and all other victims of Tehran misogyny. 

Another martyr is Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who was arrested in Tehran while photographing regime thugs beating up young protesters in 2003. She was found dead in a hospital a few days later, but the mullahs buried her and would not allow her body to be examined by the Canadian embassy. Dr. Shahram Azam, after obtaining asylum in Canada, later related what he and a nurse observed when Zahra was admitted to his hospital: a skull fracture, bruises everywhere, two broken fingers, missing fingernails, a smashed nose and evidence of both flogging and rape. 

I’ll focus on points made by Zohreh Arshadi, a lawyer in Iran until her forced exile in Europe. Little has changed since Arshadi described the institutionalized suppression of females in 2000. The Iranian penal system, she noted, is a principal means of sustaining inequality of genders. Its ludicrous premise is that women are deficient in abilities. ( 

Gender Apartheid 

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…Iranian women have the unenviable distinction of having a greater share of punishment.’’ 

Article 49 of Iran’s penal code exempts children before puberty from punishment. ‘’But'', she adds, '' in the civil law puberty for boys is 15 and for girls 9… (W)hen it comes to being punished, suddenly they are more mature and responsible for their actions. Less rights, more punishment. One can imagine a situation where a boy of 14 and a girl of 9 steal. According to the law, she would lose four fingers of her right hand for the first offence, her left foot for the second offence, prison for the third and execution for the fourth! He would go scot free.” 

Judicial processes 

Women face similar discrimination as witnesses. For adultery, if the category of it brings lashes upon conviction under the code, it “can be proven by the testimony of two just men and four just women (article 75)’’.  A woman is thus here worth half a man. 

The world knows Sakineh Ashtiani, a mother of Turkic descent (a minority known to be targeted for human-rights abuses, especially in Tehran) who did not speak Farsi or understand her charge of alleged adultery.  She was illegally incarcerated and beaten, then humiliated in front of her family by 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. 

How did Tehran respond to the international call for mercy here? It forced Mrs. Ashtiani to confess her “crimes” on television.  The case is the tip of a dangerous iceberg - the plight of thousands of women unjustly imprisoned, tortured and often sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. 

Other “crimes” --- and the list that follows is comprised entirely of acts that should not be crimes in any free and democratic society --- such as accusing someone of some adulterous or homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and opposition to the clerical regime, are only provable on the testimony of men. That of women, even if corroborated by men, is worthless. 


When Arshadi’s analysis was done, Iran’s newspapers were “full of accounts of wives, sisters, daughters and children murdered and its inevitable corollary: the killing of husbands. The family has become an institution of violence. The psychological effects of these laws, reflecting the constant degradation women face wherever they come face to face with officialdom, is profound. Perhaps the increasing suicide rates of women is a window to the despair.” 

Iran’s penal laws are contrary to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (not ratified by Iran), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Significantly they have also drawn protests from many Islamic legal experts – both Shi’ite and Sunni. 

At a time when most countries are banning the death penalty, the regime maintains punishments such as cutting off hands and feet, stoning to death, cutting off tongues and gouging out eyes. 

Punishing Belief 

Because gender equality is a central tenet to the Baha’i Faith, its adherents have faced continuous problems.  In a research study with former female prisoners, Donna Hakimian of the Women and Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto, concluded that “despite various accusations, it was the women’s adherence to Baha’i teachings which ultimately led to their persecution.” 

One of her interviewees reported that in 1980, “...every day they would proceed to execute seven to ten Baha’is” and that “there were many more Baha’is in prison.” Another said, “...the imprisoned women were accused of either sex work or drug and alcohol abuse.  This was a tactic deliberately used by the government to humiliate Baha’is.” 

Hakimian notes, however, “among Iranian women of all walks of life an incredible resilience and development, despite systemic and social oppression, is taking shape. From brave young women at university campuses, to women farmers in all regions of the country, to artists and musicians, there is a new identity being formed, and women are coming to the table to engage in a discussion about rights with exemplary fortitude and courage. It is this new consciousness around the importance of women's equality that will no doubt take ascendancy in the hearts and minds of the people in years to come.” 


Since Ahmadinejad took office as president in 2005, he has crushed dissent, imprisoned protesters, tortured prisoners and in recent months escalated the execution rate. In February 2010, Amnesty International released a paper ahead of a review of Iran by the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying “(The regime)...discriminates against women from top to bottom.  Women are absent in any of the senior, decision-making posts...” 


Irwin Cotler, a Canadian Member of Parliament, former law professor and chair of the International Responsibility to Protect Coalition, warned recently that Iran is on an “execution binge”, a “wholesale assault on the rights of its own people.”  In 2011 alone, the regime has 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”. 

International sanctions to have any effect must be enforced and internationalized. Russia and China, which initially supported the UN sanctions resolution, are instead increasing business with Iran. Brazil, Turkey, Germany, Austria and Switzerland have increased bilateral trade. 

We cannot engage in negotiations with Iran to suspend uraniun enrichment and combat the nuclear threat, but ignore all its other threats. This runs the risk of ignoring, marginalizing and sanitizing other threats dangerous to world peace. 

In the matter of Tehran’s incitement to genocide against Israelis, it is astonishing that not one state party to the Genocide convention of 1948 has to date initiated any of the mandated legal remedies under international law against Ahmadinejad. 


Let all of us here today: 

•        call for the creation of a special tribunal by the Security Council to deal with atrocities by Tehran officials.  This request has already been sent to all of the 192 member countries of the International Bar Association. 

•       recommend that the issue of women’s and girls’ rights in Iran be raised in every international forum by urging the U.N. to adopt a resolution in this regard. 

•       call for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to:

-       convene a special session to discuss women’s rights in Iran

-       send a special rapporteur, and

-       act in its capacity to stop the repression of women, 

•       call for the disqualification of Iran’s membership at the CSW. 

In short, the international community must acknowledge that there are countless other Nedas in Iran. It is our responsibility to stand in robust solidarity with the struggle for women’s rights everywhere across Iran. 

Thank you.


*Coalition Iran 2011: All Rights Reserved? includes following NGOs: Neda for a Free Iran, Truth and Justice, Human Rights for Iran, Cyber, Stop Child Executions, Human Chain Project, UNPO and Iran 180.




Arshadi, Z. (2000).  “Islamic Republic of Iran and Penal Code.” Iran Bulletin: Laws of Islamic Punishment.


Canadian House of Commons. (February 16, 2011).  Hansard #132 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. Debates.


Cheverton, S., (December 14, 2010). “Women’s Rights in Iran - Sign EDM.”

posted at:


Chitsaz, S., & Samsami, S. (1999). “Iranian Women and Girls – Victims of Exploitation and Violence.” published by: The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women    (February 1999).  Donna M. Hughes & Claire M. Roche, Editors.


Hakimian, D. (2009).  “Resistance, Resilience and the Role of Narrative: Lessons from the Experiences of Iranian Baha’i Women Prisoners.” ENQUIRE, Issue 3, June 2009.

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