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December 01, 2023 Feature

Women’s Rights Under Siege Around the Globe

Hon. Delissa Ridgway

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author. They have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities.

A little more than a year ago, on September 16, 2022, Mahsa “Jina” Amini—a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman—died of severe head injuries at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s “morality police.” At the time, she was being held on charges that she was not properly wearing her hijab. Amini’s death sparked a massive, ongoing, nationwide, women- and youth-led uprising that now threatens the very foundations of the ruling theocracy in Iran.

In the months since Amini died, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to protest in all 31 provinces across the country. In an effort to put down the uprising, Iranian forces targeted unarmed protesters with gratuitous, barbaric violence, often using lethal force.

The protesters have demonstrated extraordinary endurance and resilience, despite the staggering human toll that the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) forces have exacted. Hundreds have been killed in the protests, including dozens of children as young as seven years old. Untold thousands more have suffered grievous injuries. Beyond this horrific violence, the IRI has acknowledged that tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have been arrested and imprisoned. Charges range all the way up to vague, amorphous offenses such as moharebeh (“waging war against God”) and efsad-fil-arz (“corruption on earth”), which carry the death penalty.

Trials are sham affairs, often lasting mere minutes. No observers are permitted. Due process is ignored. In some cases, the only evidence is an alleged “confession,” extracted by torture. Trial outcomes are generally a foregone conclusion. Punishment is draconian—often, many years of imprisonment in the most primitive, crowded conditions and lashes. Or worse.

Some prisoners already have been executed to intimidate the protesters and muzzle them into submission. But the protesters have refused to be silenced. Instead, they have redoubled their commitment. And, now, the hijab is just a symbol of the protesters’ greater goals—democracy, freedom, justice, and the rule of law—regime change.

The tens of thousands of Iranians who have been arrested and imprisoned in conjunction with the uprising include more than 70 lawyers, who are being arrested and prosecuted by the regime for their role in counseling and representing the protesters. In other words, the lawyers are being imprisoned just for doing their job. And, in late June 2023, the Iranian Parliament launched an “investigation” into the Iranian Bar Association, in the authorities’ latest bid targeting lawyers solely on the basis of what they do. On January 24, 2024, the international community will mark the annual International Day of the Endangered Lawyer. The official report and the activities of that day will highlight the plight of Iranian lawyers, whose many contributions and sacrifices are a reflection of the very best of the legal profession.

Over time, both the protesters’ and the IRI’s tactics have evolved. Demonstration-type protests continue, but they are no longer the protesters’ principal means of rebelling. Instead, women and girls have increasingly chosen simply to go about their daily lives unveiled—openly defying the mandatory hijab law—in widespread acts of peaceful civil disobedience.

The IRI authorities and the “morality police” have responded with violent beatings and arrests of unveiled women, and women who are unveiled are denied access to a wide range of public services and facilities, such as schooling, health care, and public transportation. On October 1, 2023, 16-year-old Armita Geravand, who was not wearing a hijab, was accosted by the “morality police” as she sought to board the subway on her way to school. Mere seconds later, Geravand was lying on the subway platform with severe head trauma. IRI authorities swept her away to a military hospital, in a coma, where she lingered under heavy guard, clinging to life. She later succumbed to her injuries on October 28.

Moreover, the IRI is forcing others to police compliance with the mandatory hijab law. Anyone who does not enforce the law—such as a shopkeeper who chooses to simply look the other way rather than insist that a woman don a hijab—is also subject to arrest. Surveillance is being deployed everywhere to make it easier to identify women and others who refuse to comply. And legislation adopted by Iran’s Parliament on September 20, 2023, provides for harsh fines and prison terms of up to 10 years for women who refuse to wear a hijab, stiff new penalties for celebrities and others who refuse to obey the law, and the use of artificial intelligence to identify women who are in breach of the dress code.

The regime’s actions constitute blatant violations of basic tenets of international law. In January 2023, then American Bar Association (ABA) President Deborah Enix-Ross issued a presidential statement condemning the IRI’s brutal acts of repression and urging the IRI to honor its international obligations. ABA President Mary Smith reiterated that message in mid-September 2023, on the one-year anniversary of Amini’s death. The IRI has paid no heed to such calls.

The United Nations (UN) has weighed in as well. On November 24, 2022, the UN Human Rights Council convened a rare special session devoted to “the deteriorating human rights situation” in Iran. There, the Council established a three-member fact-finding mission to “thoroughly and independently investigate alleged human rights violations . . . related to the protests that began on 16 September 2022, especially with respect to women and children.” Several weeks later, on December 14, Iran was expelled from the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Now there is a move afoot in the international community to have “gender apartheid” recognized as a crime against humanity. As in Afghanistan, women in Iran are subject to systemic oppression. Mandatory hijab is just the most visible manifestation of women’s subjugation. For example, Iranian women are not permitted to divorce their husbands nor may they gain custody of their children. A woman may not obtain a passport or travel abroad without her male guardian’s permission. Women in Iran are barred from many fields of study and may not enter sports stadiums. And, in court, a woman’s testimony—and her life—are worth half of a man’s.

Against this backdrop, the protesters in Iran and their supporters everywhere were thrilled by the October 6, 2023, announcement that the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to Narges Mohammadi. Mohammadi, 51, has spent most of the past decade in prison. Over the years, IRI authorities have arrested her 13 times, convicted her five times, and sentenced her to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes. She is currently being held in the notorious Evin Prison, serving a sentence of 10 years and nine months on false charges of “spreading propaganda.” Fearless, she continues her advocacy from behind bars.

In making the announcement, the Nobel Committee stated that Mohammadi is being honored for “her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.” The Committee added that the prize “also recognises the hundreds of thousands of people who, in the preceding year, have demonstrated against [Iran’s] theocratic regime’s policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women.”

We too must stand with the valiant women of Iran and their vision of a gender-equal society. We must stand with the courageous people of Iran in their quest for democracy, freedom, justice, and the rule of law—the cherished values that we share. They are an inspiration to us all.

What can we do? We can stay informed. Follow news of developments in Iran very closely and discuss them with our colleagues, friends, and family. Organize programs and conferences. Draft a resolution or statement to be issued by our bar association or other organization. Submit op eds and letters to the editor in local and regional media. Take out a full-page ad in a regional newspaper and write an open letter to the regime or pay tribute to the indomitable spirit of the protesters. Nominate the protesters for awards. Follow some of the leading voices on Iran on X (Twitter). Start with Masih Alinejad (@AlinejadMasih), Gissou Nia (@GissouNia), and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Iran, Javaid Rehman (@JavaidRehman). Observe the International Day of the Endangered Lawyer. Urge the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to focus specifically on the plight of Iranian lawyers who have been imprisoned for doing their job. Email our senators and representatives and call on them to make Iran one of their top priorities. Urge Congress to hold a hearing. And advocate for the recognition of gender apartheid as a crime against humanity. Learn more (including information on an opportunity to file comments later this year).

We may want to time some of our actions to mark significant occasions, such as International Women Human Rights Defenders Day (November 29, 2023); the day on which the Nobel Peace Prize will be presented in absentia to Narges Mohammadi (December 10, 2023); the International Day of the Endangered Lawyer (January 24, 2024); International Women’s Day (March 8, 2024); or the 18-month anniversary of Amini’s death and the start of the ongoing uprising (March 16, 2024). You get the idea.

Whatever we do, we must not allow the protesters in Iran to be forgotten. With women’s rights under siege around the globe, their fight is our fight. Our fight is theirs.

In the words of the protesters’ rallying cry: Zan. Zendegi. Azadi. Woman. Life. Freedom.

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Hon. Delissa Ridgway

U.S. Court of International Trade

Delissa Ridgway is a judge on the U.S. Court of International Trade, a former member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, and a longtime member of the Governing Council of the ABA Section of International Law. She has extensive experience in international human rights/women’s rights and has worked and traveled widely throughout the Middle East/North Africa Region.