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September 28, 2023

Iranian uprising brings new life to fight for women’s rights

More than a year after the death of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman who was stopped by police for wearing a hijab improperly, the uprising of women and girls to protest gender apartheid in Iran is still going strong with no end in sight.

A panel of experts on Iran weighed in on the tumultuous situation in the country during the webinar “Zan. Zendegi. Azadi — Women. Life. Freedom: The One-Year Anniversary of the Death of Mahsa ‘Jina’ Amini.”

In September 2022, Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Iranian morality police and reportedly beaten for not properly wearing her hijab, the traditional woman’s head covering. The 22-year-old died three days later while in police custody in a Tehran hospital, which spurred more than 1,600 protests throughout the country. Since then, more than 400 men, women and children have been killed by security forces.

Hijab laws are the most visible form of the gender discriminatory laws in Iran, said human rights lawyer Gissou Nia, director of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council. She pointed out that women in Iran are prohibited by law from doing many things — including sing solo in public, ride a bike, attend stadium events and travel without permission of a male guardian.

Yet the Islamic Republic has painted “a pretty convincing narrative about how women are excelling in education and how they are actually very empowered.” Nia said. “It’s really clear that Iran’s women are not agreeing with the government. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have come out in the masses that they did to protest that discriminatory framework.”

Javaid Rehman, United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, agreed. He said the country’s legal and societal structures discriminate against women and girls in all aspects of family law, divorce, custody, marriage and guardianship.

“The beginning of this protest was quite unprecedented,” said Omid Shams, director of operations for Justice for Iran. “The peaceful protest faced immediate repression.” He added that the government’s responses were “crimes against humanity.”

Since November 2022, chemical attacks have occurred at more than 120 girls’ schools as a “campaign of terror” to quell the protests by children, Shams said. The attacks are “a roundabout and tricky way to remove girls from public spaces and schools,” Nia added.

Although there were protests long before last year’s demonstrations, the powerful images of Amini before and after her arrest and death in the media and on social media captured global attention, Nia said. “Visuals have played a heavy role in the mobilization” of people to hit the streets and demand the government to fall.

Since Amini’s death, there has been a complete absence of accountability in Iran, Rehman said. However, in November 2022, the U.N. Human Rights Council stepped in to establish a historic independent fact-finding mission to investigate the human rights violations related to the protests in Iran. “I am hoping we will have accountability through this fact-finding mission,” he said.

There is a push in the international community for the crime of gender apartheid to be codified under international law, Nia said. She also added that a campaign last December to expel Iran from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women was successful, which took tremendous resources to accomplish. She encouraged U.N. member states to keep an eye on who’s seeking spots on the commission and to block those that do not actively support women’s rights.

Shams called for the international community to stand behind protesters. “The only way protesters can win is to have the support of the international community behind them, especially when they’re up against a regime that has no respect for the rule of law,” he said. Nia urged Americans to contact their congressional representatives to support the MAHSA Act, which places sanctions on leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and other similar pieces of legislation.

Still the protests continue, even in light of a new law that recently passed in Iran that impose heavier penalties on women who refuse to wear hijabs and their supporters. “Women and girls in Iran are brave,” Rehman said. “They are courageous people. They have overcome their fear.”

The program was moderated by Delissa Ridgway, a senior U.S. judge of the United States Court of International Trade. Webinar co-sponsors were the ABA Senior Lawyers Division, Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, Judicial Division, Commission on Women in the Profession, ABA U.N. Representatives & Observers to the United Nations and National Association of Women Judges.