Is The Inclusion Of Iran In The UN A Step Forward Or Back For Women’s Rights Efforts? 0 315

In March of this year, the United Nations granted Iran and Nigeria a position on its Commission on the Status of Women, which dedicates itself to “promoting gender equality and the advancement of women”[1].  This step taken by the UN has sparked outrage, particularly by specific groups within the United States. Most of the outrage stems from Iran’s recent history of women’s rights violations and its extreme sentencing of Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer[2]. Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes due to her advocacy against the forcing of women to wear hijabs. This sentencing occurred the same day that Nigeria and Iran were sworn in to overlook women’s rights abuses on the international level. This position would overlook[3]:

  1. Arrests of Women, those that are specifically arbitrary
  2. Deaths and torture of women in custody
  3. Forced disappearances or abductions of women
  4. Discriminatory application of punishments in law based on sex, including corporal and capital punishment
  5. Violation of the rights of women human rights defenders to freedom of expression and assembly
  6. Threats or pressure exerted on women not to complain or to withdraw complaints
  7. Impunity for violations of the human rights of women
  8. Stereotypical attitudes towards the role and responsibilities of women
  9. Domestic violence
  10. Forced marriage and marital rape
  11. Virginity testing
  12. Contemporary forms of slavery, including trafficking in women and girls
  13. Sexual harassment of women in the workplace.

Many of those who oppose Iran’s representation in the CSW, point to the injustices towards women that have occurred throughout Iran’s history.

Iran’s women’s rights movements first started to pop up during the 1800s, when industrial capitalism and modernization was gaining traction. There are 8 stages of feminism thus far in Iran[4].

  1. The first era occurred from 1905 to 1925 and was popularized through the widespread movement against imperialism. The very rare and clandestine women’s organization focused on basic women’s rights, such as access to education[5]
  2. The second era was from 1920 to 1940 and increased women’s access to education. It also mandated compulsory western style “dress codes for men and women and the controversial state-dictated compulsory unveiling of women (1935)”. [6]
  3. The third era, which ran through the 1950s, increased inclusion of women into social and political issues. There were minor efforts in regards to legal reforms. [7]
  4. The fourth era, which was indicative of modernization, occurred from the 1960s to 1970s and was associated with an increase of legal reform and a female labor workforce. [8]
  5. The fifth era occurred from 1979 to 1997, which includes the Islamist revolution and high levels of social and political advocacy; however, this time is also indicative of the revival of discriminatory laws against women.[9]
  6. The sixth era ran from 1997 to 2005 and was known for its “relative socio-political openness, civil society discourse, and neo-liberalism. But the growth of civil society organizations, the vibrant and relatively free press, including feminist press, and relative economic improvement did not last long.”[10]
  7. The seventh era occurred from 2005 to 2013 and is associated with a reversal of neoliberal ideology. It is also known for increased oppression of policies that aimed to empower women. [11]
  8. The eighth era has been going on since 2013 and has been named “the era of ‘moderation’. But so far attempts toward some openness and improvement in human rights and women’s status have been blocked by the ruling hard-liners who still have the upper hand over the moderate president.”[12]

In Iran, the feminist movement is often associated with Western foreign intervention, leaving there to be a bad taste in the mouths of Iranian men and women. This has led to resistance to women’s rights efforts in the country. The Iranian government, has hence, further exploited this, often blaming feminists for issues within the social and political system. This can be seen through Sotoudeh’s persecution as entailing, not only fighting for women’s efforts but also treason and other crimes aimed to dis-empower the government[13]. Furthermore, it is said that Iranian leaders often use the rhetoric that the West’s influence on the feminist movements is against Islamic culture. This leads feminists to be in a difficult position when promoting women’s rights, struggling between their religious identity and how the political institution sees female rights. Feminists in Iran have had to navigate tumultuous roads, not only toggling between religious and societal views but also staying true to the country[14]. This is done by feminists in Iran deliberately maintaining distance from the West, also known as Imperialist forces. In the past couple of centuries, strides have still been made by Iranian feminists, especially in regards to education, science, and art. One of the most prominent eras that led to a reversion of female rights efforts was during the 1970s and 80s when there was a rise of extreme Islamic sentiment in the country’s political institutions. This can also be attributed to U.S. foreign intervention when the CIA continuously carried out injustices in Iran undermining the citizen’s political intelligence.  According to Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran by Nayereh Tohidi, “A few significant progressive reforms made in family law in 1960s and 70s under the rubric of the Family Protection Law (during the second Pahlavi) were repealed in 1980s, and family law and the penal code regressed to the way they were in the 1930s and 40s”[15].

Laws to end gender-based discrimination is very much still a priority for the movement; however, the feminist movement has a long way to go, globally. Many activists are starting to become more optimistic towards these efforts, even though they “point out that the current women activists lack a strong organizational structure capable of mobilizing a vast number of the populace, generating serious conflicts with the state, and bringing about political changes.”

Tohidi also mentions the usage of the “Power of Presence”[16], a term made popular by Asef Bayat, a sociologist. He emphasizes that although there aren’t as many public protests or marches, Iranian women defying constraints put against them in their daily life speaks volumes. They gain strength and protest in their own ways “by being involved in daily practices of life, by working, engaging in sports, jogging, singing, or running for public offices. This involves deploying the power of presence, the assertion of collective will in spite of all odds, by refusing to exit, circumventing the constraints, and discovering new spaces of freedom to make oneself heard, seen, and felt. The effective power of these practices lies precisely in their ordinariness”[17]. What I find the most interesting is the fact that the way that these women are empowering themselves is unlike how the feminist movement has occurred in places like the United States. It is unique and awe-inspiring.

This then bodes the question, is the involvement of Iran in the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women regressive or progressive for women’s rights efforts? Through looking at the history of the feminist movement in Iran, one can see that there are a plethora of factors that have affected the movement, the main reason being foreign intervention. Foreign intervention by the West not only undermined the Iranian citizens’ intelligence towards its political and social institutions, it deliberately aimed to hold the country back of reforms. It was not only Iran suppressing women in its country but also other countries such as the United States by carrying out these interventions. I find that the rhetoric of those who are against Iran joining this council are flawed in their argument that Iran will single-handedly hold back women empowerment initiatives. These arguments continuously vilified Iran, not to say it is not far from perfect, and encompass broader political rhetoric that has revolved around the decades-long rivalry between US and Iran. Furthermore, keeping countries like Iran out of the UN and its desires to carry out initiatives promoting gender equality would hold back the global feminist movement, greatly. I believe that the United Nations, although far from perfect and problematic in its own senses, made a progressive decision by including Iran in feminist dialogue. As mentioned before, the Iranian feminist movement often does not open itself to communicate with the West due to its imperialistic habits. This involvement will lead to an increase in global communication, which I find helpful for the Iranian feminist movement. It can create very beneficial outcomes for its movement, and subsequently the global feminist movement so long as the West does not try to impose its imperialist attitudes yet again. However, I find that the inclusion of Iran is a step in the right direction because, in a way, this is also an act of female equality. Iranian feminist efforts are seen just as important as other countries who create similar injustices within their own countries. The lack of Iran’s presence before was indicative of the country being singled out due to its political stance against the United States and parts of Europe. Giving Iranian women a seat governing women empowerment initiatives at least opens up access to education regarding these issues and international cooperation, which will hopefully lead to more legislative reforms.


[1] TheTower.org Staff | 03.14.19 11:52 am. “Appointing Iran to UN Women’s Rights Panel” The Tower, 15 Mar. 2019, www.thetower.org/7335-appointing-iran-to-un-womens-rights-panel-sends-worst-possible-message/.

[2] TheTower.org Staff | 03.14.19 11:52 am. “Appointing Iran to UN Women’s Rights Panel” The Tower, 15 Mar. 2019, www.thetower.org/7335-appointing-iran-to-un-womens-rights-panel-sends-worst-possible-message/.

[3] “UN Picks Iran to Judge Women’s Rights Violations, Helped by Irish Chair.” UN Watch, 17 Mar. 2019, unwatch.org/un-picks-iran-to-judge-womens-rights-violations/.

[4] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[5] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[6] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[7] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[8] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[9] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[10] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[11] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[12] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[13] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[14] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[15] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[16] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

[17] Tohidi, Nayereh. “Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran – Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.” Sur, 22 Feb. 2017.

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Yusra Siddique is a 2nd year Political Science major with an emphasis in International Affairs at University of California-Riverside. She is passionate about Higher Education and Title iX policies and has advocated on the local, state and federal level. She has also had the opportunity to be a contributor to CNN. Yusra also enjoys traveling and going to museums! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email her at ysidd004@ucr.edu. IG: @yusrasiddique Twitter: @yusrasiddique98

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