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Women in Iran, in Afghanistan and beyond deserve our protection

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 12th Jan 2024

Last weekend a young Iranian woman of Kurdish origin called Roya Heshmati was lashed 74 times for 'violating public morals' by refusing to wear the hijab. Her sentence together with a fine was court imposed. When she went to receive her punishment, she refused to wear the hijab and was threatened with 74 more lashes. She still refused. As she was lashed, she whispered 'in the name of woman, in the name of life'.

Roya endured her punishment with the sort of dignity few of us could muster in such circumstances and when she left, she threw off her scarf again. I am shocked her story and incredible bravery has not received wider publicity in the UK.

We have all heard the story of another Kurdish Iranian women, Mahsa Amini who died in hospital while in custody in September 2022 having been arrested by the religious morality police for not wearing the hijab. Eyewitnesses reported that she had been severely beaten.

Her death inspired the Women, Life, Freedom movement the origins of which can be traced back to the Kurdish freedom movement and which now amplifies the voices of Iranian women protesting their oppression. Sadly, there have been many other cases like Mahsa's.

In Afghanistan the situation is even worse. Since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, they have issued more than 50 edicts constituting an institutionalised scheme of repression against women. In his March 2023 report, Richard Bennett, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan, set out the continuing deterioration in the situation of Afghan women.

In mid-November 2022, the authorities banned access of women and girls to parks, gyms and public baths and, on December 21, they announced the immediate suspension of women from universities. Three days later, on December 24, women were barred from working for domestic and international NGOs, with a consequent severe negative impact on the life-saving humanitarian services they provide and which are critical for humanitarian protection and other human rights and development activities. Measures have been taken to erase women from all public spaces.

Bennett concluded that 'the cumulative effect of the Taliban's systematic discrimination against women raises concerns about the commission of international crimes'. And that 'the cumulative effect of the restrictions on women and girls ... was tantamount to gender apartheid'.

In his October 2023 report the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Professor Javad Rehman, stated that Iranian women and girls are also facing gender apartheid as well as systemic discrimination.

Gender apartheid is not currently recognised as crime in international law. Many think it should be. I am currently part of a cross-party panel at Westminster, supported by the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), carrying out an inquiry into the condition of women and girls in Iran and Afghanistan and whether it constitutes gender apartheid.

This week we held our first evidence session and a roundtable discussion chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy KC who is a Labour peer and IBAHRI. Further sessions will be held over the next few weeks with a view to producing a report in the spring.

According to IBAHRI, under international law apartheid is presently defined around the issue of racial oppression as 'inhumane acts - committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime'.

While gender is not covered within this definition, international law covers the crime of gender persecution as a crime against humanity with 'persecution' meaning 'the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity' and 'gender' meaning 'the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society'.

The key element in defining gender apartheid, and which sets it apart from gender persecution, is the existence of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination of one group over another, which the perpetrators seek to maintain by their actions. That is what existed in South Africa where the term apartheid originated.

IBAHRI set up a forum with South African women and feminists and they indicated that they recognised the same conditions of oppression that were applied to black South Africans are now being applied to women and girls in Iran and Afghanistan. Merely describing what is happening to women in these countries as 'gender persecution' fails to recognise the systemic and societal nature of the discrimination in the same way as describing what occurred in South Africa as racial persecution would have failed to capture the reality of Apartheid.

Karima Bennoune, the Lewis M Simes Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, defines gender apartheid as 'a system of governance, based on laws and/or policies, which imposes systematic segregation of women and men and may also systematically exclude women from public spaces and spheres'. She argues: 'gender apartheid is anathema to [the] foundational norms of international law, every bit as much as racial apartheid was to the analogous principles prohibiting race discrimination. Ultimately, as racial apartheid was for Black South Africans, gender apartheid is an erasure of the humanity of women. Every aspect of female existence is controlled and scrutinised.'

Bennoune concludes that 'there is no escape from gender apartheid. The solution cannot be the departure of half the population of the country.' In March 2023, a group of Iranian and Afghan legal experts, activists, and women leaders from across the world launched an international campaign 'End Gender Apartheid'. They want to raise awareness about the experiences of women in Iran and Afghanistan living under gender apartheid and to move governments to act, including by expanding the legal definition of apartheid under international and national laws to include gender apartheid.

IBAHRI argue that as the situation of women and girls is deteriorating in Afghanistan and Iran, and any political 'dialogue' with those in power has not delivered any palpable change, it is crucial to use any means available to fight for these women and girls, their present and their future. They believe the UK should play a lead role in shining light on the experiences of women in Afghanistan and Iran and recognise them as gender apartheid.

I agree that the UK should be taking a lead here. Our imperial past and the recent shameful letting down of the people of Afghanistan, particularly women and girls, means it is a moral responsibility. It is also important that with all the other horrors occurring internationally, particularly in the Middle East, that we don't forget about the terrible conditions in which the women and girls of Iran and Afghanistan are living.

Bravery like that of Roya Heshmati deserves acknowledgement and support.