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Contradictions between the UN Convention on the rights of women and the Iranian Islamic Law

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD Int. Law


On the Occasion of the Iranian women’s struggles for realization of their legitimate rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran 


The Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 in the United Nations General Assembly. It has a preamble, and 30 articles. In the preamble the states parties to the convention agree that any kind of discrimination against women is against the principle of equality of human beings. They also are committed in articles 2 to 6 to take immediate action for ensuring the political, social, economic and cultural rights of women. Articles 10 to 14 make states committed to treat men and women equally in the educations, occupation, health, and economic and social opportunities.  The convention has entered into force in 1981.


What does the Convention want from member states?


According to the UN Division for the Advancement of Women ( “The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)… is often described as an international bill of rights for women… It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. The Convention defines discrimination against women as ‘...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.’ By accepting the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including:

* To incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system,

* Abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women,

* To establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination,

To ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.

The Convention provides the basis for realizing equality between women and men through ensuring women's equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life -- including the right to vote and to stand for election -- as well as education, health and employment.  States parties agree to take all appropriate measures, including legislation and temporary special measures, so that women can enjoy all their human rights and fundamental freedoms…Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice.  They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.”

The convention has been the subject of serious controversies in Iran and other Islamic Countries.  The Iranian reform oriented Sixth parliament (the previous round of the Majles) ratified a bill paving the way for adhesion of Iran to the convention, and immediately the Council of Guardians which is the watchdog of conservatives in Iran and it is actually more powerful than the Parliament and President of Iran put together, has rejected the ratification of it and decided that certain articles of the Convention are contrary to the rules of Islam.

Are they Contrary?


Yes, they are.  The points of contradiction are so clear that they do need much discussion. Let’s look at a few of them:


1-     According to the rules of Islam, women inherit half of men.  The clear discrimination was originally based on the barbaric laws of the Arab nomads and it assumed that men are the head of the household and women are something in the level of the properties.  This discrimination has no real justification and as a part of the nomadic Arab practices should be discarded from any law.


2-     The blood money of women is half of men. It means that if a person kills a woman, he has to pay half of the figure designated by the Islamic government for one man.  The issue gets more interesting when we consider that the blood money for some parts of men (like the private parts) is almost equal the one compete person. We may conclude the killing a woman is cheaper than damaging certain parts of a man.  Apart from the fact that the blood money is an outdated notion, the discrimination between men and women in this case is really humiliating both for men and the women in every Muslin society.


3-     The right of divorce is absolutely with men. The Islamic courts have tried to pretend that this right is not absolute, but the clear contradiction of the Islamic law on marriage and divorce with the human rights has always prevailed. 


4-     Women are not allowed to travel (this is usually interpreted as setting their foot out of the main door in the house) without direct permission of their husbands or male supervisors (in case of girls, divorcees, and so on, a male supervisor, is designated to supervise the subject. In many case the supervisor may lack the moral competency and the sole criteria for this designation is being male).


5-     Women can stand as witness as half of a man.  In other words two female witnesses are considered as one male witness. This is strictly observed in the Islamic courts and the formal attestations. 


6-     Women are not allowed to be judge under any circumstances.  Recently in some countries they have devised a “religious hat” for the case at hand.  They allow the women to judge apparently, but a clergy later issues the real verdicts.  So the judgment of women, in such cases, is really like a consultative view and it has therefore no more legal value.


7-     The right of child custody is always with men. (This, like many other points, is considered as blessing to women because they do not have to bear the financial burden of keeping the children).  The notion is again based on the barbaric Arab nomad’s rituals, according to which the women always were a kind of housewife (more like a housemaid than an ordinary housewife). 


8-     The women belonging to the religious minorities (especially those of the religions that are not considered People of the Book) suffer all the points in a special way. They are subject to double inequality as women and as a member of a minority.


9-     Men can have four wives and more concubines (a mixture of female slaves and third class wives) according to Islam. This is discrimination unless women can also have four husbands (and more concubines: a mixture of male salves and third class husbands).


10-  According to the Islamic laws of all Islamic countries, the women who marry foreigners lose their nationality. This is not the same for men.


11-  In the case of changing the religion from Islam to anything else (Ertedad), men are immediately condemned to death, but women have to be poisoned and beaten several times every day (at the five times of the daily prayer) until they give up the new religion and return to the arms of Islam. Although this is rare advantage towards women, it is an indication of the lower human status of woman that they should not be “wasted” for changing religion. However, this is against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


12-  There is a clear discrimination in Islamic rules about the clothing of men and women. According to the dominant interpretations of Islamic code of dress, the woman should cover all of their body except than the circle of face, and hands from wrist to fingers. The rest of women’s bodies are considered as equivalent to private parts (Owrat) that must be concealed in the public.  There are no such restrictions for men. Men are only called upon not to look passionately to women.



The reality is that they are contradictory. I can name the articles of the convention and also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one by one, to show the contradiction in almost all cases. But these points speak for themselves. You do not even need a UN convention to feel their contradiction with present day standards.


Some persons in Iran have suggested using the “Arabic Formula” for adhesion to the convention. That means giving a reservation at the time of adhesion, which is like this:  “We sign this document on the condition of non-contradiction with the tenets of Islam.” This is the way that is called “religious fraud” (Koollahe Shar-ee). It means that you sign the document and you refrain from enforcing any part of it that you don’t like under the pretext of contradiction with Islam. Eat your cake and have it.  There two major obstacles for this interpretation. Article 18 of the convention, and several articles of 1969 UN Convention on the law of treaties (Vienna Convention) and the decision of the International Court Justice in 1951, all clearly say: reservations that are in contradiction to the aim and purpose of a treaty are not acceptable. The reason that Arab countries have not faced with serious objection for their practice is more political than legal and that is changing rapidly. Already there are numerous moves in the international level to discard this kind of reservations, especially in the case of humanitarian laws and regulations.


Some people, under different names, like religious intellectuals or reformists, have been trying to deny these contradictions and find ways of accommodating them in Islam. These spin doctors want people to believe that there is no contradiction between Islam and the UN convention.  Here is what I think about these people:


1-     They are not sincere. They want to reap benefits from both sides. In this sense, they are kind of hypocrites.  On the other hand, the opponents of the Convention, who are the conservatives and fundamentalists, seem to be more sincere and authentic followers of Islam, like the theological centers of Islamic women.

2-     They deceive themselves and people. They try to convince people about a form of religion that does not exist. A good example is all those who call themselves religious intellectuals. Intellectual cannot be religious. They are intellectuals in the box. They are lost in the pursuit of truth and they are not brave enough to confess their mistake and let others know this. This is a serious case of arrogance.  All of the so-called “scientific researches” of these persons are worthless. They have made only prejudged researches. They have found what they were supposed to find before the research. Their work does not stand to the simplest scientific research criteria. They do not understand the case because their interpretation is not authentic.

3-     They waste the time and energy of people. It seems that talking in vague terms has turned into an art in Iranian culture of writing. It is understandable that long durations of living under corrupt and despotic regimes, has created this custom. At the same time, it is now the time to set aside this custom. The custom is so deep that even those who are not living under the pressure do not dare to cross the line and prefer to hide behind vague sentences. Of course some of the persons doing so are trying to get advantages from both sides. It is interesting that I have a sentence from Ali, the first Imam of Shiites, for these people: “if you do not have religion, be a man and show some dignity.”

4-     They are trying to avoid the point and keep complicating the picture by irrelevant discussions. They try to make a compromise between two things that do not have common points. They want the marriage to continue even if it leads to a dysfunctional family.  Although compromise looks a peace loving word, it is not in order to make compromise in everything.

5-     They are not brave enough to tell what the truth is and probably face the consequences. People do not like those who disturb their sleeping.


The solution is in separation of religion from politics, and not inventing a religion that dose not exist. There is no religious solution for these cases. Well, if you remember that in the advent of Islam in the nomadic Arab lands, the Arabs used to bury their new born girls alive, it would seem that a lot of advantage was given to them by Islam. Some people take one more step and claim that Islam has more rights for women than these international conventions. I tell you the truth.  They are talking about men and women in the religious concept; otherwise they do not consider others as human beings. The only way for solving these kinds of problem is separation of religion from politics once and for all.


... Payvand News - 6/16/05 ... --

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