Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East
Room XI, Palais Des Nations, The United Nation, June 16 - 19, 2008 - Geneva, Switzerland
Sponsored by the Women's Federation for World Peace - International
Transcript as presented by Roya Kashefi - Wednesday 18 June 2008
It's an honour and a privilege to be presenting my paper to such a distinguished and accomplished group of women with such diverse exciting background.
I'm very happy and excited to be here and I thank Carolyn for inviting me. I only finalised my travel arrangements on Friday and last night decided to change the paper I was going to present here today. So, please forgive me if I fumble through my notes!
Before I begin there are two points I'd like to say:
In this talk I'm going to discuss Islamic law as it is identified in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic and applied and practised in Iran. This in NO WAY is an attack on Islam as a religion. I'm pointing out the interpretation of the Qoran and the Shari'a by the ruling Shi'a theocracy in Iran and I DO hope my Moslem sisters don't take offence. I have great respect for their faith and choices.
Secondly, as I have done every time I've spoken publicly in the recent months - I would like to dedicate my presentation to Hana Abdi and Ronak Safarzadeh who are paying the price for educating women in Iranian Kurdistan. You can see their pictures behind you. These young women have been in detention for almost ten months, mostly in solitary confinement, with almost no access to legal representation or the opportunity to see their families. They belong to a campaign called 'Change for Equality'. I'll talk more about this Campaign later.
Yesterday, we heard from our beautiful young Lebanese surgeon who finished her talk by asking us to share in her dream.
Well, I want to START by sharing MY DREAM with you. My dream is of EQUALITY with the men in my country. By this I don't mean I want men and women to be the same, because we're not.
Equality for me means a society in which women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all spheres of life.
Equality for me is when both sexes share equally in the distribution of power and influence; when they have equal opportunities for financial independence.
Equality for me means enjoying equal access to education and opportunity to develop personal ambitions, to develop interests and talents.
Equality for me is when men and women share equal responsibility for the home and children.
But, most importantly for me, equality is when women are completely free from coercion, intimidation and gender based violence at work and at home.
I strongly believe that like everything else PEACE begins at home. We have to identify and overcome barriers and obstacles within our countries in the region first, before we can ever hope of extending it to our relations with our neighbours.
I'm talking about Institutional discrimination and laws that encourage the enforcement of inequality; or legalising the worst traditional practices such as honour killings.
I AM sorry to say that since the inception of the Islamic republic in 1979 it feels like WAR has been declared against Iranian women and religious minorities; never mind wiping Israel off the face of the map!
Both groups - women and religious minorities - are legally discriminated against and suffer extensively because of it.
So far we've heard how your countries are taking steps to bring their laws and policies in line with the realities of life in the 21st century. We heard of government efforts in Turkey to improve girl's access to education.
We have even heard that Iraq and Afghanistan despite the invasion and occupation and the violence we hear about daily, are removing obstacles in the way of women's progress by introducing quotas and other such measures.
Unfortunately, in my country, the Islamic Republic is going the other way.
Please tell me if I'm mistaken
but I think Iran is the only country that when in 2003 ratifying CEDAW was introduced to parliament, tens of thousands of Talabehs - religious students - came out in the city of Qom in a mass protest rally saying that CEDAW is an insult to Islam, human rights is a western thing and it would infect / destroy Islam. The bill was vetoed and it has never been discussed in the parliament again. And it doesn't look like that it's going to be reintroduced anytime soon.
Under the current president, Mr Ahmadinejad, the woman in charge of 'Women and Family Affairs' stated that CEDAW would be ratified in Iran over 'her dead body'!
The funny thing is that other Moslem countries in the region have ratified CEDAW and yesterday we heard about Syria's efforts in improving the situation for its women by ratifying CEDAW in 2003.
Examples of Discriminatory Laws
Anyway, lets have a look at some of the laws that I'm talking about and I'll quickly give you some examples.
OK, here are some examples of this inequality and discrimination. These can be seen in
I stress that this list is only an example of some of the discriminatory laws applied in Iran today. You can see that it touches every aspect of a woman's life.
I've put compensation right at the top for a reason.
In Iran today, if a four months pregnant woman has an accident and lose her baby the amount of Diye or cash compensation she'll receive is different according to the sex of her unborn baby. If the baby was a girl her compensation would be half of the amount she would receive if than it were a boy so in a sense discrimination against US begins even before we are born!
I should say that the legal age of marriage for girls is 13 and 15 for boys. This is thanks to activists who fought to increase girls' marriage age. But girls as young as eight years and nine months can still be married with a judge's permission.
According to 2006 census there are 4741 widowed and divorced girls in the 10-14 age group. 2282 are widows
Men may marry up to four full wives and as many as temporary wives
When I speak of laws going backwards this is a perfect example. In reviewing family law an article has been introduced whereby the man can marry without the knowledge and/or permission of his wife as long as a judge acknowledges that he can afford to take a second wife.
Back to my list
Let's look at employment and travel
As a simple example - and I always use this - I'm sure you have all heard of Shirin Ebadi. Shirin Ebadi the 2003 Noble Laureate could not carry on with her work if her husband didn't want her to. Her husband could apply to the courts and legally prohibit her from working. She could not have travelled out of Iran to receive her Nobel Prize if her husband did not give her permission to travel.
On education, although over 63% of university graduates are women, they form the highest number of the unemployed leading to disillusionment, dissatisfaction, and hopelessness - despondency the number of graduate women in employment have dropped five fold according to a study at Tehran University.
Women are not allowed to participate in about 25% of subjects being taught at university and efforts to segregate the universities are underway. As we speak sit-ins and nationwide protests are going on about these policies by all students - male and female.
Yet, despite all the problems and impediments - and I've only told you about a few of them - women have fought to keep themselves in the public life.
The brave young Iranian women, particularly those born since the 1979 Revolution in the last thirty years, are way ahead of the regime and in practice are working to change their lives for the better without any support or government funding.
Despite all the cultural, social and legal barriers facing Iranian women are standing up for their rights and demanding equality.
They have found innovative and creative yet culturally acceptable methods. They try to work within the confines of existing laws while working towards change. They have even approached other Grand Ayatollahs to secure their support for their demands.
Since August 2006 at least 8 campaigns have been set up with the main one entitled 'Change for Equality' that works towards changing the unequal laws.
It started off by a petition for one million signatures demanding change. But, very quickly through talking to women in an effort to collect signatures a whole culture changing movement has mushroomed throughout Iran. A look at their website shows you that in a very short time the campaign has headquarters in most major cities with an active network in their surrounding regions.
The ever growing numbers of activists believe in changing the culture through education, through raising awareness. They go out to women in the remotest of villages talking to women about equality hoping that as they are bringing up their children they won't differentiate between their sons and daughters and that they would teach respect to their boys so that for example when he grows up he wouldn't see violence against his wife as his RIGHT and she wouldn't accept it as the norm.
This is what Ronak and Hana were doing when they were arrested.
These courageous women pay the price for their efforts to change culture through raising awareness.
In the last two years over 180 women have been arrested and
Charged with threatening national security!
Charged with disturbing public opinion!
They have been sentenced to long custodial sentences, to floggings and have paid over a million dollars in bail and surety.
To My Recommendations
It's very well talking about capacity building when there are no cultural or legal barriers to women's participation or at least a governmental will to improve the situation for women but this is not necessarily the reality.
I believe therefore that:
1- In the first instance we should 'Identify obstacles to progress' in its smallest increments
This way you can best plan how to overcome them step by step.
2 - Secondly, As Dr In'aam Al Mufti said so eloquently yesterday:
Support grassroots organisations through international awareness and support.
What do I mean by this: Technology is a wonderful thing. The women in Iran indeed all the civil rights activists use the internet and email for information and contact. All of you accomplished women; all of us, could very simply belong to a group mailing list. In this way through one simple email we could inform each other of our projects.
Where I'm coming from, the support of MOSLEM WOMEN in key decision making positions or positions of power, such as yourselves, for the women in Iran could have a most influential effect when an activist is arrested for demanding nothing more than equality.
3 - Thirdly, include men in the dialogue
Coming from the culture we do NONE of us could do what we do without the support of our men I believe that all of us who are here have either had a supportive father or husband. So I strongly advocate including men when capacity building and other similar subjects are being discussed.
In Iran today women's movement is at the heart of social change and benefits from the support of many men who also believe in equal laws.
I would therefore like to end my presentation by showing you the face of the first man who was detained, again in solitary confinement, received torture and has very recently been sentenced to a one year prison sentence for his support of the Iranian women's campaign for equal rights.
Amir Yaghoub Ali
My apologies to the Chair for going over my allocated time.
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