By Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, 8 March 2010
Today is International Women's Day: a day to celebrate the achievements in the promotion of women's rights globally and to commit to advance them further. This is a day when at Amnesty International we seek to reinforce our work with local and international partners to end violence against women, both in situations of conflict and in the home and protect migrant women from exploitation and other abuses.
In recent years we have also been campaigning in a number of countries to reduce maternal mortality and the discrimination and poverty, which lies at the heart of so many abuses against women.
Fighting for women's rights in these areas requires, first and foremost, that women themselves have the freedom to debate, advocate and organise without fearing arrest, torture or even death. Yet today many courageous women in all continents struggle just to do so.
The struggle for women's rights thrives around the world and in the UAE you need only look across the waters to find brave women standing up for women's rights in spite of increasingly difficult challenges created by political repression.
In June last year, one such woman made global headlines when she was killed whilst taking part in the post-election protests in Iran. On the television and on the internet, millions of people witnessed the death of Neda Agha Soltan, believed to be at the hands of a member of Iran's Basij militia although no one has yet been brought to justice for her killing. Neda's killing somehow has become symbolic of the destiny of Iranian women where, in spite of deeply rooted discrimination, Neda was one of thousands of women who took to the streets of Teheran to express her views. She paid a high price for that. But was her stand in vain? The current government has introduced new rules, which worsen women's unequal treatment under the law. In September last year regulations came into force in Iranian universities which prevent unmarried female students from studying outside their home towns or cities, restricting their free access to higher education. The majority of Iranian university students are women, and there are no such requirements for male students. A controversial Family Protection Bill which activists believe will actually worsen a woman's place in the family also looks set to be passed into law.
Women in Iran already face widespread discrimination under the law. They cannot be presiding judges or stand for the Presidency. They don't have equal rights with men in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. Evidence given by women in court is worth half that given by a man, and men get twice as much compensation for injury or death. While the legal age for marriage for girls is 13, compared to 15 for boys, fathers can apply for permission to arrange for their daughters to get married at a younger age - and to men much older than their daughters. Men have an incontestable right in law to divorce their spouse. Women do not.
Despite being treated as second class citizens by the authorities, Iranian women are claiming their right to be on an equal footing with men. They forced the issue of women's rights onto the agenda of the presidential election. Women dissatisfied with the results of the election were prominent in the mass demonstrations by millions of Iranians who poured onto the streets.
Sadly, many were arrested, and Amnesty International collected damning testimonies from young women and men who had been taken into custody. Since then many women - including students, civil society activists, political activists and journalists - have joined the dozens of women's rights activists already held in prisons. Around 50 members of the One Million Signature Campaign (also known as the Campaign for Equality), a popular movement demanding an end to discrimination against women in Iranian law, have been detained since its launch in August 2006. Early last month, Mahsa Jazini - a journalist and member of the Campaign for Equality - was arrested and held in Iran for some three weeks. She was told that the reason for her arrest was because she was a feminist. Only days ago, Mahboubeh Karami, another Campaign member, was arrested for the fifth time on March 2.
Members of the 'Mourning Mothers' - a group of women whose children were killed during the demonstrations and their supporters - have been arrested for peacefully protesting about human rights violations and demanding accountability.
Seven supporters of the Mourning Mothers - Leila Seyfi Elahi, Zhila Karamzadeh Makvandi, Fatemeh Rastegari, Mrs Ebrahim, Elham Ahsani, Farzaneh Zaynali and Manijeh Taheri - were arrested on February 7 and 8 this year and are detained in Section 209 of Evin Prison without charge or trial.
The women mentioned above and many others are very likely to be prisoners of conscience, held solely for their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, assembly and association, or on account of their family links. As such, they should be released immediately and unconditionally.
In spite of the myriad obstacles and injustices faced daily, Iranian women are showing the world that they want to control their destinies for themselves. Amnesty International joined a recent call made by women's rights activists in Iran for freedom and gender equality to provide a voice for them when their own is silenced through repression or arrest. Too many women around the world will spend this year's International Women's Day in prison for peacefully expressing their views, or will be subjected to domestic violence, or will be tortured.
In Iran, just as in so many countries, groups like the One Million Signatures Campaign or the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign, run by the activists of Women's Field, are working locally and nationally to expose violations. We should support the women of Iran along with activists for women's rights all over the world on International Women's Day - and every other day.
About the author: Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui is Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
This article was originally published by Khalij Times
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