Womenís Rights and Womenís Lives in Iran
9/5/04 - OTL# 1-01560

VOA News
According to the human rights group Amnesty International, a young Iranian women was publicly hanged in the northern Iranian city of Neka. Atefeh Rajabi, is believed to have been only sixteen years old. She was executed after being convicted of so-called, quote, "acts incompatible with chastity." The man she was arrested with was whipped and released.

What does the killing of Atefeh Rajabi say about the plight of women in Iran? I'll ask my guests: Lily Pourzand, volunteer legal adviser for the Ontario Iranian Women's Association and member of the Muslim Consulting Community; and Roya Boroumand, codirector of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran. Welcome and thanks for joining us.

Lily Pourzand, tell us a little bit about what we know about the hanging of Atefeh Rajabi?

Pourzand: After the news release, all human rights organizations started working on this case in different points of view: legally, socially, and in all other respects. My point of view as a legal adviser and a person who has a degree in Sharia law from Iran is that this verdict has been [come to] not based on the rights issued. We have several articles in our criminal law and in our civil law in Iran which let the judge sentence such a dissident that you see. But there are other factors that close the hands of the judge to not be able to sentence this openly without any monitoring, without any supervising, changing the sentence even of the person that didnít have a lawyer. That girl didnít have a lawyer. So, there are so many facts in it. For example, she was sixteen years old. According to our legal system, the girl is a grown-up person after nine years old. So it doesnít really matter if she was sixteen and after all organizations started to talk about it, they changed it to twenty-two. It doesnít really matter whether she was sixteen or twenty-two. So, the basis of the legal system has problems and we have to point to that, not only this case.

Host: Roya Boroumand?

Boroumand: Yes, I agree with Miss Pourzand. It is true, we have conflicting information about why she was executed. She was sixteen or twenty-two. She had committed adultery or not adultery. She had a record or not record. All of that, you know, is not central to our issue. Our issue is that our judiciary and our legal situation is discriminating against women in particular, but it is also arbitrary. And that allows the judge to basically do what he wants. So if she didnít have money to hire a lawyer. He did not give her enough time to hire a lawyer. If she was mentally retarded, as some sources are saying, she was not examined by a doctor and did not have the opportunity to benefit from the international legislation that protects her from being [prosecuted], or even Iranian legislation that would protect her from being criminally prosecuted. So, we donít have due process and thatís the issue in Iran. The judiciary has been packed in the early years of the revolution with judges or seminary students with no legal training, who had not been to law school and some of them had only a high school diploma. These people are deciding the lives and deaths of sixteen-year-olds. So thatís our main problem here.

Host: Lily Pourzand, reports both from Amnesty International and other newspaper reports say that this death sentence was affirmed by the supreme court of Iran.

Pourzand: Yes, it was approved by the supreme court of Tehran.

Host: Itís not just a rogue judge somewhere.

Pourzand: That is the problem, that this thing that is not right, it has to be stopped somewhere in the procedures of appeal and in the supreme court. But something like this never happened. There are many, many factors, like legal factors, and I can just mention a few of them to you. In the sentence, itís saying that she has been hanged because she had adultery, which is not applicable in this case, because she wasnít married at all. And in another part of the sentence, itís saying that Atefeh Rajabi, the single girl, is sentenced to be hanged for having a relation out of marriage and thatís really a different story. Because if she wasnít married, the punishment was only a hundred [lashes], like the guy who got the punishment and is released now.

Host: Roya Boroumand, let me ask about that. What about this differential treatment, if you will, that the young woman involved [was] executed, publicly hanged, the man involved given lashings and released?

Boroumand: Well, this takes us back to the law, to the legislation that affects women and family and personal status. Men, Iranian men, after the revolution can have four legal wives and an unlimited number of temporary wives, which allows them, actually, to have relationships outside of their marriage. Women, on the other hand, can only be married to one person and have no possibility to have relationships outside of that marriage. Now, we discovered recently, looking at the early years of the revolution, we had people executed for adultery and in the Islamic law that was reinstated, Islamic criminal law that was reinstated after the revolution, adultery is punishable by death. But adultery means a relationship between married people. However, we realized that people are being killed for adultery without being married. And that, we realize that now, we have two sets of adultery, we have two sets of adultery. We have adultery and then adultery between married people, which is called Zenay-e Mohsen-e. So thatís how, in fact, they are punishing out of marriage sexual relationships between men and women. But in the case of Iran, a man can do that, because heís allowed to have temporary wives, you know, temporary sexual relations, but women canít. So, you know, women are affected seriously by this legislation.

Host: Lily Pourzand, have men and women generally been treated differently when it comes to these issues of criminal prosecution of sexual morality?

Pourzand: Well, the problem is in our criminal law system. We have so many discriminations against women, especially when there is a point of, like, sexual relationship or other criminal acts like, even murder. When we are talking about womenís situation in the criminal system of Iran, we have a point that our criminal system is based on Sharia. And in Sharia, of course, there are so many rights for men rather than women. So, in having sexual relationships, there is less punishment for men in the same situation than women.

Host: Roya Boroumand, letís talk a little bit about the criminal code generally, as Lily Pourzand brings up. What are the differences between the way women and men are treated in the legal system in Iran?

Boroumand: Well, you know, in criminal laws and civil laws, women are generally considered as subordinate to men and inferior to men. In criminal laws, you know, the most simple, I am not a specialist, but the most obvious ones are that the blood money for women is half of that of men.

Host: And what is blood money?

Boroumand: Blood money means the value of a womanís life is half of the value of a manís life. Meaning, if you kill a woman, you have to pay blood money to the family of the woman. That money will be half of what you would have to pay if you had killed a man. So that already sets the limit, you know, and then womenís testimony is half of that of men. So womenís testimony in criminal court could be dismissed because itís only one woman and itís not corroborated by that of men. Womenís access to divorce is -- womenís protections in case of violence against them, domestic violence or others are very limited. So they really have no redress. And that creates, you know, a set of consequences that affects womenís status in the society. And, you know, if your judges are all nominated by the same people and are not held accountable for what they do, then women become more and more victimized by this legislation. Because not only the legislation is inadequate and discriminatory, but the people who enforce it donít believe in equality or in any of the standards or international standards that are now almost customary. And so, no one holds them accountable because theyíre nominated by people who believe the same things. So, basically there is no way to change this trend unless there is this fundamental change in the structure of the judiciary that women are allowed to become judges, which they were before and theyíre not any more. That women are allowed to, at least if the laws are not secularized, that theyíre allowed to interpret religion as the others. You know, women jurists, legal jurists and religious jurists and then womenís access to high positions so that they could affect a little bit these laws. Otherwise, you know, the whole system will remain the same.

Host: Lily Pourzand, on this question of changing the system, there were several efforts by legislative reformers to bring bills that would change these matters and give women equal weight, their testimony in court. They didnít seem to get very far, what are the prospects now that thereís an even more conservative legislature in place in Iran?

Pourzand: Well, thatís a historical question actually and matter. In the last two decades, many, many Iranian women inside and outside Iran [have] started different kinds of movements to get more rights for Iranian women and to be able to participate more in political and social positions. And these movements are from different kinds of points of view. Some of them are secular. Some of them are religious and some of them are reformist. But, no matter what is their point of view, the most important thing is that they all know the current legislation and legal system of Iran doesnít work for Iranian women. They need to be changed to be more matched with the international human rights standard. According to that, after they established a movement after, maybe since eight years ago, or ten years ago, they could express their ideas and their demands to the state and the parliament and to get more support from international human rights organizations. Many, many suggestions went to the parliament, but unfortunately we are trapped in a circle in our legislation system because anything that needs to be approved from the Parliament has to go to another supreme parliament.

Host: The Guardian Council?

Pourzand: Yes, the Guardian Council. And the Guardian Councilís duty is to approve the laws according to Sharia. And most of the time itís not getting approved from that. So, really our way is blocked.

Host: Roya Boroumand, what is the hope for any change there with the Guardian Council vetoing time and again reform efforts?

Boroumand: Well, you know, my understanding is that we all have, many of us have had a methodology that has not worked. And, of course, you know, any attempt at reform has to be encouraged, because thatís the way to go forward. But we, reading the details of the debates in the parliament, we realized, I mean, one realizes that the effort has not been overwhelmingly, I mean, there hasnít been an effort that has been consistent and supported by the mainstream reformist movement. They have here and there tried to change something. But they did not believe in it as essential and important. And thatís part of why it hasnít worked. For example, they pushed through the parliament, after eight years, CEDAW, The Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which is essential in order to implement equality, or at least help eliminate discrimination, right? But, they did it with a lot of reservations that actually make it unusable, because any legislation that is incompatible with Islam -- and this is very vague, no? -- is not acceptable. So, in other terms, that means that the convention is only acceptable if it doesnít question the laws, the Iranian laws. And you have the discourse of the reformist deputies saying: ďWe have to accept this convention. And look, the Guardian Council has to accept this convention because it is important for our image abroad.Ē For me, this is not what is going to bring change. What is going to bring change, is that a reformist deputy says we have to go forward with this convention because thatís the right thing to do, because discrimination is wrong. And women are exposed to violence. Women are prevented from improving and participating in the society and participating, etc. This is the approach. If we donít say that, then the Council of Guardians is not challenged, because we say, ďOh thatís great.Ē So they say, ďNo, we donít accept it.Ē But if you say, the reservation is not right, then the Council of Guardians has two obstacles now, it has CEDAW in itself and then the reservation and then maybe something, I mean, our reform movement has not been challenged enough in order to go ahead and change the laws.

Host: Lily Pourzand, on this question of the reform movement in Iran and how it relates to womenís rights, people will often say that the way women are treated in the society is the gauge to the general freedoms in the society. Has there been a realization among reformer politicians in Iran that reform with regard to how women are treated is crucial to the overall reform movement?

Pourzand: Well, I think the general demands for Iranian women in a society of Iran, like if you talk about ordinary needs, or basic needs, like donít have the forced hejab. Or having, like you can see in the pictures nowadays that they all have make-up or they are going out with the boys freely, if you want to talk about this, sometimes itís confusing, because sometimes the government is using these freedoms to keep them away from the serious things, like their political rights, their legal rights. Because they are young, we have about sixty-percent of university students that are women. They are all young, they are demanding. They need social and political and economic support. So, when the government is giving them basic freedom, they will be away from other things. They are just trying to enjoy the moment and donít think about other things. Sometimes, itís been considered as a trick.

Host: Roya Boroumand, Lily Pourzand brings up, some people have called it the Iranian government using the Chinese model, of trying to open up some personal freedom space while maintaining tight political control. To what extent has the government allowed people not to be heavily veiled and is this the strategy?

Boroumand: That is part of the strategy, because what you see outside -- the image in a totalitarian system is very important. So what you see outside is what is going to impress you. Now, you know, back on this veil issue, itís true that you can see much more freedom in the streets of Tehran and I have no idea what Esfahan looks like right now, or what Tabriz or the downtown of Tehran, for that matter, looks like. We see images from the north of Tehran, and there is a visitor from Iran right now. And she told me, when she heard about this program she said, ďWell, thatís interesting because we hear about the fact that, itís true, you know, my hair is out in the streets. I have my headscarf here. [Hand motion to top of head] But I still have my headscarf. Itís true, my uniform is tighter, but I have to wear a uniform in the summer. I donít want to wear a uniform in the summer.Ē And then she says: ďAnd most of us, in order to make a statement, put on these pink and orange and all these colorful uniforms and then we have big lipstick and a lot of mascara, and you know, we look like clowns. But this is not the way we want to look. This is the way they make us look because we think weíre making a statement. But, you know, we donít have jobs, our salaries are low. Our salaries do not equate. We have no access to management positions. We can not be this, that. We can not run for president. We can not be judges. We can not have any high positions in any administration. And weíre distracted from it by the fact we have to have that much hair out [hand motion to head], or that much hair out, or no hair out; or that much lipstick, or no lipstick.Ē So, this is not a sign of progress. This is, itís true, you know, the Chinese model is discussed openly, has been discussed openly in the hard line circles and in the reformist circles. This is what they want. And what they want is to be able to open up a little bit the appearance of the society and to establish business with the West, including the United States, in order to have the protection of businesses lobbying for them not go away. So, itís a very, very subtle game and itís actually working. I think theyíve been very smart in the way theyíve handled it.

Host: Lily Pourzand, we have about thirty seconds left. Do you think that that strategy is working in Iran?

Pourzand: Itís worked so far and I hope it will be changed. Hopefully it will be changed.

Boroumand: Well, we depend a lot on the media to help bring visibility to the issues that are not right in Iran.

Host: Iím afraid thatís going to have to be the last word for today. Weíre out of time. But Iíd like to thank my guests: Lily Pourzand of the Ontario Iranian Women's Association and Roya Boroumand of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran. Before we go, I'd like to invite you to send us your questions and comments. You can reach us through our web site at w-w-w-dot-v-o-a-news-dot-com-slash-ontheline. For On the Line, I'm Eric Felten.

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