Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Iran, Violence Against Women Becomes a Public Matter

Iranian women
Iranian women walk down a street in the capital Tehran on February 7, 2018. Photo: ATTA KENARE / AFP

By: Florence Massena

President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet of ministers has approved on January 3rd 2021 a draft bill aiming at better protecting women against domestic and other forms of violence. Although flawed and incomplete, this bill shows the new commitment of the Iranian government to act on social demands.

Called Protection, Dignity and Security of Women Against Violence, this bill has been in the works since 2013, the last year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Violence is defined as “any behaviour inflicted on women due to sexuality, vulnerable position or type of relationship, and inflicts harm to their body, psyche, personality and dignity, or restricts or deprives them of legal rights and freedoms”. If legally adopted, the law would adapt the judiciary system through educational courses and offices to support victims of violence, develop a production of programs promoting the support of women and the prevention of violence in the family, notably for the educational system, have the ministry of health improve its medical and psychological services to women, and the law enforcement agencies increase their efforts.

In a report published by the international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) in December 2020, it said that: “The draft law has a number of positive provisions, including to form an inter-ministerial national committee to draft strategies and coordinate government responses to violence against women. It also obligates ministries and government agencies to undertake measures to help prevent violence and assist women, including by forming special police units for these cases. It also would create restraining orders and a fund to support women”.

But it still doesn’t totally achieve its purpose of protection, with notably no mention of child marriage and marital rape. “The bill also offers very little to protect survivors”, Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at HRW, told Fanack. “But it still takes small steps towards a better situation. Domestic violence is a global issue but in Iran it takes place within the context of the discriminatory status law, on which a man can ask for a divorce easily but a woman should have to prove excruciating pain to get out of it. This also needs to change, but the Parliament is very conservative and I’m not very positive it would take in additional reforms at that point.” Based on the status law, the life of a woman is regarded as half as valuable as that of a man. For example, women can get 50% of what a man get through inheritance, and her testimony in court is legally viewed with less credibility. Status laws define legally everything personal that a person has to go through, from birth til death, with points on inheritance, marriage, divorce, child custody, and others.

For Karen Kramer, director of publications at the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), nothing is certain for now. “While this is a positive step, this in no way means this legislation is assured”, Kramer told Fanack. “There is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding this legislation, which still has a long and uncertain road ahead. On January 3, 2021, Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar announced the cabinet had approved the bill. Meanwhile, several other bills on protecting women against violence had been reportedly received from MPs in December 2020. In a legislative process that could take years, the bills would be likely to be merged in the committee stage and then introduced to the full parliament for a vote, and the current parliament is dominated by conservatives. If approved by the majority, the final bill would then still face another obstacle, as it would then require the approval of the Guardian Council, the conservative body that vets all legislation for conformity with the Islamic Republic’s interpretation of Islamic law, before it could become law.”

Despite those challenges, there is a strong belief among civil society that this law will happen, even if judged incomplete. This draft bill had been in the drawers for many years, but recent events in Iran made it more possible to end quickly in front of the Parliament. In May 2020, a 14-year old girl was beheaded by her father for having run away with a man. There is also the momentum gained during the Iranian #MeToo movement, which prompted allegations against several prominent public figures in the country. “Women have been lobbying and campaigning for 40 years to be given rights”, Sanam Vakil, deputy director of Chatham House MENA, told Fanack. “The government is starting to do so but reluctantly, because of the pressure and outrage that followed those cases, and not because it’s right. It’s a reactive decision, not proactive. In the long run, women will push for more rights, but it’s an Islamic country and a patriarchal society, so changes won’t happen over night.”

A law against violence should be a good step on the long-term fight for women’s rights, but it would be necessary for the Iranian government to consider stopping to criminalize women activists and defenders who simply express their desire for fairness and justice. Activist Narges Mohammadi has just been released from prison in October 2020, but the human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is currently serving a 38-year prison sentence, and activist Bahareh Hedayat, who already served 6,5 years in prison, is now sentenced to four more years for peaceful protest.

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