“The main problem for all the social and political groups inside [Iran] is the atmosphere of insecurity,” according to Parisa Kakaee, a women and children’s rights activist from Iran. “When these groups don’t have freedom of speech or activity, how can they recognize and address society’s needs?”
Ms. Kakaee is all too familiar with this dilemma. After being arrested for her human rights activities in 2009 and spending a month in prison, she fled her native land. She was then sentenced in absentia to six years in prison and has been living in exile in Germany ever since.
In a phone interview, Ms. Kakaee suggested that security, women’s rights, and socioeconomic development are all intertwined in Iran: “When women’s employment is subject to the permission of her husband … when parliament encourages society to have more children and limits women’s access to contraception, when domestic violence is considered as a private family matter, how do we expect to eradicate poverty, to promote gender equality, and to empower women to reduce high mortality rates or to combat HIV/AIDS?,” she asked.
“We can’t talk about gender equality and empowering women while there is a law that supports child marriage. How is it possible to improve maternal health when a child becomes a mother?”
After eight years under the conservative government of President Ahmadinejad, last year’s election of President Rouhani breathed new hope into the women’s movement in Iran, according to Ms. Kakaee. The appointment of legal scholar Mrs. Shahindokht Molaverdi in the cabinet, for example, shows that there have been some positive steps in terms of women’s participation in policymaking.
Nonetheless, significant challenges remain. Iran continues to have “a male-dominated and conservative parliament” that could still reverse the limited progress that has been made, Ms. Kakaee said, and “systematic changes in the regime’s policy on women’s rights and girls’ rights are necessary.”
Inside Iran, “women’s rights activists are fighting for their freedom of speech, fighting against discrimination laws, and try[ing] to support development for women and girls,” she said. But the international community still has a role to play. If relations between Iran and the rest of the world can be improved, then “civil society can focus on social and economic problems and human rights rather than concerns arising from the risk of war or the impact of sanctions,” she said. “It’s important that the international community prioritizes concerns about the violation of human rights in Iran over other political and economic issues.”
The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, associate editor at the International Peace Institute.
When you spoke to the Global Observatory last year, you described how the situation of women in Iran had evolved during the conservative era of the government of President Ahmadinejad. Since the June 2013 election of President Rouhani, how has the situation changed for women in Iran?
Well, talking about the people’s situation in a country is not easy when you don’t live there. However, as an observer and follower of the news and reports, I can say that since the election of President Rouhani, Iranians have developed fresh hope for some changes in the situation of women and human rights. Based on the president’s promises, this hope didn’t seem unrealistic. However, I felt, at the time, that it was too early to judge. It was a hope that could fade or continue to exist.
I would like to categorize the positive changes into two groups. First, within the Iranian women’s movement I think the above-mentioned hope reactivated the women’s movement and made them able to come together, organize some groups, hold some meetings on women’s rights, develop their main demands from the new government, and continue their unprohibited activities.
Second, there have been some changes in policymaking and women’s participation. For example, there is some noticeable improvement in licensing surrounding the establishment of NGOs. That may lead to more activity in various areas related to women, such as violence, impoverishment, sexual health, et cetera.
In addition, some of the women’s rights activists believe that appointing Mrs. Shahindokht Molaverdi as vice-president for women and family affairs is a positive step, which could—could—affect decisions and policy relating to women’s rights. If she has sufficient authority, she may retrieve what we had lost over the past eight years. However, I think, we should not forget that she works in a male-dominated government and society.
And aside from the limited positive progress, Iran has a male-dominated and conservative parliament, which can pass policies against human rights. For example, parliament is initiating a new plan called the Comprehensive Population and Family Excellence Plan that imposes some restrictions on women’s employment and educational, health, and civil rights. Women’s rights activists have issued a statement objecting to the plan, but it’s expected that the new government will use all its power to stop this plan too.
As I mentioned last year, Iranian women are still suffering from domestic violence and a lack of supportive laws. There are still unemployed women, unequal wages, prostitution, discriminatory laws against women, restrictions on personal freedom, and education and economic problems. In addition, some groups in the women’s movement still cannot hold official meetings about, for example, 8th of March [International Women’s Day].
I personally don’t expect the new government to solve all the problems overnight, but I think there should be some sign of momentum in supporting women’s rights—a momentum that I don’t currently see.
Here in New York, we recently concluded the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, and its theme this year was the challenges and achievements of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls. What do you see as the challenges and achievements of the MDGs for women and girls in Iran?
I think the main problem for all the social and political groups inside the country is the atmosphere of insecurity. When these groups don’t have freedom of speech or activity, how can they recognize and address society’s needs?
Women’s rights activists are doing their best to take advantage of existing resources and make changes in women’s lives. But when women’s employment is subject to the permission of her husband, they can’t act independently. When parliament encourages society to have more children and limits women’s access to contraception, when domestic violence is considered as a private family matter, how do we expect to eradicate poverty, to promote gender equality, and to empower women to reduce high mortality rates or to combat HIV/AIDS?
In my opinion, to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls, partnership between government and civil society is important. I’m not saying that government has not done anything about—for instance, in terms of HIV/AIDS or maternal health or primary education, et cetera. Rather, I think it’s not sufficient.
Government and parliament need a more gender-sensitive approach to policymaking and planning for women and girls. We can’t talk about gender equality and empowering women while there is a law that supports child marriage. How is it possible to improve maternal health when a child becomes a mother?
Therefore, I believe systematic changes in the regime’s policy on women’s rights and girls’ rights are necessary. Women’s rights activists are fighting for their freedom of speech, fighting against discrimination laws, and they try to support development for women and girls at the same time. I think this is a tough challenge, and it’s not an easy job.
Late last year the international community and Iran reached an agreement to ease some sanctions in line with the scaling back of Iran’s nuclear activities. Has this easing of sanctions had an impact on the situation of women?
First of all, as far as I know the number of eased sanctions is low. Secondly, the massive damage caused by sanctions is not something that can be fixed in a short time. As I mentioned last year, the Iranian people and civil society are under pressure from international sanctions and structural economic and political mismanagement. People are happy that the risk of entering into war is being eliminated, and they have more hope for the future. However, most of the sanctions remain, and the economic situation has not significantly changed.
Unemployment, unequal access to education, and poverty are part of the problems that affect vulnerable people, such as women, children, and marginalized groups. Therefore, I think Iranian people—and especially women—are still under pressure as a result of the sanctions.
Parisa, what would you suggest the international community could do to support women’s and children’s rights in Iran?
In general, improving relations between Iran and the world should be considered by the both sides—the Iranian regime and the international community—as a first step to reduce the economic pressure on people. In this way, civil society can focus on social and economic problems and human rights rather than concerns arising from the risk of war or the impact of sanctions. Second, it’s important that the international community prioritizes concerns about the violation of human rights in Iran over other political and economic issues. It’s important to support the activists in danger inside the country and question the regime about human rights violations.
Also, I think having more women’s and children’s rights experts in the country would improve work in this area, so providing college education opportunities for Iranian activists to continue their education abroad could also help. We have to gain specialized knowledge and exchange experiences.