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No progress

Sabina CasagrandeMarch 13, 2014

Women's rights groups were hoping that the status quo of oppression and discrimination against women in Iran would ease under President Hassan Rouhani. But any improvement for women has been minimal.

Iran's women wanted change in 2009 and still today
Image: AP

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's talks with human rights activists during her recent visit to Iran has sparked ongoing protests this week by hardliners in front of the Austrian Embassy in Tehran, which had arranged the meeting between Ashton and a small group of female human rights activists on International Women's Day.

The government of President Hassan Rouhani distanced itself from the meeting, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham saying it didn't "help relations between Iran and Europe." Judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani called Ashton's meeting "contrary to the security and interests of the country."

Analysts say this type of backlash from the conservative camp was to be expected.

"These women have been a thorn in the side of the regime," Faraz Sanei, Iran researcher with Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, told DW. "They haven't shut up when the authorities wanted them to and they continue to do their work."

The women Ashton met with included well-known activist Narges Mohammadi, vice president of the Defenders of Human Rights Center headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. Also present in the meeting was Gohar Eshghi, the mother of Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti who died in jail a few days after he was arrested in 2012 over a blog critical of the government. "Gohar Eshghi continues to actively pursue clarification of her son's death, as she feels she has nothing to lose," Sanei said.

An uphill battle for women's rights

Rouhani had pledged during his election campaign that the discrimination between men and women would be eliminated in all social arenas in his administration. He has in fact appointed a few women to key positions, such as Afkham at the Foreign Affairs Ministry or the vice president for legal affairs.

Catherine Ashton and Hassan Rouhani in Iran 9.3.2014
Ashton discussed Iran's nuclear program and ties between the country and the EU with RouhaniImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But a new report presented by UN chief Ban Ki-moon earlier this week showed that Iran was doing too little to improve its human rights record. There have been more executions, higher detentions of regime opponents and greater discrimination against women. Numerous women's rights defenders are being threatened, sentenced or imprisoned in Iran.

"Human rights defenders and women's rights activists continue to face arrest and persecution," the report of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Iran said. "Women are subject to discrimination, entrenched both in law and in practice." The report, which is to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 26, has been condemned by Iranian officials.

The progress being made on the nuclear dispute gives the impression of improving relations between Iran and the western world. There have been hopes that the more open the political climate in Iran becomes, the more active Iran's civil society - including women's participation in it - will become. But, perhaps hesitant to antagonize powerful hardliners, Rouhani has not made the significant reforms that moderate voters had hoped for.

"Rouhani has talked a good talk on what he feels women's role in civil society should be," Sanei said. "But he is not going to put himself out on a limb. He is merely nibbling at the periphery."

Taking advantage of female brain power

There are several examples of discriminatory laws mentioned in the UN report. The revised Islamic Penal Code, which came into force in June 2013, says that women's testimony in a court of law is half that of a man's, and a woman's life half that of a man's. The Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran provides for the marriage of girls at age 13.

Nonetheless, Rouhani has at least publicly made some statements on women's rights and has said he wanted a politically more open Iran. And, for the first time in five years, a permit was issued in Tehran allowing people to celebrate International Women's Day.

Iran female university graduates
The majority of university graduates in Iran are womenImage: SNN. ir

There have been smaller pockets of progress for women, for example initiatives to promote jobs for women in government and the private sector for the high numbers of extremely well-educated women in the country. It is precisely educated women who are hardest hit by the laws stifling women's rights.

"There is a huge disconnect between these laws and reality," Sanei said. "The majority of graduates from universities around the country are women. So this relatively educated pool of women comes out [after graduation] and faces all these barriers and restrictions in society."

The Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum in 2013 ranked Iran at 130 out of 136 countries, down three places from last year. According to the report, Iran has the lowest female representation in the labor forces and the lowest estimated female income in the region.

"Countries and companies can be competitive only if they develop, attract and retain the best talent, both male and female," the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab writes in the preface to the Gender Gap Report. The loosening of sanctions as a result of progress in the nuclear conflict with Iran will result in the economy picking up speed. But without the female workforce, Iran will not be able to reach its full potential.