Iran: Feminist activists and WHRDs remain in limbo between misogynist state and international community inaction


The human rights situation in Iran has increasingly become a concern to all human rights organisations and communities around the world, particularly the violations of women’s rights. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is concerned about the absurd sentences handed down to women, including decades-long prison sentences and lashing, and various types of normalised torture for basic human rights activities, not to mention Iran’s title of world record holder for women’s executions.  

As the pandemic hit hard last year with its undesirable effects and consequences, especially on human rights, imprisoned human rights defenders and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) remain at risk, especially those who have contracted COVID-19 in prison. The new restrictions imposed as part of the COVID-19 precautions have contributed to affecting basic rights, restricting access to health services, safeguarding, protection and support.

Instead of reacting by increasing the pressure on Iran to stop violating women’s rights, the country was rewarded with a seat on a United Nations body responsible for women. It is still hard to digest the news that 43 of the 54 states in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elected Iran to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (UN CSW) for a four-year term beginning next year. The Commission, which is the UN's main intergovernmental body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, can’t be overseen by Iran, a country with an astonishing women's rights violations record.

Although the voting is by secret ballot, at least four of the 15 European and Western Group countries, which includes Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, voted in favour of Iran. 

Through our research, GCHR found that there has been a systematic use of certain laws to target WHRDs in Iran. These laws mostly fall within three main categories: 1) laws related to the sanctity pertaining to religion, 2) collaboration with foreign powers and espionage and 3) threats to national security, as well as spreading propaganda against the state. All of the laws are vague and broad, leaving them open to interpretation, which in turn has led to manipulation of cases to fit within the criteria. 

Yet, the Islamic Republic of Iran has signed numerous international conventions which aim to protect the status of women’s human rights. Amongst these are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), among others. Despite these commitments, the human rights record of the country is dire, with restrictions on freedom of speech, press, religion and widely reported imprisonment of journalists and human rights defenders. 

Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, noted on the occasion of Iran’s election to the UN CSW, "some positive steps" for Iranian women and girls in education and in citizenship rights. But he said "egregious gender-based discrimination persists in law, practice and societal attitudes, disempowering women and girls from participating and contributing in society." 

“Women are treated as half citizens if not less than that in Iran, for the law stands against women in all walks of life and practices are even more discriminatory in reality. A misogynist state that uses all its power, including legislation, to limit women’s ability to be full citizens, should not be backed up by Western democracies, to be legitimatised to promote and lead on women’s rights,” said Weaam Youssef, GCHR’s WHRDs Programme Manager. 

Despite the fact that on 11 May 2020, the Iranian Parliament ratified the Sentence Reduction Law, which helped to reduce the sentences and brought about the release of some human rights defenders, many WHRDs remain behind bars for protesting their basic rights in Iran. In fact, many well-known WHRDs have had their sentenced increased in the past few months. 

For instance, on 24 May 2021, Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to an additional two and a half years in prison, 80 lashes, and two separate fines for her activism on behalf of human rights. On 05 May 2015, Mohammadi was initially sentenced to 16 years in prison for her peaceful human rights activism but was released in October 2020 after serving five years and put under a travel ban. 

Mohammadi is the recipient of the 2018 Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society, 2016 Human Rights Award of the German city of Weimar, 2011 Per Anger Prize, and the Swedish government’s international award for human rights. 

On 05 December 2020, prominent human rights lawyer and WHRD Nasrin Sotoudeh was returned to prison while she was weak and ill from the effects of COVID-19 and a hunger strike protest. The authorities cruelly returned her to prison on the eve of the Right Livelihood Awards, for which she is one of four laureates in 2020.

Sotoudeh was arrested on 13 June 2018, but had been in and out of prison since 2010. On 11 March 2019, she was sentenced to combined penalties of 148 lashes and 38 years in prison, in two cases related to her work against the death penalty, and in support of the movement against the compulsory hijab. Sotoudeh is featured in a new documentary filmed secretly over several years in Iran:

In April 2021, both Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee were sentenced to an additional one year in prison, on top of previous sentences. Iraee was sentenced in absentia by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran on the charge of "propaganda against the state." She is currently in prison in Amol, in Mazandaran Province, northern Iran, which is a city that reportedly has one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 casualties. Iraee and her husband, Arash Sadeqi, were arrested at home on 24 October 2016 and sentenced to prison. She was released and then rearrested in 2019 and has been serving a prison term of three years and seven months

Also in April 2021, Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, was sentenced to another one-year prison sentenceand banned from leaving the country for a year. The court found her guilty of "spreading propaganda against the regime" for having attended a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in London back in 2009 and speaking to a BBC Persian journalist. In mid-March 2020Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was sentenced to prison for five years in 2016, was released temporarily from Evin prison in Tehran.

GCHR reiterates its calls to the Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally free all WHRDs in Iran, and drop all charges against them, as well as to elevate women’s rights, and respect its international commitments towards human rights and equality. 

GCHR calls on all allies and UN member states to acknowledge their responsibility not to appoint and elect states with a legacy of human rights violations - such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria - to various human rights positions at the UN instead of scrutinising them through the UN mechanisms.

GCHR urges the international community not to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations and the systematic targeting of women in Iran. Listen and proactively work with the Iranian WHRDs to scrutinise Iran and examine its human rights record.