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Nov 1, 2007
29 Min read time
Gender Apartheid in Iran.
Translated from the Persian by Abbas Milani.
Iran’s political-legal system is founded on apartheid, on unjust and untenable discrimination among members of society. Social opportunities and privileges are not distributed on the basis of merit, but according to such indefensible criteria as race, religion, and allegiance to the political regime. While some are deprived of certain basic human rights and the chance to benefit from their talents and efforts, others are afforded “special rights.” They benefit handsomely from coveted social opportunities and privileges. One of the most glaring fault lines of this apartheid system is gender. In Iran, women suffer every injustice and deprivation endured by Iranian men, and gender injustice as well.
Unfortunately, gender apartheid has not drawn as much outrage around the world as racial apartheid has. The international community was rightly united in its opposition to the regime in South Africa that denied blacks equal rights with whites, and it rose up to topple that system. But it has voiced little opposition to many societies in which the rights of women are systematically trampled upon. Under the guise of cultural pluralism, or respect for religious freedom, some clerical leaders have even rationalized gender apartheid.
In Iran, those in power justify gender apartheid with religious arguments and claim divine origins for it. They accuse internal critics of violating divine edicts, and through such intimidation they hope to silence defenders of women’s rights. With this strategy, their own history of passing misogynist laws is cast as a defense of religion and Shari’ah, divine law. And because this strategy gains them support from ostensibly apolitical traditionalist religious forces, the regime can use the gender issue to consolidate its political power. That is why every time there is a crisis in Iranian society, the regime increases pressure on women and anyone who champions their cause.
Equality should be the foundation of democracy. Citizens of a democratic society must have equal rights and opportunities. As a result, equality between men and women must be considered a cardinal element of a democratic system. For this reason, fighting discrimination against women has a special place in the Iranian democratic movement. Here I hope to show the areas in which women’s rights have been denied on the basis of Shari’ah, and also to address the questions: do the laws that discriminate against women in fact have divine origins, and is rejecting them tantamount to renouncing Islam itself?
It is important first to clarify the term “discrimination against women.” According to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, discrimination against women is “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” One hundred and eighty-five countries are signatories to this convention, including all of Iran’s neighbors, but Iran is not.
In Iran today, any discussion of laws that oppress women is dangerous. It can bring about a prison sentence, or even cost one’s life. Religious traditionalists who support these laws might construe any such criticism as hubris or an attack on the prophet. Some clergy have declared that such critiques imply a rejection of divine edicts, and the more radical followers of these clerics take such declarations as a license to kill the critics. Indeed, according to the criminal laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran, if someone murders me on the suspicion that I have committed heresy, the murderer will not receive any punishment if he proves my heresy in court.
Nonetheless, at the end of this essay I will offer my views on what should be done in the realms of politics, society, and culture to fight the widespread abrogation of women’s rights in Iran.
• • •
Here are some of the most important arenas in which the rights of women are disregarded in the name of religion.
Health and the value of life. Statistics show that Iranian women suffer more than men from hunger and malnutrition, and they have less access to health care. In traditional families, boys enjoy more privileges than girls in the realms of medical care, sports, and nutrition; as a result they have better general health. This inequality flows from the cultural attitude—with roots in Shari’ah—that values the life of a man more than the life of a woman. According to Shari’ah, the blood money for a man is twice that for a woman. Assume, for example, that an illiterate criminal rapes and brutally murders a woman who is a scholar and a university professor. If the woman’s family forfeits its right to blood money and instead kills the murderer in retribution (which is allowed by Shari’ah), they must pay the man’s family a sum equal to half the blood money stipulated in the law for the woman’s murder, while the man’s family pays nothing.
Sanctity of the body. Women’s rights to the sanctity of their bodies are freely violated in Iran. Women are, on a large scale, victims of rape, coerced sexual relations with their husbands, domestic violence, and all manner of insults and sexual violations in the public domain. Again Iran’s traditional religious culture paves the way for this injustice. One of the obsessions of Shari’ah is to exercise control over women’s bodies. According to traditional religious values, a good woman is chaste. A woman whose behavior deviates from an ideal image of chastity is labeled “unchaste” and men are no longer required to respect her. For example, according to the culture promoted by the rulers in Iran, a woman who is bad hejab—who does not wear the clothing approved by the regime—is said to invite men to abuse her sexually. And if she is assaulted the perpetrator easily escapes legal punishment.
The sanctity of women’s bodies is also violated regularly in their own homes. According to the traditional interpretation of Islam, a man has the right to physically punish an “unruly” wife. Only if her injuries are excessive can the law, under some circumstances, allow the woman to file for divorce; physical abuse alone is not sufficient grounds for divorce or legal action. Related is the problem of rape in married life. According to the traditional reading, a woman must always comply with her husband’s sexual demands. If she refuses, the man has the right to force her into compliance. Underlying the law is the notion that a woman’s body is not hers, and that she has no right to make decisions about it on her own. Unfortunately, the concept of rape within marriage is either defended or altogether absent from Iran’s cultural and legal discourse. The law can even punish a woman for resisting. There are harsh punishments for rapists who are not married to the victim, but the reasoning is concerned with protecting the husband’s property. In short, the law defends not the sanctity of women’s bodies, but the rights of the men who own them.
The most visible injustices are the humiliating physical punishments meted out to women who have broken the law or are convicted of crimes. For example, the punishment for a woman who engages in an extramarital sexual act is whipping or stoning. According to the law, these punishments must be carried out in public.
Dress. Freedom to choose one’s own dress is an individual’s prerogative. No authority, and certainly not the state, has the right to coerce a certain style of dress from its citizens. Unfortunately, Iranian women have long been deprived of this freedom. In modern Iranian history, for example, Reza Shah forced women to take off their head-covers, and subsequently the Islamic Republic forced them to wear head-covers again.
Work outside the home. One of the most important freedoms is the ability to safely seek employment outside the home, to choose one’s work, to find employment without discrimination, and to receive fair pay. But Iranian women who work outside their homes must first gain the right to leave home when they wish. According to Shari’ah, a woman can leave the house only if she has the permission of her father or her husband. The husband can easily withhold this permission. In addition, the current legal and political system in the country has strictly forbidden women to hold certain jobs. They cannot become judges, or the president, or the spiritual leaders. It is common practice in the Islamic Republic to bar women from many top governmental posts, including ministerial appointments, the Council of Experts, and the Guardian Council. Excluding women from the centers of power has curtailed their ability to bring about changes in their social condition. Traditionalist Islamic theorists, as well as regime apologists, claim that these restrictions reflect women’s natural limitations, that due to their emotional and sensual nature, women are unfit for managerial and leadership positions that require the application of reason and logic.
Mobility and free assembly. If a woman is not entitled to leave her home to work without her husband’s permission, neither can she leave it to buy groceries or visit her parents. In many Islamic countries, including Iran, women cannot leave the country without the written permission of their husbands. Needless to say, limiting women’s mobility implies, by extension, restricting their right to assembly, particularly for the purpose of political protest.
Free expression and political participation. In a despotic society (such as racial apartheid), even men are deprived of the rights to free expression and political participation, but religion imposes especially strict limits on women in this area. Again, religion’s role in limiting women’s mobility is likely to limit their free expression and political participation. Another contributing factor is the relatively high rate of illiteracy due to religiously grounded cultural attitudes.
The right of citizenship and the right to transfer it to children. According to the U.N. Convention, the right of citizenship must be transferable to a child equally through the mother and the father. Iranian law allows no independent right of citizenship for women. A child born to an Iranian mother and an Afghani father, for example, is not considered a citizen of Iran and cannot receive an Iranian identity card.
Marriage and family. Family law is the arena where women’s rights are most trampled upon in the name of religion. Religious rules as well as traditional culture largely deny women the right to choose their husbands. Most often, men choose their mates, and, particularly in non-urban areas, girls must follow the wishes of their fathers; only a father’s permission makes a marriage acceptable in both civil law and Shari’ah. In family life, most crucial decisions about children are made by the father. If the marriage proves unhappy, only the man may file for divorce. Women can ask for divorce only if they can submit to the court special evidence of a husband’s impotence or unwillingness to perform his conjugal duties, say, or desertion. But most often preparing such evidence is impossible. After divorce, the father is invariably granted custody of the children. Another particularly demeaning reality for women is the practice of polygamy. Current laws recognize not only men’s right to polygamy but also their right to enter numerous temporary marriages (sighe).
Birth control. Fortunately, contraception is legal in Iran today and clinics provide means of preventing unwanted pregnancies as well as family-planning programs. But only the pressures of a population explosion led the government to urge theologians to endorse contraception or at least stop publicly opposing it. Bearing fewer children not only improves the health of women, but also fosters better conditions for them to develop and improve their lives. Yet the question of abortion remains a highly sensitive issue in Iranian society. Fatwas issued by many clerics ban abortion, regardless of whether they view the fetus as having a soul. And abortion is legally banned except in extraordinary circumstances. But what is most striking about the clerical debate is the stark absence of any reference women’s right to their own bodies. In the West, the dilemma of abortion is often perceived as a conflict between two competing rights: a fetus's right to life and a woman's right to control her own body. The real question is under what circumstances one of these two rights takes precedence over the other. For Iranian clerics, women do not have such rights, so they are unable to make independent decisions about their bodies, including the decision to terminate a pregnancy.
Education. While women’s access to education in Iranian society has improved, considerable obstacles remain. Women’s entry into certain fields is either entirely barred or severely limited. In many small towns young girls are denied the chance to study at a major university, since all such universities are in big cities and traditional religious families will simply not allow their young daughters to live in the city unsupervised. Even after graduation, women have a far more difficult time entering the job market and finding suitable jobs in the areas of their expertise.
The list of arenas in which women’s rights are denied in the name of religion is much longer than what is introduced here, which should be enough to show that gender apartheid exists in Iranian society.
• • •
Is criticizing laws that deny women’s rights tantamount to rejecting religion and violating divine edicts? For many people of faith the answer is no. Let me explain.
First, theologians share no consensus on the meaning of many edicts. Even among traditionalist theologians we can find fatwas that contradict some discriminatory laws. In matters under contention, the pious can simply follow the rulings of those theologians who have shown more sensitivity to issues of gender justice.
Second, theologians divide the entire collection of religious edicts into two categories: those dealing with prayer (ebadat), and those dealing with contracts. The first category covers the relations between individuals and God, such as the laws on daily prayers and fasting. The second category covers social relations between individuals. Laws relating to women fall for the most part in the latter category. Abu Mohammad Ghazali, one of the most eminent theologians in the history of Islam, has suggested that religious laws (particularly those concerning contracts) are not part of religious learning. In his opinion, piety must be defined in ethical and spiritual terms, and not through religious laws or kalam.
Similarly, some Shia theologians have argued that doubting or rejecting religious rules is not in itself apostasy. For example, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, has written clearly on the subject in one of his books.
What is essential in Islam, and its acceptance makes a person a Muslim, is the principle of God’s existence and of his unity, the prophetic principle, and maybe belief in the day of reckoning. The rest are Islamic rules and they have no relation to the principle of belief in Islam. If somebody believes in those principles, but because of some errors does not believe in Islamic rules, that person is a Muslim, on the condition that disbelief in rules does not result in denial of the prophetic principles. Fairness requires that we do not accept the claim that Islam consists of accepting every rule and opinion offered by the prophet and the refusal to accept any one of them, for any reason is tantamount to apostasy.
The founder of the Islamic Republic, who is a traditionalist theologian, posits that even denying the obligatory nature of daily prayer or pilgrimage (hadj), both of which fall under the theological category dealing with prayer and are accepted by all theologians, is not in itself apostasy. If such an argument can be made about rules dealing with these fundamental components of Islam, it can certainly be extended to rules that discriminate against women. Even in the context of traditional Islamic theology, then, there is room to reject laws that hurt women.
Third, over the past century reformist religious movements have tried to find new interpretations of religion, within the context of religious logic, that are compatible with modern rationality and human rights. Theologians have used several methods for correcting laws that discriminate against women.
The first is grounded in what can be called the “conservative critique.” Many traditionalists argue that the Islamic legal system for women is essentially just but that some aspects need correcting to reflect our times. Their style is a form of mending; they resist change for as long as possible, and when resistance becomes too difficult or costly, they offer a limited solution to a specific problem. They invariably try to legitimize these changes by citing some Qur’anic verse or Hadith. When it comes to the question of women, these theologians characteristically address only specific problems and avoid a systematic approach. Regarding the question of the right of women to divorce, for example, they suggest that a woman can, upon marriage, demand that her husband grant her the right to divorce. In such cases the woman’s legal status is no doubt improved. But the fundamental principle—that divorce is the right of men and can be granted only when men give their consent—remains unchanged.
The second approach can be called the “historical critique.” In this critique, we must place religious rules in their specific cultural and historical context to evaluate them. We know that a majority of Islamic rules, as enumerated in the Qur’an and in Hadith, existed in Arabia before the advent of Islam. Islamic Shari’ah merely gave them a seal of approval. They call these “reconfirmed” rules (emzai). Only a handful of rules were formulated during the life of the prophet on the basis of Islamic ideas. These are called “foundational” rules (tasisi). Both reconfirmed and foundational rules (particularly those dealing with contracts) were based on economic and intellectual exigencies in Arabia at the time of Islam’s founder. Some argue that if the historical circumstances have changed, the rules they gave rise to have become obsolete. For example, today no one thinks that the rules endorsing slavery are still valid. The same argument has been made about polygamy. According to some theologians, polygamy was practiced by tribal societies in which men were responsible for the safety of women and children. Today, when civic institutions can provide the protection needed by women and children, they argue, polygamy is unjustifiable. If we expand this point of view, we arrive at an important principle: that religious rules are applicable only to the time of the prophet, unless their usefulness in other times can be rationally established.
A third approach, which can be called the “radical critique,” is more innovative and different in two ways. It is also more prevalent among religious intellectuals. Some argue that the Qur’an, as revelation, has a transhistorical and transcultural essence that speaks to all humans, at all times and in all cultures; it also has a contingent or historical aspect that is a reflection of Arab culture at the time the book was revealed to the prophet. The prophet was forced to take into account the culture of those directly receiving his revelation in order to make his message more palatable to them, but the way the Arabs lived fourteen hundred years ago should not be privileged religiously over the values and social practices of other societies. Being a Muslim means accepting the essence, and not the historical aspects, of the religion. This interpretation holds that many religious rules (particularly those dealing with contracts) are simply contingent aspects of faith. Being a Muslim in no way requires belief or dedication to these rules. According to these religious thinkers, the prophet simply used the Arab culture of his time as an example to demonstrate to future generations how they could give a society a more divine direction without tearing it asunder. This analysis suggests that all religious rules regarding women are contingent aspects of religion. Negating them in no way implies a rejection of religion or opposition to the prophet.
These three positions are offered by some people of faith. The issues are different for secular thinkers. For them religion is nothing more than the history of religion, which is a history of discrimination and inequalities among Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, slaves and freemen, clerics and non-clerics. When theology is politicized, and when the state becomes religious, these inequalities are forced on society by the religious state. For them problems that are founded on religion, such as gender apartheid, cannot be solved by a different reading of religion. The solution is to separate the institution of the mosque from the state.
Most secular intellectuals see Iran’s gender apartheid as an integral part of the country’s general system of apartheid. Iranian apartheid is based on a particular interpretation of Islam that divides society into “insiders” and “outsiders.” The class of insiders includes the coterie of the ruling Court, but extends beyond that to encompass all of the pious. This pervasive privileging of the rulers’ ideology ends up creating gender apartheid, because every time the rulers increase inequalities between men and women, they receive the approbation of the traditionalists. The rulers have on occasion shown some flexibility and have even made some adaptations in their ruling ideology. And they have no qualms about suspending beliefs considered foundational to the faith, such as the sanctity of the mosque; the country’s former supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, once temporarily suspended belief in the oneness of Allah. But they have never wavered in their belief in the natural superiority of men over women, and its concomitant idea that women are less capable than men of using reason and bearing responsibility.
As secular intellectuals have emphasized, the ruling ideology conceives of society as analogous to a family, whose members are uninformed minors in need of supervision. This notion of guardianship is intimately connected to the traditional belief in Islamic jurisprudence, which maintains that among minors women are the most minor of all, that among the uninformed women are the most uninformed of all.
Many secular intellectuals believe that devaluing and humiliating women is not only in itself despicable, but that it also degrades the entire society. Their insight sheds light on many events in the history of the Islamic Republic. Every time the rulers want to intimidate their opponents, they increase their attacks on women. Their suppression of women today in fact signals their weakness. Seeking to bring the society around to their vision, they are being defeated by the condemnation they have received both externally and internally.
Leftist thinkers have paid special attention to the double exploitation of working-class women. Some secular theories assert that men in society try to conceal their own humiliation, or compensate for it, by showing off their power over women. The official ideology in Iranian society betrays a male inferiority complex that is unleashed on women. A litany of humiliations contributes to this inferiority complex, including the one resulting from historical backwardness compared with the West.
In the secular intellectuals’ approach to the question of women, cultural critique is central. They point out that humiliating and insulting women, viewing them as sexual objects, and subjecting them to policies that institutionalize these views have contributed to the deterioration of men’s attitude toward women. Iranian culture, they say, has regressed much in this area since the advent of the Islamic Republic. Criticism of women’s subjugation, they stress, must not be confined to politics and law. Rather, fundamental cultural change is needed: a democratic re-education of the entire society, which requires imbuing men with the spirit of freedom and equality.
When we talk of secular intellectuals, we must bear in mind that not all of them are anti-religion, although they accuse religious intellectuals of a vain search for modern progressive ideas in religion. It is possible to have faith, even Islamic faith, and yet believe in secularism, in the separation of church and state, and in the potential of reason to assess and explicate the affairs of this world. In the West, there are many thinkers who hold religious beliefs but are secular in their approach and offer radical critiques of the religious tradition. According to some who are indebted to feminist critiques of patriarchy, traditional religion has been formed by masculine sensibility and cognition. In the age of the Enlightenment, Kant warded off those who saw religion as mere superstition by insisting that religion remain in the realm of reason. Feminist critics today rightly point out that Kant’s reason still had obvious masculine qualities and that modern religion must embrace the kind of sensitivity and cognition that invites all to peace and coexistence. Peace is not possible without equality between genders. Rejecting ideas that lead to gender apartheid is the primary mark of a humanitarian and ethical society.
• • •
What can be done to fight gender apartheid? We must begin on three fronts: culture, law, and politics.
To address the plight of women in our society, we need to work on culture more than anything else. Discriminatory laws against women have their genesis in traditional images of men and women, in ideas about “femininity” and “masculinity.” As long as these images pervade our society and family lives, the status of women will not improve much. These images have deep roots in religious as well as non-religious literature, so our first task is to become conscious of them and subject them to criticism. In my view, we must recognize that the following deeply embedded, traditional views on gender are not “natural”:
Boys and girls do not have the same ability to master technology. According to this view, women do not have sufficient rational and logical faculties, and tend to be more emotional and instinctive. In traditional literature, women are symbols of the soul, while men represent reason;
Differences in body, mind, and psyche should dictate men’s and women’s roles in society and family; therefore, it is natural that men take the lead in these social hierarchies, since a healthy society is like a healthy body, and in a healthy body, the mind dominates the passions;
“Justice,” according to our ancestors, is putting everything in its natural place. Thus, if women’s natural place is to be subservient to men, then men’s domination over women is a requirement of justice;
Boys should be raised for roles that are natural to their capacities (like management, supervision, and leadership) and girls for naturally feminine roles (like bearing children, housekeeping, and taking orders). The poet Sa’edi describes the “ideal good woman” as one who obeys her husband’s orders, keeps herself for her husband, and has, as the ultimate goal of her life, making her husband, and not herself, the “king.” The good, obedient and pious woman turns a poor man into a king;
Since in the traditional vision women are naturally inferior to men, they cannot enjoy equal rights with them;
Any change in the “natural” order can only bring about ruinous consequences for everyone, including women.
Given these deeply entrenched, mutually reinforcing ideas about gender, we must begin our cultural effort in the household, in schools, in our textbooks and our pedagogy, and in the way we raise our children. In the context of the family, we must recognize that in the nature of familial relationships and division of labor, injustices hurt women. Assigning social roles and responsibilities can be considered just only when men and women are afforded an equal chance to take them on; when they accept roles commensurate with their individual abilities and talents; and when their choices are made freely. Otherwise, the structure of the family and of society will remain unjust. I am not suggesting that traditional roles for women in the household and society are unjust. But it is unjust to force these roles on women.
In families founded on women’s degradation and humiliation, it is difficult to raise sons who respect women. It is also hard to raise daughters who believe in their equality with men and have the self-confidence and independence they need to compete with men in the social arena. As a corrective, both mothers and fathers should perform roles traditionally regarded as masculine or feminine. Men must spend more time with their children and women must take more active roles in activities outside the home. This process will heighten our children’s awareness of the gender inequalities around them, and will help us raise children who find gender apartheid as despicable as political apartheid.
There is a second important point I would like to make about Iranian culture and family life. This relates to our idea of the morally good human being. We all strive to raise good and laudable children. We generally do this with a conscious or unconscious image of the “good person.” Unfortunately this image is invariably masculine or male-centered, synonymous with the “good man.” For example, we refer to a solid and dependable promise as a “manly promise,” and when someone shows compassion and justice, we say that that person has behaved in a manly manner. The Arabic word for compassion, morrova, has at its etymological root the word mor, which means manly.
If we look at the list of characteristics that our mystics have considered “masculine” and “feminine,” we notice that most of the qualities we consider virtues are associated with men. According to stereotype, men are independent, competitive, aggressive, forceful, rational, inattentive to appearances, dependable and reliable, sexually active, and inarticulate about emotions. Women are dependent, cooperative, emotional, sensual, tender and nonviolent, overly concerned with appearances, disciplined and tidy, in need of protection, sexually passive, and comfortable articulating their feelings. But we must define moral virtue and vice independent of gender. If independence is a virtue, it is a virtue for both men and women. If the spirit of cooperation is a virtue, it must be a virtue for both genders. That is why parents must, within the confines of family life, teach their daughters to become independent and self-reliant, to follow logic and reason, and to show firmness when necessary. They must also teach their sons to cooperate, and to articulate their emotions without shame. The goal of families, in short, must not be raising good men or women but good people.
Rethinking traditional notions of masculinity is also a great challenge on the legal front. Legislators made these discriminatory laws against women based on what they assumed were lordly edicts. Some of the traditionalist theologians do not consider it necessary to garner public support for laws that are founded on Shari’ah. In their view, God’s commandments must be implemented, regardless of public approval. More moderate theologians have suggested that since the majority of the people are religious, the rules of Shari’ah become law on account of the majority’s desire, and respecting these laws becomes incumbent on every citizen. For example, covering women’s bodies according to Islamic rules (Hejab) becomes mandatory even for non-Muslim women.
But neither position holds up. Civil laws cannot be deemed enforceable simply on religious grounds. And lawmakers must never pass laws that conflict with principles of human rights (including the rights of the society’s minorities.)
Let me explain these two claims. Assume, for example, that some people, based on their religious beliefs, think that following Hejab should be mandatory for all members of their society, and they require it by law. In such a case, the rights of non-Muslims, or of Muslims who prefer not to follow these dress rules, are violated. Some might claim that following religious rules, including Hejab, will bring about the health and spiritual salvation of a society, and that everyone, even nonbelievers, who is forced to accept these rules will ultimately benefit from their consequences. What if, however, the same people were to move to another society where followers of another religion are in the majority, and this majority enforces their rules on the society at large? What if, for example, the second society forbids girls to cover their hair in public schools? Most likely followers of the first religion will object, claiming that the rule conflicts with freedom of religion and human rights. Their claim is certainly valid. But if the rules of the second society are unjust, so must be the first. This is, in fact, precisely what is happening today: In Iran, religious fundamentalists insist on enforcing Islamic rules of Hejab on everyone. At the same time, when countries such as France attempt to bar girls from wearing Islamic Hejab in public schools, the same fundamentalists suddenly become defenders of human rights and religious freedom. The double standard is untenable rationally and morally.
If respecting human rights and religious freedom is a good thing (and I certainly think it is ), then in our own society we must afford the same rights to those who follow other religions, or hold different ideas and opinions. The state must recognize the right of women to choose their own dress (as well as other rights). Laws and public policies must be based not on religion but on society’s collective secular reason.
An important conclusion follows from what I have said: We must not support any law or public policy that limits our lives and behavior, unless there are rational, secular arguments favoring such limits. I mean arguments whose validity does not require belief in God, or in certain religious rules, or in the views of certain religious authorities.
Everyone agrees that laws must abide by moral principles, particularly the principle of justice. Why should morality take precedence over religion in the law? The precedence of moral principles over religion has in fact had many supporters among Islamic theologians both past and present. Most E’tezali theologians, who are rationalists indebted to Plato and Aristotle, and many Shia theologians have believed that moral principles (like justice) are defined independently of religion, take priority over religion, and even constitute the foundations for understanding and legitimizing religion. We must, in other words, first define the meaning and parameters of justice according to secular reasoning, and using that definition try to decide whether religion is just or not. Laws that breach human rights, including the laws that discriminate against women, are clear examples of injustice. Even the most devout must question their validity.
Defenders of women’s rights must, along with their work in the cultural and legal domains, call for urgent and significant political action. We Iranians must fight for the concrete demand that the Islamic Republic join the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
If the Islamic Republic signs this convention, it will commit itself to work toward seven clear goals: To include in its laws and its constitution the principle of equality between men and women; to pass laws prohibiting discrimination against women and establish penalties for such discrimination; to ensure the full implementation of these laws through the judiciary and other relevant institutions; to forbid public officials to discriminate against women; to use all means at its disposal to end any discrimination against women by any person, institution or organization; to eliminate all rules, regulations, and rituals that are discriminatory against women; and to repeal all discriminatory criminal laws.
Unfortunately, all attempts to urge Iran to join the convention have been blocked by traditional religious ayatollahs and fundamentalist groups. Among the top religious authorities, only one cleric, Ayatollah Montazeri, has supported this aim .
The women’s freedom movement has a long, hard road ahead. But the horizon is bright as long as we do not forget that just laws and freedom can only come about through the efforts of women and men who prize these values. We must begin our work in our homes and schools. Our most important work is to raise children and citizens who love freedom and demand justice.
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