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Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Situation Report: Iran

November 9, 2009

The Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Situation Report is a monthly column highlighting advances or setbacks in SRHR policy internationally.

From FARS News Agency

This month I’m focusing on sexual rights in Iran.  First, let me give a quick overview of the concept sexual rights.  According to a groundbreaking declaration by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, sexual rights are simply defined as “human rights related to sexuality.”  They are listed in the publication linked above, and include the right to equality, equal protection of the law and freedom from all forms of discrimination based on sex, sexuality or gender.  It’s important that they be defined and delineated so that they may be specifically protected, especially at a time period where fundamentalist policies are restricting the exercise of sexual and reproductive freedom here and around the world.

The ten rights specifically identified by IPPF are based upon treaty law and on the underlying principle of nondiscrimination, in this case based on sex, gender or sexuality; and the principle that “sexuality, and pleasure deriving from it, is a central aspect of being human, whether or not a person chooses to reproduce.”  Violations of sexual rights in Iran range from arrests for “immoral” behavior or dress to sexual assault and rape by government agents, all in service of brutal repression and social control.

woman detained

A woman being detained at a protest, on the Women's Freedom Forum this picture is entitled "normal arrest"

While the detainment of women for inappropriate dress (including too-tight overcoats and pants short enough to show ankle skin) is itself a violation, it also goes beyond “moral policing” to the widespread and purposeful intimidation of women and the use of their sexuality as a weapon against them.  Same goes for teenagers who were beaten for such “moral offenses” as an overly revealing veil or looking at girls.  Their sexuality is being used as a club to beat the individuality and resistance out of them.

Sexual offenses are punishable by hanging or stoningespecially for women.  When one brothel was raided, the prostitutes were arrested– including girls as young as 13.

People of Iran face the death penalty for “crimes against morality” and “sexual crimes,” including homosexuality.  Iranian President Ahmadinejad famously said that there are no homosexuals in Iran, a statement belied by the ongoing executions of people accused of “homosexual acts.”  This great editorial on Salon points out what is at stake in naming and categorizing sexuality in Iran.   It’s also interesting to note that the government subsidizes gender reassignment surgery.  In Iran, you must chose one or the other role in a gender binary or face stoning or hanging.  The documentary Be Like Others explores the phenomenon of sex reassignment in Iran.

There are even several young men on death row for alleged homosexual acts as children, in itself a grave violation of the prohibition against the death penalty for minors.  Another young person, a girl of 16, was hanged for “acts incompatible with chastity” (having sex outside the confines of marriage).  In her case, the religious judge actually placed the rope around her neck.  He also received congratulatory letters from the town’s governor for his “firm approach.”

Women are frequently detained for dress-code offenses, and such charges are often used to detain protesters.  Once within the power of the state, citizens are even more danger. Human Rights Watch has presented evidence that protesters arrested following the contested elections this year were raped by guards.  One prisoner who was raped was left bound and bleeding on the street.  The medical examiner’s report in this case backed up the allegations of rape.  While HRW makes a practice of presenting individual cases with excellent proof, there is evidence that the practice of prisoner rape and sexual assault is widespread.  There are reports of prisoners being forced to rape other prisoners.  In August a pro-reform presidential candidate said that he had heard from former officers and detainees who had since been released that detainees were “savagely raped by their jailers to the point of physical and mental damage.”  Because the rapes seem to be focused on political prisoners, the violation of sexual rights in this case is clearly a tool of repression.

Those that defend human rights, including the famous Shirin Ebadi, are severely punished for their efforts to fight human rights violations.  Ebadi has been jailed and tortured and had her NGO, the Centre for Defense of Human Rights, raided and  shut down.shirin ebadi

Let me be clear that my condemnation of the Iranian government and its ongoing direct violation of sexual rights, and human rights in general, is not a condemnation of Islam.  The conflagration is false, and has too often been used to whip up jingoist fervor for right wing fundamentalist regimes here at home.  I defer to Shirin Ebadi, who asserts that human rights are totally compatible with Islam can be guaranteed within a muslim legal framework.  She herself was a judge before the fundamentalist takeover of Iran in 1979.

I hope that the human rights framework continues to be a tool to put the fundamentalists of the world (within whatever religious tradition they fall) on notice that the violation of rights is unacceptable.  And I hope that the we can back such an assertion up by demanding, as a global community, respect for sexual and reproductive rights and for all human rights for all people.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a few sources from within: the Women’s Freedom Forum– I attended a forum they co-hosted in support of a UN sanction on Iran, and they had a lot of interesting, on-the-ground information.  WFF has a great photo gallery on their site, and just released a book reporting on executions and torture, called Working from Within.  There’s also the Human Rights and Democracy International Project that has had great information on the post-election uprising and ongoing coverage of human rights defenders who are detained.

  1. Ariana permalink
    November 10, 2009 2:07 am

    “While the detainment of women for inappropriate dress (including too-tight overcoats and pants short enough to show ankle skin) is itself a violation …”

    Technically true, like the fact that pot is illegal in the US, does not mean people don’t bypass that law), but please bear in mind that Iran is not Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states.

    Hejab is a post-1979 enforcement, so many women push the envelope when it comes to the “Islamic” public dress code.

    If you walk down the streets of Tehran, you’ll see skin-tight manteaus that reveal thong lines, wispy scarves, calf-length capris, gobs of hair cascading out … creative interpretation of the dress code, suffice it to say.

    The “Morality Police” does do occasional roundups, but by and large, women get by just like potheads and underage drinkers do …

    Ideally, of course, mandatory hejab laws will be removed as in Turkey. Whenever the post-revolutionary “Islamic Republic” collapses or reforms, just like any other ideological regime born of a popular revolution.

  2. Mani permalink
    November 10, 2009 2:09 am

    “Sexual offenses are punishable by hanging or stoning, especially for women”

    This law was abolished a few years ago. Fact-checking … !

  3. Mani permalink
    November 10, 2009 2:21 am

    “Same goes for teenagers who were beaten for such “moral offenses” as an overly revealing veil or looking at girls.”

    Well-written article overall, but some of your statements do not reflect the truth of contemporary Iranian society. The 80s were indeed a time of severe repression, but after the Reform movement of the 90s under Khatami, social liberties have vastly increased.

    The ‘rulebook’ is unchanged, so to speak, but the enforcement is so lax as to be more rhetorical than actual.

    Co-mingling of the sexes is now tolerated in public spaces, private mixed parties (with DJs and bartenders, like clubs but in homes) are no longer raided (except rich people for the purpose of police making extra $$ off bribes), and there has been an “underground sexual revolution” – pre-marital sex and post-marital affairs are prevalent. Most of this carries on unpunished; the regime cracks down periodically to assert its power, but 300 days out of 365 promiscuity and lax hejab is fair game in present-day Iran, and Tehran most of all.

    This is more a cultural phenomenon than a political one per se, but it may also be interpreted as an upshot of “blow back” from sexualized politics. It’s like Eve & the Apple – when something is made taboo, it radicalizes the urge to break that taboo.

    You are looking from the outside with a Western eye that sees the surface, and you can’t be blamed for not knowing what really goes on “under the skin” of Iran. Then again, if you research your topic thoroughly, you’d learn. It’s been written about quite extensively.


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