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Iran on the Commission on the Status of Women? The UN on Transparency and Reason?

May 5, 2010

Photo: Sima Sayyah

Last week, Iran was appointed by the United Nations to be part of the Commission on the Status of Women, a body “dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women.”

This begs the question of whether a country that is part of the commission needs to be actually meeting some criteria in terms of promoting or ensuring the rights of their own women currently…or just vaguely wanting to move in that direction some day.

The appointment comes just a week after an Iranian Cleric suggested that the promiscuity of women might be a cause of earthquakes.  This was happily co-opted by feminists as a showing of real power, but it remains that the sentiment was not meant in that way.  Furthermore, the outrage of a number of highly respected Iranian human rights and women’s rights activists at Iran’s appointment is problematic on several levels.  Certainly the country’s own experts should be consulted…?

That the UN would disregard, either deliberately or accidentally, some of the greatest independent-thinking and freedom-fighting minds, spawned from within Iran’s own culture and tradition, is a misreading of the UN’s own purpose.

Just days before, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi stood before a crowd in Vancouver to address Iran’s oppressive legislative practices, clarifying for the umpteenth time (as she also lays out clearly in her memoir, Iran Awakening) that women in Iran are by no means equal in the eyes of the law.

OK, maybe this was a really clever human rights advocacy strategy on the part of the UN, that by bringing on board one of the countries notorious for the oppression of women, Iran would “see the light.”  As a member of the Commission, says the UN, “every year, representatives gather…to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and advancement of women worldwide.”  Maybe this is to stage a gender equality and rights intervention like that really intense show on A&E?  After all, there is a fervent and growing women’s rights movement in the country, and Iran’s position on the Commission might help to grow that. 

Or maybe, it was a really bureaucratic and ill thought out decision by the UN.  Iran was appointed to the Commission just days after it withdrew its pursuit of a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council and in order to fill a vacancy in the Asia seats.  This unfortunate chronology of events cannot help but suggest a few disturbing things:

1) Commitment to protecting women’s rights is a runner up position to the commitment of human rights (and, that is, essentially not the same notion)

2) The UN’s standards for women’s rights are lower than its standards for human rights.  Having Iran present on the Commission, without explanation of whether this is an important strategy to improving its rights record, is a way to enable impunity on issues that affect women in particular, in light of other political agendas, whether they be oil, land access, or nuclear agreements.

3) If the UN has enough vacancies that they are pulling in every Tom, Dick, and Harry to fill them… they need to have fewer commissions, committees, and councils.  “Default” as a mode of winning is OK when you’re running for president of the fourth grade, but not when you are part of a global body to discern the landscape of rights for women.

While the appointment of Iran may truly be a wrong move, this happens to be a perfect issue for xenophobes to get on board with, since it combines more fuel for the anti-Iranian, anti-Islamic fire, and a chance to be on the right side of a women’s rights argument for once. Therefore it didn’t shock me that Fox News was one of the first sites to break the story. (OK, last snarky thing I’ll write)

Many were quick to join the fray.  Apparently, Canada’s Foreign Minister “deplores” Iran’s appointment.  This, coming from the guy who, just a month ago, told the world that contraceptives don’t save lives and thus would not be funded by a G8 maternal health plan.  Luckily Harper bailed him out with an about-face just a few days later.

Though it doesn’t excuse any ills Iran is perpetrating, my point is that probably most countries part of the Commission on the Status of Women, and other UN rights bodies, are perpetuating one mode of oppression or another.  Perhaps it’s a question of the lesser of evils, rather than immaculate-ness?  When it comes to records on women’s rights, sadly, this may have to be the case.

This is as much about the lack of transparency and reason of the UN as it is the Iranian government’s lack of vision on women’s rights.  It’s just that it’s easier to put a “face” on Iran, as it is a country that has, rather unfairly, become the face of the “other” in a US context for quite some time.  In contrast, it’s hard to be outraged at the UN, and difficult to know who to demand accountability from or to whom to direct ire.  If the UN had a “face,” it might be a stack of papers, or perhaps a maze.

On the one hand we have a country with a highly questionable record on rights (of course, there are myriad); on the other hand we have a rather inefficient global governing body.  The latter is responsible for the former, not the other way round.

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