By Hajer Naili
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Sanctions easing by the U.S. could lessen Iran's isolation and help the country's civil society groups. But some exiled women's rights activists are pessimistic. Real human rights progress, they say, can't be expected from a religious dictatorship.
Credit: Garry Knight on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)--From her home in Malaysia, Iranian Maryam Moazen-Zadehe has been closely following the news about U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, but not with much hope.
"Every single bit of dialogue revolves around the nuclear issue and then trade and economics," said Moazen-Zadehe, who fled her country in 2009, when the Iran regime was cracking down on demonstrators protesting the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "There's never any mention of the human rights violations, the vicious oppression of the people of Iran."
Moazen-Zadehe has been jailed in Iran for her advocacy of women's rights and, after fleeing in 2009, remains active from afar. She and other advocates are openly skeptical that Iran's new president will be open to any changes in the status of women or the tolerance of public advocacy. Others, however, believe the diplomatic engagement between the United States and Iran's leadership could lead to lifting some of the limitations of women's rights.
The six-month interim agreement signed last November between Iran and the P5 +1 (the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) freezes Iran's nuclear program in exchange for a modest easing of sanctions.
For women's rights activists, any global attention to Iran brings with it the chance that the international spotlight could focus on problems such as human rights and the imprisonment of political prisoners.
Sanctions easing could also decrease the country's isolation, as well as its economic tensions. And that could help reboot civil society groups and give Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in November, breathing room to enact reforms, some observers argue.
The election of Rouhani, however, provides little hope to either Moazen-Zadehe or fellow women's rights activist Manda Zand Ervin. The two women, both who no longer live in Iran, brush off the "moderate" label often applied to him in Western media.
"Rouhani is a Shia clergy," said Zand Ervin. "He has been appointed by Khamenei who is the supreme leader of the land. Rouhani will not be able to do anything without the approval of the Ayatollah Khamenei."
Moazen-Zadehe, who was jailed several times in Iran for her human rights activism, doubts the current rapprochement will make her country any better or safer for women and dissidents such as herself.
In an email interview, Moazen-Zadehe said little would change for human rights in her country as long as it remained a religious dictatorship. "Should the relationship between the U.S. and Iran lead to a change of regime or a change in the constitution of the regime, then there's hope, otherwise, there's not a chance," she said.
Moazen-Zadehe's troubles with the regime began in 2001, when she started to offer training classes about human rights violations in the country to women in Teheran.
"I was teaching the uneducated naïve religious women who have been indoctrinated that their basic rights must be ignored based on the current interpretation of religion," said Moazen-Zadehe. For example, the women were told that God will not forgive them if they disobey their men, she said. She taught them that God "is the source of justice" and there's no coercion in the religion.
Five years later, in August 2006, her house in Teheran was raided in the middle of the night by what she calls "agents of the regime." She was arrested and taken to Evin prison, in the northwestern part of the city, leaving behind her 6-month-old son. She was released 10 days later, but rearrested in October 2006 and spent five months in solitary confinement in the same prison.
After her release, she was still under the scrutiny of the regime. Her husband was also arrested and interrogated about her activism. Determined to continue addressing Iran's human rights violations, Moazen-Zadehe decided to adopt a pseudonym for safety reasons.
During the demonstrations opposing the re-election of Ahmadinejad in June 2009, Moazen-Zadehe was one of a group of seven people who were arrested. "This time it was a more serious matter," Moazen-Zadehe said. Instead of appearing in court, Moazen-Zadehe and her son and husband left the country.
Zand Ervin, director of the Alliance of Iranian Women, in Ellicott City, Md., shares Moazen-Zadehe's doubts. She thinks the current deal making might even worsen the climate for human rights.
"They (the international community) are giving the regime of Iran what it wants, which is more money to spend on arms and terrorism," Zand Ervin said in a phone interview. "There is not a single word in this treaty that talks about human rights and the treatment of women and children. This is only political."
As long as Iranian society is dominated by Islamic clergy, Zand Ervin argued, women's and children's rights will not improve. For example, Zand Ervin points to Iran's law to lower the age of marriage for girls to 9 from 18, the imposition of the Islamic dress code and closing the field of education to women.
Zand Ervin, who is writing a book on the history of Iranian female activists, said 33 women are currently jailed for their activism in Iran. Many were arrested for participating in the One Million Signatures Campaign, a parliamentary petition launched across Iran in 2006 to collect one million signatures in favor of revoking and reforming laws that discriminate against women. The campaign seeks legal changes such as equal rights for women in marriage, equal rights to divorce, the end to polygamy and temporary marriage and equal testimony rights for men and women in court.
Zand Ervin said her organization addressed a letter on Oct. 10 last year to first lady Michelle Obama "to ask for her help to influence her husband's policy on behalf of Iranian women." The letter has gone unanswered.
Sussan Tahmasebi has a different point of view of the value of lifting the sanctions against Iran. The co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network for Women's Rights and Security, in Washington, D.C., said in a phone interview that "lifting the sanctions is a positive step."
The U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran in the aftermath of the first election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 have put a lot of pressure on civil society, which has lost its voice over the past four years, Tahmasebi said. Easing the sanctions "would give to the Iranian civil society an opportunity to reorganize and strengthen their activism."
The sanctions hinder women's access to health care, education and employment, said a report published last year by Tahmasebi's organization, ICNA. A scarcity of foreign-made medication and other health care products developed after the introduction of sanctions in the summer of 2010 that directly target insurance companies that insured Iranian shipping imports.
Domestically-produced drugs, which are dependent on imported ingredients, have become more expensive and difficult to find. Many Iranian women, the report found, could no longer afford the high cost of cancer treatment drugs such as Herceptin. Within a year, the price of this drug treatment has risen to about $80,000 from about $20,000, Tahmasebi said.
Access to birth control has also suffered. Tahmasebi said the birth control pill Yaz, which has lawsuits against it in the United States for putting women's lives at risk, is one of the only birth control pills available to women in Iran.
The ICNA's report also found that the sanctions hurt women's employment chances in a male-dominated job market that has suffered high unemployment. In a conservative society, available jobs were given first to unemployed men.
Tahmasebi hopes for positive change under Rouhani but said civil society and women's group must lead by pushing forward their demands.
She is beginning to hope that the One Million Signatures Campaign might reignite. The campaign has been dormant since 2008, after the Iranian regime crackdown closed its offices and arrested its leaders.
"The demands of the One Million Signatures Campaign are still there," said Tahmasebi, a founding member of the campaign. "But whether they (women's activists) organize in the form of One Million Signatures Campaign or in other forms has yet to be determined."
Leila Mouri, a New-York based freelance journalist and Iranian activist, wonders if Rouhani will make good on his word to provide "a more open Iranian society." Mouri keeps in touch with civil society and women's groups in Iran. She avoids talking politics over the Internet with her friends back in Iran for safety reasons, but follows the women's movement through social media.
"Women activists have started to gather again since the election of Rouhani," said Mouri in a phone interview, who sees this as a positive sign.
She doubts that pressures from the outside world will be what bring change to Iran. She said that must come from within the country. "People from inside will find their own way, their strategy," she said.
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women's eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.
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