For over two months, since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being arrested by Iran’s moral police for wearing her hijab incorrectly, Iranian women have been protesting relentlessly against a regime that has limited women’s freedom and rights for 43 years.
More than 450 protesters have died so far, according to the organization Human Rights Activists in Iran. Several women were killed by government forces after Amini, though officials have attempted to cover up the crimes by reportedly forcing the families of the deceased to say the cause of death was suicide. The UN Commission on Human Rights has opened an investigation into the Iranian government’s conduct.
While the Islamic Republic of Iran has committed egregious violations of women’s rights for decades, it also currently sits on the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), arguably the highest international forum for the definition, protection, and affirmation of women’s rights.
“The CCW is a normative body. It exercises global leadership in setting the norms on what gender equality and women’s empowerment should be,” says Gissou Nia an Iranian-American human rights lawyer. “So it’s nothing short of outrageous to suggest that the Islamic Republic should have any part of a commission like that. They absolutely should not.”
The CSW was created in 1946, and comprises 45 members elected for a four-year term by the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), an advisory group of 54 member states. Election is based on a principle of fair geographical distribution. Iran’s election was conducted in April 2021 by secret ballot, which is the protocol when the candidate is disputed. (Undisputed candidates are elected by acclamation.)
According to the CSW’s charter (pdf. p.1), its mandate is to promote “women’s rights in political, economic, civil, social and educational fields,” and to make recommendations to the council on “urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women’s rights.”
The list of what constitutes an “urgent problem” is long, and includes “arbitrary arrests of women,” “deaths and torture of women in custody,” and “stereotypical attitudes towards the role and responsibilities of women.”
Iran has been committing most of the violations listed by the commission for years.
Anyone can bring a problem to the CSW’s attention, as detailed in the commission’s (blurry) flow chart for dealing with external reports. But if someone were to report Iran, the group of countries deciding whether the country’s actions are in violation of women’s rights would include... Iran.
As most of the world is still discriminating against women to some extent, and in many countries gender abuses are commonplace, Iran isn’t the first CSW member to hold a questionable record in terms of women’s rights. Afghanistan, for one, currently sits on the commission alongside Iran (although the Taliban isn’t an accredited representative at the UN), and Saudi Arabia was voted to join next year.
But as protests and government attacks on women continue in Iran, so does the push to remove the country from the commission. Human rights organizations including Vital Voices and For Freedoms, together with a global coalition of Iranian women leaders, have launched a campaign to remove Iran from the CSW.
The effort includes an open letter to UN member states, which has collected nearly 100,000 signatures, asking for the removal of Iran. The movement also has high-profile endorsements of figures including former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, South Africa’s former first lady Graça Machel, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Members of the Canadian, UK, and New Zealand governments have stated support for the motion, and US vice president Kamala Harris announced the White House’s intention to “work with our partners to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women.”
Nia, the human rights lawyer, who also is working on the campaign, is wary of putting the spotlight on US involvement and away from the Iranian women who are behind the petition. “Some of the big-name signatories on our letter are actually in Iran. Others are in prison. Others [...] couldn’t sign for security reasons. But they’re they’re all in solidarity. So the women of Iran are asking for the Islamic Republic to be removed,” says Nia. “This isn’t about the US. This is about the women of Iran.”
The importance of removing Iran is beyond symbolic, says Nia. The country’s presence on the commission de facto justifies Iran’s actions as permissible under the framework of women’s rights, and gives a pass to a country where discrimination exists by design.
“Every country has cultural issues of misogyny, patriarchy [...] but most of the countries don’t actually have it enshrined in their law,” Nia says. “This [is] akin to if apartheid South Africa was on a UN commission for promotion of racial equality.”
The first step to get Iran out of the CSW is for a member of the ECOSOC to approve a resolution—similar to the one suggested by UN Watch, a Swiss nonprofit—condemning Iran, and asking for its termination on the commission. According to Reuters, the US is set to introduce such a resolution at a council meeting on Dec. 14. In order to pass, it will need the support of at least 28 of the 54 members, or a majority of members present for the vote.
The clamoring for a resolution appears to be gaining momentum, but it is too soon to say whether it will pass, as countries like China, Russia, and Zimbabwe are likely to vote no to protect political allegiances.
To make sure opponents are a minority, Nia and other activists say the best way to show solidarity to the women of Iran now is to circulate the resolution, and push international governments, particularly members of the ECOSOC, to support it.