"Woman, life, freedom": The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in light of the women's protest in Iran
November 25 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in accordance with the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly from December 1999. This day aims to raise awareness of the issue, increase legislation, enforcement of laws and appropriate punishment, as well as encourage women to seek help.
At the request of the TAU Alumni Organization, Dr. Liora Hendelman-Baavur, Head of The Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, alumna of the Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies in TAU’s Faculty of Humanities, and the School of Political Science, Government and International Relations in TAU’s Faculty of Social Sciences, writes about the rising wave of protests in the Islamic Republic of Iran, centered on the slogan: "Woman, Life, Freedom", as a sign of the ongoing battle of women in Iran for reform.
Violence by the morality police of the Islamic Republic of Iran led on the 16th of September 2022 to the death of a 22-year-old young woman, Mahsa Amini, after her arrest for violating the country's strict dress code. The circumstances of her demise ignited a wave of popular protest across Iran on a scale and intensity not seen since the events that led to the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, compulsory veiling serves as a pretext and moral justification for violence against women and girls, who wear it in a way that "does not fit" the state's interpretation of what constitutes modest Islamic clothing. In this framework, a woman's body is socially appropriated more fully than a man's body, as it is subordinated, disciplined and punished through laws, norms and enforcement agencies under the aegis of "moral superiority" and "family honor".
The coercive measures of veil enforcement, on the background of a more extensive policy of repression and gender discrimination led in 2014, for example, to a wave of initiated acid attacks and cases of stabbings of women in the public sphere by elements identified with non-governmental bodies operating unofficially under the auspices of the regime. Following public pressure, a law was approved in the Iranian parliament (Majles) designed to offer more extensive legal protection to the victims and toughen the punishment for the attackers, although since 2019 its implementation has depended on ratification by a higher court of the Guardian Council.
Occasionally, lawyers and social activists for human, civil and women's rights in Iran use the country's reformist and more moderate media outlets in order to raise awareness of the various categories of violence. One category includes injury and physical abuse. Sexual violence, which includes rape, indecent acts and sexual harassment (as well as sending obscene pictures and videos to women) is another category. In addition to these, acts of violence directed mainly toward women within the family are characterized by psychological violence, which includes emotional abuse, humiliation, defamation and neglect, as well as economic violence, which finds its expression in dependence and financial extortion. According to findings published in the last decade and a half in Iran: 66% of the married women who participated in a comprehensive household survey (conducted in 28 out of 31 provinces), reported that they had been a victim of domestic violence at least once since their marriage; 30% stated that they suffered severe violence and 10% stated that they suffered temporary or permanent physical damage.
State law that allows parents to marry their daughters from the age of 13 (and with special permission from the authorities even earlier), contributes its part to the high rate of cases of violence within the family in Iran. A sharp increase in cases of domestic violence was recorded in the country following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the quarantine period, which was meant to curb the spread of the disease. The authorities in the Islamic Republic tend to gloss over the severity of domestic violence through euphemisms like "honor killing" or through the implementation of pressure on victims and their families to withdraw their complaints.
In the face of unofficial reports on social networks and the activities of human and civil rights organizations, the regime shows indifference when it comes to domestic violence, sexual assaults, rape and the increase of uxoricide and filicide. At the beginning of 2022, a number of horrific cases of violence provoked a public outcry in Iran. One of them was the murder of 17-year-old Ghazal Heydari, who was brutally murdered by her brother-in-law and husband, who dismembered her body and waved her limbs in the town square. Another case was the shocking murder of Romina Ashrafi, 14 years old, who was beheaded by her father in her sleep after she tried to elope with her supposed boyfriend. This case provoked sharp public criticism especially after it became known that the maximum penalty that the judicial system may impose on the father for the murder of his daughter was only ten years in prison. The heated debate that developed in the mass media in Iran was less concerned with the question of how to prevent the next murder and more with how to prevent the publication of gruesome images that harm the morality and mental strength of the Iranian public.
The Islamic Republic is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, nor was it involved in the Istanbul Convention (a 2011 European initiative to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence). To a large extent, the gender discrimination policy that the regime has been pursuing for over forty years, directly and indirectly legitimizes acts of violence against women in the public sphere and within the family. However, this is by no means a phenomenon that characterizes Iran alone. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women in the world, approximately 736 million, have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Sexual and gender-based violence is comparable to cancer as the main cause of death and damage to the health of women aged 15-44 (UNA-UK). The damages of this violence are significantly higher than the cumulative rate of health impairments as a result of malaria and road accidents combined. Violence against women is, therefore, a global social phenomenon of terrifying dimensions and hence a comprehensive policy and integrated activity is required to prevent it and fight it together.
Dr. Liora Hendelman-Baavur, Director of The Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, a senior faculty member and alumna of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History in TAU's Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies in the Faculty of Humanities, and the Department of Political Science in TAU's School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs in the Faculty of Social Sciences. She is the 2022 recipient of the Latifeh Yarshater Book Award of the Association for Iranian Studies (AIS) for her research on the history of women's journalism in Iran and their representation in popular Iranian culture.