‘Protecting dignity’: Iran’s push to fight violence against women

A draft bill, nearly a decade in the making, could help empower women in Iran – if it can clear the final legal hurdles.

The draft legislation was approved by the government in early January [File: Atta Kenare/AFP]

Tehran, Iran – After almost a decade in the making, Iran may finally be on track to pass legislation that, while far from perfect, would signal progress in addressing a wide range of issues relating to violence against women.

A draft bill called Protection, Dignity, and Security of Women Against Violence, which has been in the works since the administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was approved by the government in early January.

While the administration of President Hassan Rouhani hopes to turn the bill into law before he finishes his second tenure in June, the bill must first clear the parliament and the constitutional vetting body called the Guardian Council, which consists of jurists and religious experts.

Parliament, which has been at odds with the government over Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and the annual budget bill among other things, has yet to begin work on the legislation.

The bill finalised by the government is the result of years of work by different factions of the administration in addition to dozens of legal experts, judges and executives at the judiciary.

The judiciary, under the new leadership of former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi since early 2019, finished its lengthy review in September 2019.

The most senior woman in Rouhani’s outgoing government told Al Jazeera that the bill’s background makes it significant.

“In addition to being strong legally, this bill has a rare strength and formidability because it has been devised, reviewed and pursued through the indirect participation of the two reigning political thoughts of reformism and principlism [conservatism] across three governments,” said Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice President for Women and Family Affairs.

“Not only did the judiciary not oppose its principles, but had an effective cooperation with the government in expert review and follow-up sessions.”

However, the bill may face opposition at the conservative parliament, and the powerful Guardian Council, which about two decades ago rejected a bill to join the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

That bill has been in a legislative deadlock ever since as Iran remains one of only four countries in the world not to have ratified the convention.

“Before waiting for and expecting the bill to be passed during the tenure of the current government, the issue of whether it will be passed by the parliament and approved by the Guardian Council is considered a major concern,” Ebtekar said in reference to the women’s bill she spearheaded.

“The parliament can make changes in the bill as per the law. But there’s hope that considering the amount of expert reviews conducted by both the executive and judicial branches, because the bill was originally devised by a principalist government, and because of demands in the society, changes in the bill would either not take place or be kept at a minimum.”

What’s in the bill?

The bill’s dozens of articles and provisions offer up a new definition for violence against women, set up new responsibilities for various state-run agencies, and envision new support systems.

The legislation defines violence as “any behaviour inflicted on women due to sexuality, vulnerable position or type of relationship, and inflicts harm to their body, psyche, personality and dignity, or restricts or deprives them of legal rights and freedoms”.

It envisages the formation of a fund by the judiciary to support victims of violence, provide teachings on “life and job skills” to imprisoned women, and contribute to paying blood money to families of women murdered by men.

The draft law says the judiciary can issue a protection order in case of a serious threat of harm to a survivor of violence or her children, which can include a restraining order, obliging the husband to attend therapy, or transfer the victim and her children to a safe house.

It also contains provisions aimed at boosting job creation for vulnerable women, and reducing or managing working hours for employed women who need to spend more family time. It further advocates more comprehensive insurance coverage for housewives.

The bill dedicates a significant portion of its provisions to education and expanding knowledge and know-how on women’s issues.

For instance, in addition to obligating the judiciary to create offices tasked with providing support to victims of violence, it calls for organising educational courses for judges and other judiciary staff.

If passed into law, it will obligate the state broadcaster to produce more programmes that promote the support of women and the prevention of violence against them as family values.

It sees a role for the ministry of education in holding courses for students, teachers and parents, and in better identifying vulnerable students.

The legislation also includes the ministry of health, law enforcement and prison organisations among others as part of its vision.

What’s missing?

In a thorough analysis of the bill in December, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the legislation has a several strong points including coordination of efforts inside and outside the government.

However, the New York-based organisation said “the bill falls short of international standards,” including those stipulated in the United Nations Women’s Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women.

For one, the HRW said, the bill does not specifically define domestic violence even though it includes measures that could help better protect women subjected to it.

Moreover, while the legislation criminalises various forms of violence against women including forced marriage, sexual harassment in public and physical and psychological abuse, it does not criminalise marital rape and virginity testing, or abolish child marriage.

The mandatory punishment for rape remains the death penalty, which is one of the factors that could deter survivors from reporting rape.

The most recent reflection of this dilemma came in September 2020 after countless Iranian women took to social media to report sexual traumas, launching their own version of the #MeToo movement.

At least one man was arrested and has since been charged with “corruption on Earth” which carries the death penalty. A number of the accusers elected not to formally sue him as they did not wish for him to be executed.

The legislation says in cases of violence where the father or the husband is the accused, authorities should refer the case to a medical council for a month in a reconciliation effort, which the HRW said could reduce accountability for the offender.

Alternative sentences considered for the victim’s husband, father, or mother could also be problematic, the organisation said.

Most recently, the gruesome beheading of 14-year-old Romina Ashrafi by her father in an “honour” killing in May 2020 directed national attention towards lenient sentences for offenders related to the victims. The father received a sentence of only nine years.

The draft law also does not explicitly exclude prosecution for consensual extramarital affairs that are criminalised under Iran’s current criminal code even though relationships outside marriage have seen growing social acceptance in recent years.

It also fails to remedy a number of existing discriminatory laws, including one that asserts women must receive permission from their husband or legal guardian to leave the country.

Earlier this month, the women’s national alpine skiing team left Iran for Italy to take part in international competitions without its head coach Samira Zargari, because her husband did not allow her to leave the country.

‘Frameworks of Iranian religion and culture’

When asked about the bill’s shortcomings in terms of international standards, the vice president for women’s affairs said social and cultural diversity in nations means that laws that aim to guide people towards positive behaviour vary across different countries.

But laws that aim to deter individuals from harmful behaviour, Ebtekar said, tend to be more uniform, and are contained in the government’s proposed legislation.

“The innovations predicted in this bill have created a smooth path to combat violence proportionate to the necessities and needs of Iranian women and within the frameworks of Iranian religion and culture,” she told Al Jazeera.

“This bill pays attention to three important and vital elements in women’s issues: the dignity and position of women, their rights, and their security at home and in society. Considering how important these three elements are, if the bill is passed, approaches toward the elements will change and will be reformed. This will be the most important thing for women’s issues.”

Ebtekar also pointed out that in his report for UN Women’s upcoming session of the Commission on the Status of Women, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also pointed to Iran’s efforts to support vulnerable women.

‘More societal sensitivity’

An Iran researcher at the HRW told Al Jazeera that, like other legislative reforms that have had a positive effect on the situation of human rights in Iran, this bill could also help build consensus among different factions of governance.

“I think this bill with all its shortcoming is still an attempt to recognise the importance of providing adequate legal protection for women in society, and creates opportunities to push the authorities to do more awareness raising, and even for lawyers who work on protecting survivors of violence,” Tara Sepehri Far said.

“I think this law is also going to contribute to empowering women to demand better protections, but it does not go far enough to address all the issues.”

The HRW researcher noted that like other countries, legislation on women’s rights is easily politicised in Iran and has been slow-moving, but a majority of authorities dealing with social issues recognise the need for reform.

“Iranian women and the civil society have been shaping the cultural shift that is probably facilitated by easier access to information through social media,” Sepehri Far said.

“You can’t deny the fact that there is a lot more societal sensitivity about issues such as femicide and violence against women with media openly discussing them, and this will continue to create pressure on elected officials to take action.”

Source: Al Jazeera