Action Alert

Military strikes against Iran will harm human rights activists

With a chorus of war drums and no sign of interest in pursuing direct and unconditional diplomacy, the US continues to push a foreign policy approach that is counterproductive to ending Iran’s nuclear program and tackling its influence in Iraq. As an American woman working for nuclear nonproliferation and to prevent war with Iran, I am thankful for women’s rights advocates in the US who helped us gain the right to vote and paved the way for more women to be involved in political work. This is why I want to highlight one of the little noticed effects of US saber-rattling: the damage done to Iranian human rights activists, particularly women.

All too often, hostile rhetoric glosses over who “the enemy” really is. Much like here in the United States, where many of us disagree with the Bush administration’s policies, not everyone in Iran supports the policies of their government. In fact, there is a strong women’s rights movement being built in Iran. But the US policy towards Iran is not helping, and may be hurting, their cause.

Current saber-rattling and any US attack against Iran would rally Iranians behind hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and place at risk those who criticize the government’s policies: women and reformists. Nobel Prize-winning human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi warned in a recent interview with the Nation that

US threats against Iran and rhetoric about regime change could make things worse, giving Iran’s leaders an excuse to intensify repression.

In addition, Ebadi is highly critical of the Bush Administration’s efforts to promote democracy in Iran, particularly the creation of a multimillion-dollar fund to assist Iranian activists. "When the United States says that it has allocated $70 million for democracy in Iran, whoever speaks about democracy in Iran will be accused of having accepted part of that money, and of being on the US side," she says. "It gives Iran an excuse for what it does." All credible Iranian activists have refused to accept American funding, and most of the money has been funneled into radio broadcasts and other US propaganda.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has released a new report that mentions some of the ways women’s rights are being repressed in Iran.

With the government of President Ahmadinejad, the status of Iranian women has deteriorated precipitously. A “Program for Social Safety” allows the authorities arbitrarily to harass women for not wearing “appropriate Islamic dress.” A “Family Protection Act” has been promulgated that would harm the welfare and rights of women further, by legitimizing polygamy, allowing temporary marriages, marriage at the age of only 13, and other measures. Furthermore, a system of quotas has been introduced giving males an unfair advantage in obtaining admission to the system of higher education.

And earlier this year, the government ordered independent magazine Zanan shut down, silencing one public forum for debate on women’s rights.

According to reports from Iran, authorities said that the magazine was a “threat to the psychological security of the society” because it showed Iranian women in a “black light.”

The truth is, the magazine respected and celebrated Iranian women by offering articles on health, parenting, legal issues, literature and women’s achievements. One recent article argued that laws codifying unequal treatment of women in Islamic countries lacked justification under Islamic law and could be changed. The only psychological threat Zanan posed was to the regime’s authoritarian and anti-feminist pathology.

Iranian reformists point to their recent parliamentary elections, held after the third round of UN imposed sanctions, as a sign that sanctions are not working. The election of so many conservatives will help to consolidate the power of the current regime, which maintains that their nuclear program is a matter of national sovereignty.

Advocating that the US pursue diplomacy with Iran will not only help to prevent another deadly war, it will also aid women’s rights advocates in Iran. We need strong leadership in Congress for a more comprehensive approach to Iran. You can take action by asking your member of Congress to support legislation calling for direct and unconditional diplomatic negotiations between the US and Iran.