Dispatch from Tehran


“I’m a girl. But I decided it was easier to be a guy.”

I met her at a hair salon in Tehran, one summer when I was visiting family in Iran. She was a client of our family friend. But peculiarly enough, she walked in without a hijab.

But then again, ostensibly she didn’t even need one. Rather, he didn’t need one – with short, closely trimmed hair, a cap, a military-green jacket, jeans, and sneakers, she passed for a he.In fact, she had been passing for a he out of her own volition for the past couple of months. It was only a façade, but it was nonetheless tenable.

It wasn’t the fact that she chose this pretense that appalled me –although former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may assert that the only kind of sexuality to exist in Iran is heterosexuality, I do not agree. Rather, it was the reason behind her choice that appalled me. Twice before, she’d been caught and detained by Iran’s basij, or the infamous “morality police” – the omnipresent force in charge of enforcing Islamic dress code among women. Having not provided many details beyond that about her run-ins with the morality police, much was left to conjecture.

But one can only imagine the worst, considering those two incidents compelled her to superficially switch genders and forego her identity—all so that she could avoid conformity to an austere dress code, and evade more encounters with the police. Ultimately, she left the oppressive environment of Tehran and moved to Armenia.

This isn’t a singular example of the still-deplorable conditions for women in Iran today, despite President Hassan Rouhani’s myriad promises, reformist ideology, and pressing desire to reform. He audaciously opposed gender segregation and promised mitigation of the morality police’s authority.

But that has remained a utopian misconception. Over the past year, conditions for women have worsened in terms of higher education and employment. Furthermore, the application of the law continues to be unjust in the arenas of self defense, rape, marriage, and domestic violence.

U.N. investigator Ahmed Shaheed has turned in seven reports to the United Nations General Assembly underscoring the repression and unjust treatment of women in Iran. According to the New York Times, “girls as young as 9 can be married, so long as a court gives its blessings,” “nonconsensual sexual relations” in a marriage are permissible, and a woman trying to divorce her husband on the grounds of domestic abuse must prove the treatment to be “intolerable.” He points to brand-new quotas that reduce opportunities in higher education for women and to new laws that impose employment restrictions on single unmarried women.

Such criticisms of deteriorating women’s rights in Iran were prompted by the recent execution of Reyhaneh Jabbari. The 26-year old was given the death penalty for killing a man she accused of raping her. In reality, she did not even commit the crime, and instead, another another member of the Iranian intelligence was responsible. Indubitably, in an effort to not tarnish the repute of the Iranian regime, Jabbari was tortured and coerced into confession.

This execution engendered vehement international opposition. According to the Daily Beast, “Jabbari’s execution Saturday was widely condemned by human-rights groups on the grounds that it illustrates how Iran’s own legal system is prejudiced against women.” And while Rouhani did try to rescind the decision, he lacks jurisdiction over the judiciary, ultimately rendering his efforts futile.

However, this is a matter greater than women’s rights – it concerns basic human rights, or rather, the lack thereof. In the past year, the number of executions in Iran has increased drastically, according to Amnesty International. According to the Economist, Iran stages more executions than any other country, except for China. 852 executions have taken place, even more concerning is that no universal standards exist concerning humane methods of and justifiable warrants for capital punishment. Iran continues to practice virtual “killing sprees” and public executions – not to mention throwing guilty people off cliffs. Most of the executions carried out by Iran are for anti-state and/or political offenses – petty in comparison to rape or murder.

These egregious violations of human rights – state-sponsored killings – need to be actively censured beyond written documentation from the UN, both in the international community and within Iran. And everyone, regardless of sex, status, or rank, needs to be held accountable. Members of Iran’s intelligence and security are ostensibly above the law, employing a perverted interpretation of Jean Bodin’s theory of absolute sovereigns being above the law. The constitution may not too rigid for change, but why can’t we even incriminate the right people – those who are truly guilty?

Perhaps it’s attributable to the fact that all countries’ eyes remain irrevocably fixated upon the U.S. and Iran reaching a nuclear deal. According to Al Jazeera, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif have met in private talks, but even so, an agreement may not be imminent. “At issue is the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges Iran should be allowed to keep spinning in exchange for sanctions relief and rigorous inspections at its nuclear sites…The West is unconvinced by Tehran’s denials that it has never sought a nuclear weapon and wants curbs that would put an atomic bomb forever beyond reach.”

Western powers, particularly the P5+1 powers countries, seem to champion human rights and publicly castigate those countries that infringe upon the most basic human rights, especially the right to life. But it seems that everyone conveniently turns a blind eye to the inconceivable wrongs occurring in Iran, preferring to futilely debate whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons for belligerent purposes, or whether Iran is going to blow us, or Israel, up. But with a substantially larger and more potent army in both Israel and the United States, ready to deter or combat a nuclear threat at any moment, the answer remains a glaring no. Iran simply does not possess this faculty.

It’s time to impel Western powers to act, to address these human rights violations, to ameliorate the condition of women in Iran. Sure, local media is now covering cases in which the victims’ families can pardon the suspects in the eleventh hour, and many believe the Iranian government is trying to get more people, including loyalists, to pardon transgressors. But the West must decry these glaring human rights abuses and exhort the United Nations to standardize the warrants and means for capital punishment, to limit its use, and to collect more comprehensive data to establish more humane methods. Ultimately, these efforts may result in abolition of the death penalty.

As a first-generation Iranian-American living in the United States, the atrocities occurring in Iran horrify me, particularly because of the president that put forth so many auspicious plans for the country. I remain dumbfounded by the West’s inability to act, and by how ineffectual and inefficient international bodies, like the UN, have become. The United States, along with multitudes of other countries, is capable of encouraging change, and it must now step into that role.

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