‘One step forward is more important than two steps back’: pushing for women’s rights in Iran and Pakistan
As women’s rights regress across the world, two activists from Iran and Pakistan explain why women resisting are a force to be reckoned with.
Iran’s crackdown on women’s rights protests that erupted in September and the Taliban recently banning women from working in NGOs or from attending university have served as a reminder of how fast women's rights are sliding back in the region and other parts of the world.
But despite widespread arrests, allegations of torture and the execution of four protesters in Iran, the women-led movement refuses to back down. For Azin Mohajerin, 36, it means that change is a little more within grasp. Mohajerin left Iran in 2010, following the wave of post-electoral protests that swept the country.
This time around she is supporting rights campaigners in the country, specifically from minority groups, through Miaan, an NGO in Texas she co-founded in 2019 and where she works as senior human rights officer.
Hina Jilani, an advocate of Pakistan’s Supreme Court and president of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), who fought against sharia laws in Pakistan back in the 80s, views it as another illustration of women’s resistance on the path to obtaining change.
Mohajerin and Jilani were in Geneva for international women's day for an event organised by OMCT. Geneva Solutions spoke to the activists about the challenges women face in their countries and the lessons they can draw from each other.
Challenging the status quo
Born in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab region, Hina Jilani grew up hearing about courtrooms and prisons. At that time, Pakistan was under martial law and her father’s political opposition would often land him into trouble. Rather than being traumatised, Jilani was empowered by the environment in which she was raised. Later in life as a lawyer, her work would also land her in those same courtrooms and prisons.
Jilani passed the bar exam in 1977, the same year Sharia law was imposed on Pakistan. One of the new laws made adultery a crime against the state.
“This was a law under which women were particularly targeted not for adultery, but using it as a weapon for justifying gender-based violence, for controlling women's choice in marriage, and depriving them of their autonomy,” she said.
Jilani remembers wives who wanted a divorce accused by their husbands and in-laws of adultery to keep them in check. “The prisons started filling up with women,” she said.
This prompted Jilani to found Pakistan’s first all-women legal firm, along with her sister and two colleagues. Challenging the status quo was not easy and not always well received, according to Jilani.
“It was a terrible environment,” she said. “The judicial minds were very biassed, and the environment in the courts was not conducive to promoting women's rights.”
Jilani remembers it also as a time that gave way to women’s resistance, toppling one repressive law after another as the country transitioned into a democracy. Progressive laws have been gradually passed but discriminative practices are still rife.
“While now Pakistan has a fit and reasonably good, protective legal framework for women, we have not gotten rid of the notorious practices like child marriage or honour killings. Gender-based violence is one of our biggest issues in Pakistan,” she pointed out.
Pakistan reported around 63,000 cases of gender-based violence in the past three years according to Pakistan’s National Commission of Human Rights.
A never-ending battle
In Iran, the women-led movement for the freedom to choose what they wear and what to do with their bodies has been shaking the country for the past few months. But observers are cautious about the chances of the current uprising spurring real change in Iran as previous ones have failed to do so. Mohajerin, who cannot return to her country because of the sensitive nature of her work, sees it as one more step in the long path towards the respect of human rights.
The protests in Iran have brought out Iran’s ethnic minorities to march along with the Persian majority. Mahsa Amini, whose death in custody of the morality police last September triggered mass unrest, was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from Saqqez, in the Kurdistan province of Iran.
Mohajerin, who works with minority groups in Iran, sees that cultural change has seeped into some of the most conservative communities.
“Women in Balochistan bravely went to the street in one of the rare moments that they have spoken up about their rights,” said Mohajerin.“There is a recognition that there is a gap that needs to be filled in terms of ethnic equality and gender equality.”
But Iran has also come down hard on these groups. “After Tehran, the top places in terms of arrests were minority populated areas: the Kurdish area, the Turkic and then Balochistan,” said Mohajerin. Many of them remain behind bars, she said.
In Pakistan, where half of the Baluchi population reside, the women from the ethnic group have also started coming out to the streets to protest when their men are subject to enforced disappearance, according to Jilani.
“Culture can help people to break the chains,” said Jilani. “Not everything is because of what the leadership or the ruling elite do. Unfortunately, the ruling elite act in a certain manner because that is the national psyche.”
Mohajerin noted that Iranians have been fighting for their freedom for a long time now. “It’s not a new movement, it is not something that started in September or even last year. It has been a long-lasting fight,” said Mohajerin.
She recalled when women first marched against the mandatory hijab after it was introduced by the Islamic revolution in Iran 44 years ago.
“In Iran, the woman cannot have custody of the child after a certain age and they don't have the right to divorce. But they do not just give up and say okay, this is how we should live. They've been fighting to get their rights and finding loopholes in the system,” she said.
“The cultural change that has been achieved during the past decades is way more significant than the law that exists,” said Mohajerin.
While Pakistani civil society managed to resist the imposition of Sharia law, conservative Islamic views still have an important place in Pakistani society and religious hardliners still have a lot of political power.
“The state does not openly say it is the one that wants to take extremist measures. We still don't have mandatory hijab in Pakistan for example, but they are kind of moving towards it. And then there is a backlash and they have to withdraw,” she said.
Before flying to Geneva, Jilani filed a lawsuit at the high court of her province against the authorities who had denied authorisation for a march on 8 March, international women’s day. The permission was finally granted in time.
“One step forward is more important than two steps back,” she said.
Supporting voices from within
The situation in Iran has drawn international outcry, with western powers condemning Iran’s violent response to the protests. Like many activists, Jilani and Mohajerin see international solidarity as essential to their causes.
“Voices from the outside can help when the environment inside the country is very difficult,” said Jilani.
“I'm alive today because of international public opinion and the pressure of the international community,” said Jilani. She recalls former US president Jimmy Carter and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson pleading for her release from prison at one time.
“So many world leaders sent letters to Pakistan, protesting against my incarceration, that when they released me they showed me this thick file and said we don't know why people around the world are so worried about you.”
When Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was in Geneva last week to speak before the Human Rights Council, campaigners called for diplomats to stage a walkout during his speech. Mohajerin recognised it as a “significant symbolic gesture to condemn the human rights abuses in Iran”. “However, it is crucial for the international community to engage in dialogue with the Iranian government regarding human rights violations, particularly in cases of executions, at the highest level,” she added.
But both Jilani and Mohajerin are adamant about something: change has to come from within.
“The voice should come from the people inside the country. They are the ones who live in the country, and they are the ones who have to decide for their future,” said Mohajerin, noting that views within her country are not a monolith.