Monday 23 August 2010

The West must not use women's rights to justify war

Despite an international outcry, Iran seems determined to have Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, stoned to death for adultery. Her plight has become a test case for the global community's response to Iran's barbaric, institutional misogyny. Tehran has responded by thumbing its nose at the rest of the world, forcing Ashtiani to confess her "crimes" on television. In Britain, our outrage is unanimous, and rightly so.

It seems curiously inconsistent, then, that, just a few weeks ago, the Home Office was quite prepared to deport another Iranian woman, Kiana Firouz, to certain execution in her native country for sexual unorthodoxy. Firouz made the film Cul-de-Sac to raise awareness of the oppression of lesbians in Iran, outing herself very publicly and embarrassing the state in the process: both crimes punishable by death in Iran. Nonetheless, it took a co-ordinated campaign by LGBT activists and solidarity networks in the UK to shame the Home Office into granting Firouz leave to remain.

Bita Ghaedi, another Iranian woman facing execution for breaking her marriage vows, also escaped to Britain -- where she was sent to a holding cell and repeatedly threatened with deportation. Ghaedi has been on several hunger strikes to protest at her treatment, but she still lives in fear of being sent back to Iran. Had the unfortunate Ms Ashtiani been smuggled to the UK, it is fair to assume that she, too, would currently be detained in Yarl's Wood, subjected to the indignity of pleading for her life to a government whose professed solidarity with Iranian women has not yet overcome its prejudice against immigrants to extend support to the hundreds of women who arrive on these shores fleeing violence every year -- all of whom, unlike Ms Ashtiani, we could actually do something materially to help.

State violence against women has long been used to justify military interventionism. The government of Iran is rather unusual in taking it upon itself to employ the executioners, but plenty of states with whom the US and UK have no military disputes currently allow men who feel their women have besmirched their family honour to carry out the killings themselves on the understanding that punishment will be minimal or non-existent.

Article 340 of the Penal Code of Jordan states: "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds or injures one of them is exempted from any penalty." Similar laws were struck down only very recently in Syria, Morocco and Brazil; in Pakistan, incidences of women and girls being slain by their families for sexual transgressions (including having the gall to be raped) are routinely ignored by police and prosecutors.

Moreover, across the world, 68,000 women are effectively condemned to agonising death each year -- 5 per cent of them in developed countries -- for the crime of wanting sexual and reproductive self-determination in states with sanctions against abortion. There has, as yet, been no systemic global outcry at their plight. And in at least one European country, the defence of "provocation to murder" -- the so-called "cuckold's defence" -- was enshrined in law until just two years ago, allowing husbands to plead for a reduced sentence if the wife they had killed was unfaithful. The country in question was Great Britain. Were the US or UK to launch a systemic offensive against every country brutalising its female citizens because of their sex at the level of policy and culture, it'd be World War Three on Tuesday -- and we would have to start by bombing our own cities.

In this context, it could well be construed that there is another, more sinister agenda at play beyond concern for women's rights. Yesterday, Iran told the west to butt out of its right to murder Sakineh Ashtiani, making it clear that this case is now less about the well-being of one woman than about moral and militaristic positioning between hostile states. There is clear precedent for this callous, ideological long game.

This month, Time magazine published a cover photograph of a young woman, Aisha, whose nose and ears had been cut off by her father-in-law. The cover ran with the unambiguous title, "What happens if we leave Afghanistan". However, as the Afghan women's rights activist Malalai Joya told France24, Aisha was attacked under western occupation and such atrocities have arguably increased since the 2002 invasion.

"Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example -- cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan," said Joya. "Afghan women are squashed between three enemies: the Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops. Once again, it is moulding the oppression of women into a propaganda tool to gain support and staining their hands with ever-deepening treason against Afghan women."

In March, WikiLeaks published a CIA briefing that outlined a strategy to counter growing opposition in Europe to participation in the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. It recommended using a narrative about the oppression of women in the country that highlighted the Taliban's misogynist violence while ignoring that of the pro-occupation warlords and the occupation armies. A similar story is now being disseminated about the plight of women in Iran and poor Ms Ashtiani has become a tokenistic figure in that absolving narrative.

Instead of the solidarity they deserve -- solidarity that might first be extended by treating asylum seekers with something less than contempt -- Iranian women are being co-opted into a Nato narrative whose trajectory seems to point inexorably towards invasion. That the state of Iran hates and fears women is not up for debate and if even one person can be saved from fascistic, fundamentalist woman-haters, an international campaign is more than justified. However, if, as seems likely, Iran executes Sakineh Ashtiani anyway, it would be beyond distasteful for Nato governments to cannibalise her corpse as part of the moral groundwork for further bloodshed.


  1. Now this is the sort of thing that the Grauniad should be getting you to write for them!

  2. Out of interest, do you happen to know what was the Home Office view on women's rights in Afghanistan prior to 9/11? I happen to have it in writing, and it rebuts any claim that the war was motivated by women's rights concerns in any way, shape or form.

  3. Great article. It's so patently dishonest when women's rights are being used universally for political gain. From justifying wars to banning the burqa. I find it difficult to put into words the anger that them holding up a banner for women's rights makes me feel. For some very clearly mysogynistic men to suddenly be screaming 'women's rights' is an insult to all the women across the world who are suffering oppression in whatever form, and a big insult to the intelligence of women.

  4. The attitude of this government, the last government, frankly pretty much all governments in this respect, makes me want to throw up violently.

    Good piece.

    And yet, the objective fact of the impending torturing to death of an innocent woman by the Iranian fascist state remains. Brought to the world's attention for spurious reasons by the West, as many cases are not, as individuals languish in detention centres as you rightly point out, yet - nonetheless, brought to our attention.

    The plight of women around the world in some countries with which the UK government has no dispute, makes my blood boil. State torture, and murder, disfigurement as a judicial tool, honour killing...all that. We know a little of these activities, but as many of these stories carry no political potential they barely make the media, if at all. Ms Ashtani's case is attracting so much attention because the government knows it can focus all the outrage we feel about such cases, vaguely, into one, and bolt the Iranian state onto that anger too.

    But the fact remains, a woman is going to be brutally murdered in the name of a barbaric moral code by some men. To make themselves feel better.

    We cannot allow ourselves to start a war over such things. But what CAN we do?! About Ms Ashtani.

    Please answer that?

  5. Tell us more, Dandelion. I am not surprised to find out about the hypocrisy, but I am pleased someone has the written proof of it.

  6. Malalai Joya is a hero to women in Afghanistan. Well, most women, I would hope. She must be living on borrowed time in such a regressive state, I'm afraid, though I wish it were otherwise.

  7. It doesn't matter whether or not Western governments use womens' rights for political gain, it is still wrong for Muslim countries to execute women for being raped or to force women to wear burqas while men can wear whatever they want

    Are the USA and UK perfect? Of course not. But they are far better than the vast majority of countries.

  8. "Were the US or UK to launch a systemic offensive against every country brutalising its female citizens because of their sex at the level of policy and culture, it'd be World War Three on Tuesday -- and we would have to start by bombing our own cities."
    Why start there? Is it really worse in America and Britain than it is in certain Islamic theocracies? We're at least trying to improve women's station in society; they are not or cannot in places like Iran or Saudi Arabia.


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