Middle East

Iranian Police Attack Women's Rights Activists

Hundreds of women staged an unauthorized demonstration in Tehran, protesting sex discrimination under Iran's Islamic leadership. (Photo: Webshots)

Human rights organization Amnesty International stated in a recent report that discrimination against women still exists in 36 countries. Iran is among those on the list.

Discrimination against women in Iran is not the same as in Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries where women cannot drive or vote. In Iran women can drive; they can even participate in car races. They not only can vote, but have been elected numerous times as Members of Parliament — though they are excluded from presidential candidature. In the arts, Iranian women have won acclaim as painters, poets, film directors, and film stars.

One of the chief areas of discrimination against women is found in the country's Islamic judiciary system, where the difference between the sexes in terms of the legal remedies afforded in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance are stark. The subject of feminism has become a taboo subject.

The new hard-line government of President Mahmood Ahmadinejad has issued a statement that movies in which feminist values are emphasized must be banned.

Anti-feminist Stance

This anti-feminist stance eventually led to a confrontation in Tehran that alarmed human rights activists around the globe. Iranian police and plainclothes agents forcefully broke up a peaceful assemblage of women's rights activists on March 8, beating hundreds of women and men who had gathered to commemorate International Women's Day.

"The Iranian authorities marked International Women's Day by attacking hundreds of people who had peacefully assembled to honor women's rights," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Once again, Iran's government has signaled that it is ready to use violence to suppress peaceful public assembly of any sort."

The event began at 4 p.m., with attendees sitting in Tehran's Daneshjoo Park displaying banners with slogans such as "discrimination against women is an abuse of human rights," "women demand their human rights," and "Iranian women demand peace."

The attack took place shortly after activities began. According to witnesses, plainclothes agents, anti-riot police and Revolutionary Guardsmen first surrounded the park.

Within minutes, after agents had photographed and videotaped the gathering, the police told the crowd to disperse. In response, the participants began to sing the anthem of the women's rights movement, one participant told Human Rights Watch.

Another witness said that the gathering began in peace and was supposed to continue in that manner, "but all of a sudden the security forces went mad and attacked us. They dumped cans of garbage on the heads of women who were seated, before charging into the group and beating them. They beat women and men, young and old, with sticks and batons. They beat us on the back, chest, feet and hand," said the 60-year old woman in a tremulous voice.

"As we started to run away and seek shelter, they followed us and continued to beat us."

"I was beaten several times on my arm, below the waist, and on my wrist," said another participant.

The commander of security forces at the scene, Ghodratollah Mahmoudi, told the Iranian Ilna News Agency, "This gathering was held without an official permit. The response by the security forces prevented the gathering from taking on a political dimension."

Acclaimed Poet Beaten

Among those present was Simin Behbahani, a renowned Iranian poet. She was beaten with a police baton, according to eyewitnesses. Even after people protested that she was in her 70s, could barely see, and was a renowned poet, the security officer kicked her several times and continued to hit her with his baton.

"I am more sorry for the youngsters who had the police uniform on, and acted in this violent way than I feel sorry for myself," said Mrs. Behbahani. "This is a respected uniform and I got so upset when I saw that agents who are meant to provide us with security, beat us with batons, kicks and fists. It was very humiliating. This only was a peaceful gathering."

The security forces also took several foreign journalists into custody, confiscating their camera equipment and video footage before releasing them.

According to Human Rights Watch, "The attack on women's rights activists highlights the Iranian government's consistent policy of suppressing freedom of association and assembly."

Amesty Internation was among other human rights organizations that have ondemned the violence during the event. The organization called on the Iranian government to "undertake an immediate investigation into this excessive use of force by police and other security forces and to ensure that those responsible for the assaults and violence against demonstrators are brought to justice promptly and fairly."

Amnesty International also insisted that Iranian authorities "respect the right to freedom of assembly and expression, in accordance with Iran's obligations under international law."

United Nations Declaration on Human Rights

Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders states that, "Everyone has the right … to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Iran is among the Declaration's signatories but its authorities do not appear to be following its basic tenets. Key government authorities have refused to accept the charges of human rights violations leveled against the country. In a new strategy, they have responded by firing accusations back at the West.

The chief commander of the Iranian police forces said in a recent speech that women are much more respected in Iran than in the West.

"The regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran pays more respect to the rights of women than western countries who chant feminist slogans about the equality men and women do," said Esmaeel Ahmadi Moghaddam. "The use of batons in self defense by police is utilized only in emergency situations."

This statement was made only three days after the violent suppression of the women's rights activists in Tehran.

Concerns Expressed about Suppression

Human rights activists in and outside of Iran have repeatedly expressed concern that since President Ahmadinejad took office, security forces have time after time resorted to violence to suppress peaceful gatherings.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International noted two other recent examples of such policies:

In January, security forces in Tehran attacked and arrested hundreds of striking bus drivers who were protesting for better working conditions.

In February, security forces in the city of Qom used excessive force and tear gas to disperse hundreds of Sufi followers who had gathered in front of their house of worship to prevent its destruction by the authorities.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Niusha Boghrati.