Contradictions between UN Convention on rights of women and Iranian Islamic Law


by Diba

By: Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 in the United Nations General Assembly. It has a preamble, and 30 articles. In the preamble, the states who are parties to the convention agree that any kind of discrimination against women is against the principle of equality of human beings. The member countries are also committed, in articles 2 to 6, to take immediate action to ensure the political, social, economic and cultural rights of women. Articles 10 to 14 obligate the states to treat men and women equally in the areas of education, occupation, health, and economic and social opportunities. The convention has become effective as of 1981.

What does the Convention want from the member states?

According to the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (// “The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)… is often described as an international bill of rights for women… It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. The Convention defines discrimination against women as ‘...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.’

By accepting the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including:

* To incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system,

* Abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women, * To establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination,

* To ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises. The Convention provides the basis for realizing equality between women and men through ensuring women's equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life -- including the right to vote and to stand for election -- as well as education, health and employment. State parties agree to take all appropriate measures, including legislation and temporary special measures, so that women can enjoy all their human rights and fundamental freedoms… Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.” The convention has been the subject of serious controversies in Iran and other Islamic Countries. The Iranian reform-oriented Sixth parliament ratified a bill paving the way for adhesion of Iran to the convention and immediately the Guardian Council which is the watchdog of conservatives in Iran and it is actually more powerful than the Parliament and President of Iran put together, has rejected its ratification and decided that certain articles of the Convention are contrary to the rules of Islam. Are the Convention articles contrary to the rules of Islam? Yes, they are.

The points of contradiction are so clear that they do need much discussion. Let’s look at a few of them:

1- According to the rules of Islam, women share of inheritance is half of men’s. The origin of this discrimination is rooted in the laws of the Ancient Arab nomads (not the present day ones) which assumed men as head of household and women as properties.

2- The “blood money” for women is half of men’s. Blood money refers to the money a person who kills or disfigures another must pay to the victim’s family. Because women are deemed to be worth half as men, blood money for women is half of the amount designated by the Islamic government for a man. The issue gets more interesting when one considers that the blood money for a certain part of the male gender (genitals) is almost equal the amount for an entire female person. One could conclude that it’d be cheaper to kill a woman than damage a man’s private part. The concept of blood money is an outdated notion which underscores the discrimination between men and women. In today’s society, this concept is really humiliating both for men and the women.

3- The right of divorce is absolute for men but not for women. The Islamic courts have tried to pretend that this right is not absolute for men, but looking at actual cases one can see that there is clear contradiction between the Islamic law on marriage and divorce with human rights’ views on marriage and divorce.

4- Women are not allowed to travel without direct permission of their husbands or male supervisors (in case of girls, divorcees, and so on, a male supervisor is designated to supervise the female. In many cases the supervisor may lack moral competency and the sole criteria for this designation is being male). Travel is defined as stepping outside the house.

5- Women’s testimony in court is worth half of a man’s. In other words two female witnesses are considered the equivalent of one male witness. This principle is strictly observed in Islamic courts and formal attestations.

6- Women are not allowed to be judges under any circumstances. Recently in some countries they have devised a plan to respond to critics of the discriminating judicial system. On the surface, they allow women to act as the judge and issue a preliminary order subject to approval by a clergy who later issues the real verdict. So in these cases, the woman acts more like an advisor than a judge.

7- Child custody is always given to men. (Like many other points, an attempt is made to justify the rule by portraying it as a blessing to women based on the rationale that by not having custody women would not have to bear the financial burden of raising the children). This notion is again based on the Ancient Arab nomad’s rituals, according to which women were nothing more than housewives and as such had no source of income other than what was provided by husbands.

8- Women who are members of a religious minority (in particular those religions that are not considered People of the Book) especially suffer all of the above-noted practices because they are doubly discriminated against for both being women and members of a minority group.

9- According to Shiite Islam, men can have up to four wives and unlimited concubines (mixture of female slaves and third class wives) which is discriminatory unless women can also have up to four husbands and unlimited concubines. 10- According to the Islamic laws of all Islamic countries, women who marry foreigners lose their citizenship rights but this is not true in the case of men.

11- When a person changes his/her religion from Islam to anything else (Ertedad), men are immediately condemned to death, but women are imprisoned and beaten several times every day (five times at the time of daily prayer) until they give up the new religion and return to Islam. The underlying reason for the distinction is not to show advantage towards women, rather the differential treatment stems from viewing women as being too feeble-minded for the change in religion to be lasting whereas in the case of men, his decision to change his religion is deemed as absolute and too final for imprisonment to make a difference and death is considered the only solution for the crime of turning away from Islam.

12- There is clear discrimination in Islamic rules about clothing of men and women. According to the dominant interpretations of Islamic code of dress, women should cover all of their body except the front of the face, and hands from wrist to fingers. The rest of the woman’s body is considered (Owrat) which is private and must be concealed in public. There are no such restrictions for men. Men are only called upon not to look passionately at women.

In all of the above cases, I can name the articles of the convention and also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one by one, to show how the Islamic rules contradict them. Some in Iran have suggested using the “Arabic Formula” for adhesion to the convention. That means giving a reservation at the time of adhesion, which is like this: “We sign this document on the condition of non-contradiction with the tenets of Islam.” This is what is called “religious fraud” (Koollahe Shar-ee). It means that you sign the document and you refrain from enforcing any part of it that you don’t like under the pretext of contradiction with Islam. There two major obstacles for this interpretation. Article 18 of the convention, and several articles of 1969 UN Convention on the law of treaties (Vienna Convention) and the decision of the International Court Justice in 1951, all clearly say: reservations that are in contradiction to the aim and purpose of a treaty are not acceptable. The reason that Arab countries have not faced serious objection for their practice is more political than legal and that is changing rapidly. Already there are numerous moves at the international level to discard this kind of reservation, especially in the case of humanitarian laws and regulations. Some people, under different names, like religious intellectuals or reformists, have been trying to deny these contradictions and try to find ways to reconcile them with Islam. These spin doctors want people to believe that there is no contradiction between Islam and the UN convention. Here is what I think about these people:

1- They are not sincere. They want to reap benefits from both sides. In this sense, they are hypocrites. On the other hand, the opponents of the Convention, who are the conservative and fundamentalist, seem to be the more sincere and authentic followers of Islam, like the theological centers for Islamic women.

2- They deceive themselves and other people. They try to convince people about a form of religion that does not exist. A good example is all those who call themselves religious intellectuals. Intellectual cannot be religious. They are intellectuals who are boxed in by their own thinking. They have lost their way in their pursuit of truth and they are not brave enough to admit it. This is a serious case of arrogance. All of the so-called “scientific researches” who work for them are worthless. Their researches are based on pre-determined outcomes. Their findings precede the research. Their work does not measure up to the most basic scientific research criteria.

3- They waste people’s time and energy. It seems that talking in vague terms has turned into an art in Iranian culture of writing. It is understandable how this custom could have been created as a result of living under corrupt and despotic regimes for a long period of time. But, it is time to set aside this custom and speak the truth plainly. The solution is separating religion from politics, not pretending to invent a religion that does not exist. There is no religious solution for these cases.

* This is a piece from my recent book (Bahman Aghai Diba, Problems of the Islamic Republic of Iran: How not to govern a country, published in the USA by CreateSpace, June 2011, page 45) .


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by پندارنیک on



by Diba on

Thanks Fred. Yes Iam.


Thank you

by Fred on

Thank you Dr, Diba for your coolheaded, legal-minded write-ups.

As a curiosity, are you by any chance the same Bahman Aghai, no Diba, who has translated Black's Law into Persian?