Days after a senior Iranian cleric made global headlines by blaming immodestly dressed women as a cause of earthquakes, Iran secured a seat on a United Nations body that proclaims itself "dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women". Iran's uncontested accession on Thursday to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) - the "principal global policy-making body" on women's rights - went largely unnoticed by international media.
Major news agencies had not even reported the event by the time The National went to press yesterday. But women's rights activists in Iran and worldwide are furious, dismayed and incredulous: they have written an open letter to the UN opposing Iran's bid for membership of the CSW. For years, the UN has urged Iran in vain to join the world body's convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
"Under such conditions, Iran's attempt to join such an institution [as the CSW] is doomed to fail," Shadi Sadr, a leading Iranian women's rights activist and one of the letter's signatories, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - shortly before she was proved wrong. Many believe that Iran's embrace by the CSW was a cynical compromise by the UN for Tehran's agreement to drop its controversial attempt to win a seat on the UN's Human Rights Council, which has a higher profile.
It is "a denigration of the very principles for which the CSW and the UN stand", said the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), an advocacy organisation dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. "It is also indicative of the ways in which women's rights are continually sold down the river in exchange for political favours and horse-trading on other issues at the UN," the NIAC added.
Iranian women do have a socially dynamic role in the country's public life. They outnumber men in Iran's universities and have the right to vote, drive, work alongside men and run for most public offices. But they do not have equal divorce, child custody or inheritance rights, and a woman's testimony in Iran's Islamic courts carries only half the weight of a man's. Moreover, since Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, first came to power five years ago, women campaigning peacefully to end discriminatory laws against their sex have been harassed, detained, and some even jailed.
His record on women's rights, already poor, deteriorated sharply after his disputed re-election last June. Women were on the front-line of the huge street protests that followed, and have a large presence on the country's blogosphere, which they have used to keep up momentum against his election. The iconic image of last summer's protests was Neda Soltan, a photogenic young student shot dead by a Basij militiaman during a demonstration.
The regime fears the well-organised and energetic activism of Iranian women, viewing their demands for equal rights as inseparable from the opposition's drive for greater democracy. "In the past year, it has arrested and jailed mothers of peaceful civil rights protesters," the NIAC declared this week. "It has charged women who were seeking equality in the social sphere with threatening national security, subjecting many to hours of harrowing interrogation. "
Women's publications that addressed gender equality have also been shut down. Iran's seat on the CSW - for a four-year term beginning in 2011 - could not come at a more embarrassing time for the UN. Mr Ahmadinejad this week mocked Iran's UN award-winning family planning policy, insisting that Iranians need to have more children so that it does not end up having an "ageing" population like those in the West.
His recommendation not only makes little economic sense for a country already struggling to provide employment and affordable housing for its overwhelmingly youthful population but, if followed, would confine more women to the home, his opponents say. "The regime is attempting to erase decades of struggle and progress," the NIAC said. Meanwhile, as Iran braces for another stifling summer, police chiefs have launched their perennial enforcement of the strict dress code for women.
This year's quirky innovation, reportedly, will be to show little tolerance of women sporting suntans. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org