Nobel Peace Prize winner: The time has come to recognize gender apartheid as a crime against humanity

Editor’s Note: Narges Mohammadi is an Iranian human rights activist and 2023 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She is incarcerated in Iran, where she is serving multiple sentences – including for “spreading propaganda” against the regime – amounting to more than 12 years. This article was written from inside Tehran’s Evin Prison. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more CNN Opinion.

The time has come to declare gender apartheid a crime.

 Narges Mohammadi - Reihane Taravati/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images
Narges Mohammadi - Reihane Taravati/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images

For decades, Iranian women have faced various forms of gender-based discrimination at the hands of the Islamic Republic. Systematically and purposefully, Iranian officials have advanced the subjugation of women, girls and others through the use of all instruments and powers of the state.

They have instituted a complex web of discriminatory, degrading and dehumanizing laws, policies and practices in stark contravention of Iran’s obligations under international law. Women and girls face limits and restrictions in all aspects of our lives — from our education and employment, to our dress and bodily autonomy.

The suffering of Iranian women and society as a whole must not go unnoticed, and concerted efforts are required to ensure that justice and equality prevail.

That is why I have written a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, urging him to declare gender apartheid a crime against humanity. In the letter, I list 19 anti-women laws that illustrate the segregation and subjugation of women in Iran. Among them is the current legislation on hijab and modesty, which is currently under consideration in the Islamic Consultative Assembly. This bill is explicitly designed to restrict women’s rights, downgrade women, deepen and extend oppression against women and expand inhumane punishments against us.

The anti-women laws, proposed legislation and systems I list in the letter include:

1.⁠ ⁠Women in Iran require legal guardian permission — from fathers or husbands — to obtain a passport and travel abroad.

2.⁠ ⁠ ⁠⁠Not adhering to hijab laws in Iran can result in up to 74 lashes for women.

3.⁠ ⁠Permission for marriage before reaching the legal age is not an obstacle if deemed appropriate by the father or paternal grandfather.

4.⁠ ⁠Although not currently implemented, the stoning law in Iran poses a threat to married women engaging in sexual relations with another man.

5.⁠ ⁠The legal age of religious obligation in Iran for girls is 9, with mandatory hijab enforced from as early as age 6 in schools.

6.⁠ ⁠The Iranian Parliament is reviewing a legislative proposal aiming to separate textbooks for girls and boys, reinforcing traditional gender roles.

7. Women in Iran have been prohibited from entering sports stadiums for over four decades (with only recent minor relaxations).

In recent months, the world has witnessed the intensification of violent crackdowns by the government against women, illustrated by the tragic killing of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, due to gender apartheid. (Amini died in the custody of Iran’s morality police after being arrested for allegedly not wearing her headscarf properly).

In this situation, not only women but the entirety of Iranian society suffers from the catastrophic and irreparable consequences of this institutionalized and widespread discrimination. In a society where half the population is deprived of their human rights, discussions about democracy, freedom and equality are meaningless. Control over women is being used as a tool to expand tyranny and oppression throughout society, exploiting religion as a cover for despotism and power.

Today unimaginable crimes against women are occurring in Afghanistan and Iran — witnessed and observed by the world — and yet met with impunity. Inhumane acts committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one gender group over another are termed gender apartheid. As was seen with racial apartheid in South Africa — the imposition of a system of apartheid not only results in inter-generational political, social and economic consequences, but also leads to physical and mental harm.

This is why it is imperative that gender apartheid is recognized as a crime against humanity. Just as the international community came together to condemn and criminalize racial apartheid in South Africa, they need to do the same on the basis of gender.

In recent months there has been positive momentum at the United Nations towards recognizing and codifying gender apartheid. Following the launch of the grassroots End Gender Apartheid Campaign, and the calls from a range of independent UN experts to recognize the crime, the UN Women’s Executive Director proposed a multilateral process to codify gender apartheid under international law.

In October 2023, I joined over 100 activists, jurists and public figures – including fellow Nobel laureates Shirin Ebadi, Malala Yousafzai and Nadia Murad – calling specifically for codification of gender apartheid as a crime against humanity in the potential treaty on crimes against humanity before the UN General Assembly Legal Committee. Earlier this month, several states indicated positive reception to this proposal.

The international community must take advantage of these opportunities to address this urgent matter and take decisive action to end gender apartheid in Iran, in Afghanistan and anywhere else it occurs. I urge the UN and its Member States to support the proposed inclusion of gender apartheid in the potential crimes against humanity treaty and to explore other avenues for recognizing the crime of gender apartheid under national and international law.

Women in Iran and Afghanistan are awaiting the immediate attention and action of the United Nations for what has become inevitable.

The time for criminalizing gender apartheid has come.

It is time to rise and stand.

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