Last Updated: Monday, 22 December 2014, 21:54 GMT

Iran: Information on women, religious freedom, and ethnic minorities

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 15 July 2002
Citation / Document Symbol IRN02001.REF
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Iran: Information on women, religious freedom, and ethnic minorities, 15 July 2002, IRN02001.REF, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/414fda374.html [accessed 23 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Query:

What is the current status of women, religious freedom, and ethnic minorities in Iran?

Response:

SUMMARY

Iran's internal debate over reforms to the clergy-dominated state created by the 1979 Islamic revolution has brought few positive changes for some of that society's most vulnerable members, including women and religious minorities.

Although it occurs less often than in the past, religious police and Islamic vigilantes still flog women who violate Iran's strict dress codes. Laws continue to deny women full control over choice of a marriage partner and certain other basic life decisions. Rape is rampant in Iranian prisons, and two women were stoned to death in 2001 under a law mandating execution for adulterers.

Meanwhile, official persecution of the Baha'i religious minority continues unabated. Considered heretics, Baha'is may not practice their faith, are routinely detained for their religious beliefs, and face severe official discrimination in education, employment, and other areas. Adamantly opposed to proselytizing, the government also severely harasses evangelical Christians and has been implicated in several killings of evangelicals.

Members of Iran's three officially recognized religious minorities– Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism– fare somewhat better, but still face official discrimination in schools and the workplace. Moreover, the government's strident anti-Israel rhetoric and internationally condemned jailing in 2000 of ten Jews accused of contacts with Israel has exposed the tiny Jewish community to boycotts, vandalism, and intimidation.

Compared with religious minorities, Azeris and other ethnic minorities tend to be better integrated into mainstream society, although ethnic Kurds reportedly face discrimination.

Whether conditions improve for women and minorities may depend on the outcome of a power struggle between the elected government, under President Muhammad Khatami, and what the ECONOMIST calls "the powerful unelected cadres which, under the remote control of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fight to preserve the structure and principles of the 1979 Islamist revolution" (ECONOMIST 14 Feb 2002).

Thus far, hardliners have blocked any real change and silenced many reformist voices. Stacked with conservatives, the unelected Council of Guardians regularly uses its vetting powers to block liberal legislation passed by the reform-minded parliament elected in 2000 (ECONOMIST 6 Dec 2001). Hardliners also have jailed journalists, shuttered dozens of outspoken publications, and sentenced to prison at least three reformist deputies (ECONOMIST 10 Jan 2002).

SITUATION OF WOMEN

Enforcement of hijab, the strict Islamic dress code for women that has come to symbolize the post-1979 republic, has varied with the political winds since the 1989 death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

In general, the regime has become less dogged about punishing minor dress infractions, according to an Iran analyst at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (U.S. DOS 11 Jul 2002). Observers also report that enforcement tends to be more relaxed in big cities such as Tehran and Isfahan and in some tribal areas (UNHCR/ACCORD Jun 2001).

The State Department analyst noted, however, that police and Islamic enforcers still periodically launch crackdowns lasting around a month on women who do not cover their hair or wear what are called "roupoushes" or "mantos," which are dark, loose-fitting overcoats (U.S. DOS 11 Jul 2002).

During crackdowns, religious police flog women, and state-backed vigilante groups, such as Ansar-e Hezbollah, harass, beat, and intimidate women whose clothing exposes anything besides their hands or faces, or who wear makeup or nail polish, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report on Iran for 2001 (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

Hardliners carried out a wave of floggings for dress code breaches and other violations as recently as 2001, according to Human Rights Watch and the top UN investigator for human rights in Iran (HRW 2001, UN 16 Jan 2002).

Many Iranian laws discriminate against women. Unlike their counterparts in most Gulf states, Iranian women can drive, vote, and stand for office (FH 2002). They must, however, get permission from male relatives to marry, work, and obtain passports. Women who remarry must give up custody of children from earlier marriages to the fathers, except where the former husbands are proven to be unfit (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001, UNHCR/ACCORD Jun 2001).

The law also provides for Muslim women or men convicted of adultery to be stoned to death if married, or flogged 100 times if unmarried. While these punishments are rarely applied, two women were stoned to death for adultery in 2001, and there were unconfirmed reports in mid-2002 that two others were facing the same fate, the FINANCIAL TIMES of London reported. The two stoning deaths in 2001 were the first such executions since President Khatami took office in 2001. One of the women had helped to produce and distribute a pornographic home movie, while the other had killed her husband and had an affair with a younger man (Dinmore 8 Jul 2002).

Women caught up in Iran's prison system reportedly are "systematically subject to rape by judges and high-ranking officials," according to a 2002 report by the UN's investigator for women's issues, Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka. The report singled out Tehran's Evin prison as a site of "sexual torture" (UN 28 Jan 2002).

Assessing overall trends in the status of Iranian women, a 2002 report by the UN's Iran investigator concluded that a greater outspokenness among female activists and reformist clerics in recent years has not led to an easing of official discrimination and harassment. The report, by Maurice Danby Copithorne of Canada, said that the lack of progress was epitomized in 2001 by the arrest of a prominent feminist filmmaker, Tahmineh Milani, who was later released, and the imposition of a 22-month jail term on a vocal female member of parliament, Fatemeh Haqqiqatju (UN 16 Jan 2002).

SITUATION OF BAHA'IS, EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS, AND JEWS

Shi'a Muslims account for 89 percent of Iran's population of 65 million, with Sunni Muslims making up 10 percent and non-Muslims 1 percent (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001).

The Iranian constitution grants official status to the Ja'far (Twelver) Shi'a sect of Islam. The constitution "states that 'other Islamic denominations are to be accorded full respect,' and designates Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as the only 'recognized religious minorities,' which, 'within the limits of the law,' are permitted to perform their religious rites and ceremonies and 'to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education' " (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

Much of the mistreatment and discrimination faced by Iran's religious minorities is either codified in law or sanctioned by the state. The worst abuses are faced by Iran's 300,000 to 350,000 Baha'is, the republic's largest religious minority, who are barred from practicing their faith because the government considers them to be heretics (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

Since the 1979 revolution, more than 200 Baha'is have been killed in Iran and 15 others have disappeared and are presumed dead, according to the National Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is of the United States (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002). While there are no recent reports of killings, Baha'is continue to be targeted in other ways.

As a crude means of intimidation, the government keeps several Baha'is in detention at any given time. Authorities detained 70 Baha'is throughout Iran between 1998 and 2001 for periods of between five days and three months, Mr. Copithorne's report said (UN 16 Jan 2002). Often the charges are not dropped following release, forcing former detainees to live in continuing uncertainty, according to the U.S. State Department report (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

Government detention of Baha'is cuts across social classes, with individuals being held regardless of age, wealth, or education, according to the external affairs director of the National Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is in the United States (Director 12 Jul 2002).

In a positive development, the government has commuted the death sentences of a group of Baha'is who faced execution solely for their beliefs. Four Baha'is who had been on death row are now serving life sentences (Director 12 Jul 2002).

In addition to jailings, officials continue to seize Baha'i property, a practice that began with the 1979 revolution. Authorities in 2001 evicted several Baha'is from their homes and other property in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kata, and Yazd, U.S. State Department and UN reports said (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002; UN 16 Jan 2001).

Baha'is also face many formal restrictions that collectively "appear to be geared to destroying them as a community," according to the U.S. State Department's 2001 report on religious freedom abroad (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001). Baha'is are denied access to most government jobs and may not attend public or private universities or run their own schools, the report said. Officials at times disrupt informal Baha'i schooling by detaining or jailing Baha'i teachers and seizing or destroying books or school furniture, the report added (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001).

Moreover, thousands of Baha'is who were sacked from government jobs in the early 1980s have been forced to repay the state for their entire salaries or pensions or face prison sentences (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001).

Baha'is also are barred from giving their dead proper religious burials (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001).

The Islamic government also continues to severely harass evangelical Christians, whom it accuses of trying to convert Muslims. "Evangelical Christians such as members of the Assemblies of God have been harshly persecuted over the years, apparently on the grounds that they have been or might be proselytizing," according to Mr. Copithorne's report. The report said that several evangelical Christians were executed in the past for apostasy (UN 16 Jan 2002).

"[A]t present the Government is not pursuing an active and systematic policy of investigation and prosecution of cases of apostasy," according to a 2001 report sponsored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Austria's asylum agency (UNHCR/ACCORD Jun 2001).

Officials continue to beat, arrest, and interrogate Christian converts, however, and have shut down some evangelical churches, according to the State Department religious freedom report (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001).

By law, if an Iranian male with at least one Muslim parent converts to another religion, he is considered an apostate and must be executed. If a woman with at least one Muslim parent converts to another religion, she may be flogged and detained. Men whose parents were both non-Muslims and who converted to Islam and then converted again to another religion are to be given a chance to repent before being executed (UNHCR/ACCORD Jun 2001).

The UN/Austrian report suggests that evangelical Christians who are harassed often became known to authorities because of the public nature of proselytizing. The report states: "Iran is a place where people are fine as long as they do what they do behind closed doors and within their own four walls" (UNHCR/ACCORD Jun 2001).

The report concludes that if an Iranian "is an Evangelical Christian who proselytizes, s/he would be at risk" of persecution (UNHCR/ACCORD Jun 2001).

By comparison, members of the three constitutionally recognized minority religions– Judaism, mainstream Christianity, and Zoroastrianism– generally can worship freely. Official recognition, however, gives them at best only "second-class citizenship," according to Mr. Copithorne's report (UN 16 Jan 2002).

Candidates for government jobs are vetted for adherence to Islam and university applicants are tested on Islamic knowledge. Jews in particular were fired from state jobs after the 1979 revolution (U.S. 26 Oct DOS 2001). Schools and social, religious, and cultural organizations run by religious minorities are monitored closely, according to the U.S. State Department human rights report (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

The government has also fostered anti-Semitism with its militant rhetoric against Israel. "The Government's anti-Israel policies, along with a perception among radical Muslim elements that Jewish citizens support Zionism and the State of Israel, create a threatening atmosphere" for Iran's 25,000 to 30,000 Jews, according to the State Department human rights report. It said that allegations of official discrimination against Jews "are frequent" (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

The report also noted an increase in vandalism and boycotts against Jewish businesses in Tehran and Shiraz and harassment and intimidation of individual Jews since a Revolutionary Court in 2000 convicted 10 Jews (and two Muslims) of spying for Israel in a closed trial that was roundly denounced abroad (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

In an effort to curb emigration, which has cut the size of Iran's Jewish population by about two-thirds since 1979, the government bars entire Jewish families from traveling abroad together. Except for certain businessmen, most Jews also must obtain approval and pay special fees before traveling abroad. Iranian Jews, as well as evangelical Christians, also at times are arrested or harassed for publishing materials or delivering sermons in Persian, according to the State Department religious freedom report (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001).

By comparison, mainstream Christians and Zoroastrians face less direct harassment. Most of Iran's Christians, who officially number 117,000, are ethnic Armenians or Assyrians. Most of the 35,000 to 65,000 Zoroastrians are ethnic Persians, who make up Iran's largest ethnic group. Members of another religious minority, the tiny Mandaean community, face educational and employment discrimination similar to that experienced by Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, according to the State Department religious freedom report (U.S. DOS 26 Oct 2001).

Unlike other religious minorities, Sunni Muslims face relatively little overt discrimination, although government agents allegedly have killed "numerous" Sunni clerics in recent years, according to the State Department human rights report (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

In northwestern Kurdistan Province, Sunni Muslim leaders say that Sunni students must register with a state agency called the Great Islamic Center in the West, located in Sanandaj, and that authorities determine the size, location, and curricula of Sunni schools, according to the UN report (UN 16 Jan 2002).

Both Sunni and Shi'a dissident clerics and their followers have been jailed or otherwise punished for calling for political reforms, disputing the legitimacy of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or otherwise challenging the regime. The Special Clerical Court, which investigates offenses and crimes committed by clerics, has jailed at least two reformist clerics in recent years. Both Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar and Hojatoleslam Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari had called for political and social change (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

Officials have also detained and tortured several supporters of dissident religious figures, many of them junior clerics and students, the State Department human rights report said (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

SITUATION OF ETHNIC MINORITIES

Iran's Turkic-speaking Azeris, who make up the country's largest minority ethnic group, face little discrimination by the government or in mainstream society, observers say (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

While many Azeris believe that ethnic Persians hold most levers of power in Iran, they do not necessarily feel that they are treated as second class citizens, according to the State Department Iran analyst. He noted, moreover, that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is of Azeri descent (U.S. DOS 11 Jul 2002).

Azeri leaders complain, however, about the limited use of the Azeri language in schools and the media. Authorities at times harass and imprison Azeri cultural activists, such as the since-released Mehmud Ali Chehregani, a prominent Azeri figure (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002, UN 16 Jan 2002).

Iran's six million Kurds, who are mainly Sunni Muslims, face discrimination and repression, according to Mr. Copithorne's report, which provided few details (UN 16 Jan 2002). Kurdish leaders seek greater autonomy for their people, leading officials to suspect many Kurds of harboring separatist tendencies, the State Department human rights report said (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002).

Members of another small ethnic minority, the Baluchis, "are not targeted as a group and not persecuted unless they are involved in some general opposition-related activities," according to the UN/Austrian report (UNHCR/ACCORD 11 Jun 2001).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

References:

Amnesty International (AI). "Stonings Should Stop," News Flash (11 Jul 2001), http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/Index/MDE130242001?OpenDocument&of=COUNTRIES\IRAN [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

Dinmore, Guy. FINANCIAL TIMES, "Death by Stoning Defended by Iran" (8 Jul 2002) ? WESTLAW

Director of External Affairs, National Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is in the United States (Director). Telephone interview (Washington, DC: 12 Jul 2002).

ECONOMIST. "A New Way to Squeeze Reformists" (10 Jan 2002), http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=930656 [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

ECONOMIST. "Means of Persuasion" (14 Feb 2002), http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=987842 [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

ECONOMIST. "Thinking of New, and Wilder, Ways" (6 Dec 2001), http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=898193 [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

Freedom House (FH). FREEDOM IN THE WORLD 2001-2002, "Iran" (New York: 2002).

Human Rights Watch (HRW). WORLD REPORT 2002, "Iran" (New York: 2001), http://hrw.org/wr2k2/mena3.html [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

UN Commission on Human Rights (UN). REPORT ON THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, PREPARED BY THE SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, MR. MAURICE DANBY COPITHORNE (16 Jan 2002, E/CN.4/2002/42), http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf/Documents?OpenFrameset [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

UN Commission on Human Rights (UN). REPORT OF THE SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, ITS CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES, MS. RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY (28 Jan 2002, E/CN.4/2002/83/Add.1), http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0/766109ab505f413dc1256b810059e243/$FILE/G0210444.pdf [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

UN High Commissioner for Refugees/ACCORD (UNHCR/ACCORD). IRAN, Seventh European Country of Origin Seminar, Final Report (11-12 Jun 2001), http://www.ecoi.net/pub/mv100/cois2001-irn.pdf [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research (U.S. DOS). Telephone interview with Iran analyst (Washington, DC: 11 Jul 2002).

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES IN 2001, "Iran" (2 Mar 2002), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/nea/8251.htm [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT FOR 2001, "Iran" (26 Oct 2001), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2001/5691.htm [Accessed 14 Jul 2002]

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