The United States wants Iran kicked off the United Nations body mandated since 1946 to empower women and promote gender equality. Through a request to hold a vote in the UN’s Economic and Social Council on Dec. 14, the 54 members could agree on a resolution led by the US to oust Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women, in reaction to the government crackdown on the women-led protest movement extending into the third month. Iran’s four-year term on the commission ends in 2026.
The US is a member of the commission, or CSW, through 2023. It is arguing that with Iran’s poor track record in treating half of its population, it doesn’t deserve a seat at the top UN intergovernmental body tasked with promoting women’s rights.
The most vocal push for expelling the country from the commission has been US Vice President Kamala Harris, who said in a Nov. 2 statement, “Iran has demonstrated through its denial of women’s rights and brutal crackdown on its own people that it is unfit to serve on this Commission.”
“Iran’s very presence discredits the integrity of its membership and the work to advance its mandate,” she added, affirming that the White House will be working with allies to try to remove Iran in the vote on Dec. 14.
Harris said in a tweet on Nov. 2, the same day that the US and Albania later led an informal Security Council meeting on women’s rights in Iran: “Today we are announcing our intention to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Given Iran’s brutal crackdown on women and girls protesting peacefully for their rights, Iran is unfit to serve on this Commission. To the protestors: we see you and we hear you.”
The White House retweeted Harris’s message on the same day.
A campaign initiated by Vital Voices, a Washington group founded in 1997 to promote women’s leadership, with contributions by four Iranian-American women lawyers, activists and actresses incentivized Harris to call for casting Iran out of the CSW. The petition written by Vital Voices urging global solidarity with Iranian women has garnered more than 84,000 signatures, including by Michelle Obama, the former US first lady, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
To succeed, the Ecosoc vote needs a simple majority of those countries present and voting; abstentions don’t count. Ecosoc elects the 45 members of the commission in secret ballots from the UN’s five regional blocs; 12 currently come from the European Union, so they will be relied on heavily to support the US. (Russia is a member from the European bloc until the end of the year.)
Not all Ecosoc members are comfortable with being asked to kick out Iran from the CSW, a source close to the situation told PassBlue. Nor were they consulted on the matter. The action could set a precedent to expelling other countries for various reasons, and there is no criteria or basis for doing so in this case — such as documentation, like a UN report. It also won’t change the situation in Iran for the millions of repressed women, some experts say; and the US has not been a bastion of protecting certain women’s rights in the last decade or so, marked notably by its recent ban on abortion by the US Supreme Court, and it is not a party to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw.
Under the Trump administration, the US used the annual CSW conference — held across nearly two weeks in March at UN headquarters — to attempt to roll back women’s reproductive rights. With strong pushback from the CSW chairs and delegations worldwide, the US did not get as far as it would have liked. Yet the terror that the American delegation — some people sent by the State Department and Usaid — instilled in the hearts of feminist and other activists at the annual CSW sessions under the Trump White House was palpable.
The US is now pushing to oust Iran from the body — albeit, under a different administration — even as other CSW members practice harmful, discriminatory policies against women, such as Afghanistan. (The Taliban have no representative at the UN.)
Since the beginning of nationwide protests on Sept. 16, triggered by the death in police custody of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, arrested for allegedly failing to wear a headscarf “appropriately,” international focus has shifted to the Tehran government’s brutalization of women and its discriminatory compulsory hijab laws. In defiance of the rigid state-mandated dress codes, many Iranian women are removing their headscarves in public, risking arrest or maltreatment, but people in the movement and outside it proclaim the trend is irreversible.
In the US, consensus appears to cross the political spectrum on the goal to evict Iran from the UN commission, which sets global policies for countries to use as models to promote women’s progress domestically. On Nov. 28, in a ceremony dedicated to unveiling an art installation in New York City, shining light on the plight of the Iranian women, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the UN to revoke Iran’s CSW membership. (She is a signatory to the Vital Voices petition.)
“A country that systematically abuses the rights of women and girls has no place participating on a commission whose purpose is to protect those rights,” she said.
UN officials have mostly remained silent on the US motion, but Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for Secretary-General António Guterres, raised it cursorily during a Nov. 2 press briefing in response to a question by an Associated Press correspondent.
“Any country that is a member of a council or a commission on a certain issue, I think, has even greater responsibility in ensuring the full implementation of the mandate of that commission or group,” Dujarric said, adding that who gets to sit on a UN commission is decided by the member states and not by the secretary-general.
Iran’s treatment of women has always been divisive internally and outside the country, and with momentum coalescing around the women’s rights movement in recent years, disparities in traveling rights, child custody, proprietorship, inheritance, marriage law, political representation, access to public venues such as stadiums, as well as the polemics behind the hijab mandate have been more challenged by Iranian citizens.
The tragic death of Mahsa Amini, who was believed to have been fatally beaten by the morality police, was the boiling point from years of resentments by Iranian women against government edicts on their lives. Women are demanding equality, and, more broadly, radical political change, including a transition from the current Iranian government.
Its response to the uprising has been violent. According to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a Virginia-based advocacy group documenting abuses in the country, 451 protesters have been killed so far and more than 18,000 others detained. As of Nov. 21, the Iranian judiciary has handed down six death sentences and many more may be pending.
In this light, international outrage has been trending since the day Amini died, and the push to dismiss Iran from the CSW is what many politicians in democracies, at least, believe is an expression that there should be consequences to the Iranian leadership’s excesses. Being divested of its membership in international forums is one way to make that happen.
Iran was elected to the CSW for the 2022-2026 term from the Asia-Pacific region, which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, both countries where women’s safety and rights remain at stake. Besides the question of Afghanistan remaining a member of the CSW, critics of the US move also contend that in the past no similar action was proposed, for example, against the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia — which was elected to a new term starting in 2023. According to the Women Peace and Security Index 2021, compiled by the Georgetown University Institute of Women, Peace and Security, Saudi Arabia ranks 102 out of 170 countries surveyed for women’s inclusion, justice and security. Iran ranks 125th.
Zohreh Elahian, a hardline member of Iran’s parliament who was recently in New York City to lobby against the US initiative and stop the growing global alliance against her government, said, “Expelling Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women would be tantamount to ignoring more than 40 million Iranian women, and this is something the non-governmental organizations and women in Iran are objecting to.”
She said the representatives of the countries that she spoke to were “surprised” when learning about the achievements of Iran in women rights in the past 43 years, since the 1979 revolution.
Massoud Maalouf, a Lebanese diplomat and former ambassador to Canada and Poland, thinks that ejecting Iran from the CSW will not necessarily alter the government’s behavior and its treatment of women, since there is little evidence that Iran capitulates to external pressure, especially from countries it deems “unfriendly.” (Lebanon is a CSW member but not of Ecosoc.)
“The 54 members of Ecosoc that will vote on this US request are not all on the side of the US on this issue,” he told PassBlue. “In fact, quite a few of them will vote against the motion to expel Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women.”
“As it looks now, the US has enough votes to achieve its goal,” Maalouf added. “However, it is likely that irrespective of the final vote outcome, some countries will resent the US initiative especially since it is not within the normal UN procedures.”
“However, I personally believe that a country that is oppressive to women should not be a member of a commission that works for women’s rights and empowerment,” he noted.
Others are concerned that amplifying pressure on Iran and further isolating it at this tense time could prod the authorities into behaving more aggressively.
After the vote by the Human Rights Council recently to appoint a fact-finding mission to investigate the atrocities committed in Iran, the UN special rapporteur on Iran, Javaid Rehman, said that the response by the government can be imprudent.
“I’m afraid that the Iranian regime will react violently to the Human Rights Council resolution and this may trigger more violence and repression on their part,” Rehman said.
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Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and an Asia Times correspondent. A recipient of the Chevening Scholarship from Britain’s Foreign Office, he is a 2022 World Press Institute fellow with the University of St. Thomas and a Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow with the United Nations. He was recently selected as the silver winner of the Prince Albert II of Monaco and UN Correspondents Association Global Prize for Coverage of Climate Change. He contributes to Foreign Policy, openDemocracy, Middle East Eye, Responsible Statecraft, The New Arab and Al-Monitor. His Twitter account: https://twitter.com/KZiabari