Iran’s Seat at the UN Commission on the Status of Women Gender and Regional Politics at the UN

Elahe Amani

Apr 27, 2021

On April 21st, the Islamic Republic of Iran was elected again to have a seat at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a UN body that is “ …the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. “This election faced a frustrating, disappointing, and enraging reaction by Iranian women human rights defenders, feminist and gender equality activists. Undoubtedly, there cannot be a ground of any claim that Iran sought re-election to the Commission on the Status of Women / CSW because of a commitment to advance and protect gender equality and women’s empowerment, the goals of the CSW.

The problem and disappointment of membership of countries with a poor record on gender equality are not limited to Iran. Currently, Saudi Arabia ranks 147 on the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, is a member state of the CSW, and Pakistan was also re-elected again to have a seat the Commission on the Status of Women for the term 2022–2026 ranks 153. Iran ranks 150 of 156 countries listed on the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 (Page 10).

The UN Commission on the Status of Women/ CSW is a functional body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women that established by the Commission of the Economic and Social Council ( ECOSOC ) on 21 June 1946. CSW is instrumental in “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women. “

Members of CSW are elected by the 193 states that make up the UN General Assembly. First, the Assembly elects 54 of its member states to serve on ECOSOC. Then, ECOSOC elects 45 states to serve on CSW for overlapping periods of four years: 13 from Africa, 11 from Asia-Pacific, nine from Latin America and the Caribbean, eight from the Western European and Others Group, and four from Eastern Europe. However, in the vast majority of cases, elections are uncontested — there are only as many candidates as there are vacancies in each regional group.

The value of the UN and its commissions lies in its universality and inclusivity because it seeks to involve all states in a dialogue about women’s human rights, gender equality, laws, and norms, and holds the position to raise standards through engagement and support, as well as through challenge and censure.

While the negative publicity from electing countries with poor records on women’s rights can potentially provide an opportunity to shed light on gross violation of women’s human rights and discriminations against women, but contextualizing the global backlash of women’s rights and the harsh reality that women and girls are facing, it is disheartening and disappointing particularly to generations of feminist and equality activist in countries like Iran. The reality is that the presence of countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia with gross violation of women’s rights compromise the moral force of this body and damaging the credibility of the Commission. These are not countries renowned for their advancement of women’s rights and the record of their voting on the commission attest to their role as regressive forces in the discussion at the annual session and the final “Agreed Conclusion “, the document that the Commission on the Status of Women each year produces after the March session at the UN headquarters in New York.

Beyond the gender politics and politics of gender, beyond the political agenda of state and non-state actors including some civil societies, the Islamic Republic of Iran has one of the poorest records in terms of women social-economic, and political empowerment and has not even signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women / CEDAW, the Bill of Rights of women.

The UN Secretary-General report that was released in 2020, detailed Iran’s human rights abuses including its discrimination against women and girls “in law and practice, including with regard to family matters, freedom of movement, employment, culture, and sports, as well as access to political and judicial functions.” Also in the annual address to the U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, noted: “some positive steps” for Iranian women and girls in education and citizenship rights. But he also said, “egregious gender-based discrimination persists in law, practice and societal attitudes, disempowering women and girls from participating and contributing in society.”

In the international community, some argue and have this misconception that membership of countries with poor records on women’s rights or human rights, in UN functional bodies such as Human Rights Council or Commission on the Status of Women would encourage these countries to take steps in the right direction. However, during the multiple times that Iran had a seat in the Commission on the Status of Women, Iran neither encouraged nor took any significant action in the right direction to improve women’s rights records. During the four years of Iran’s previous term at the Commission on the Status of Women, women’s social, political, and economic rights were continuously violated, more women’s human rights defenders were imprisoned, women were sentenced to exercise their civil rights and objection to compulsory Hijab, the number of women in poverty particularly women as head of household increased, child marriage was promoted by state media, no action was taken to legally protect women and girls from various forms of violence and safety and security of women was more endangered than previous years.

During the election of member states on April 21st, 43 of the 54 nations in the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) voted in favor of the re-election of Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women for a four-year term beginning in 2022. It is speculated that at least four current members in the block of western European countries of ECOSOC, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Swiss, United Kingdom, United States, or Portugal voted in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It should be noted that While typically ECOSOC regional groups’ nominations for the Commission on the Status of Women, the U.S. usually exercised its authority as an ECOSOC member to call for a symbolic vote and they requested the vote on April 21st.

While the role of countries like Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia is very limited in the “Agreed Conclusion“ and any resolutions emanating from the session, but there are strategies that other member states can take to nullify the presence of these countries. In 2017, The Belgian Prime Minister issues a public apology of his country vote to put Saudi Arabia as a member of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Instead of questioning the credibility and role of the UN and its commissions including the Commission on the Status of Women, global civil society should strategize on strengthening the voices of civil society at the UN. The official reports of functional bodies of the UN including the reports to the Commission on the Status of Women do not include the submission of civil society reports ( NGOs). It is expected that the Member States develop meaningful engagement in civil society in all their diversity and as part of their presence at the UN Commission. But, it is clear in societies like Iran or Saudi Arabia or a whole host of other countries, because of lack of democracy and freedom, engagement of civil society is limited to a few GONGOs. For this very reason, civil society shadow reports have been developed voluntarily, often to challenge, inform, and/or strengthening the country reports and shed light on the reality of women and girls’ life that are not included in the country reports.

As an Iranian American, I hope Iranian civil society, including but not limited to women’s organizations collectively strategies on preparing comprehensive and inclusive shadow reports about the harsh reality of Iranian women and girls, documenting the many aspects of gender discriminations and regressive policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the diaspora, we have the opportunity to contribute to the civil society voices and the women’s movement, build coalition and collaborations and keep up the voices and spirit of the Iranian independent women’s movement.

In the words of Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”