U.N. Body Condemns Israel’s Treatment of Palestinian Women, but Ignores Plight of Women in Iran and Libya

By Patrick Goodenough | March 9, 2011 | 4:58 AM EST

Logo of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (U.N. Web site)

(CNSNews.com) – A U.N. policy-making body dedicated to “gender equality and the advancement of women” adopted a resolution accusing Israel of holding back the advancement of Palestinian women, but it took no action on the emergency in Libya or the legally enshrined discrimination faced by women in Iran.

The only country-specific resolution passed by the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at its recent session in New York was one condemning Israel over the Palestinian issue.

Libya is a member of the 45-country CSW, and Iran has just taken up a seat on the body for the next four years.

In Libya, a U.N. aid coordinator estimates this week that some 600,000 people affected by the conflict now underway will need humanitarian help. Many of those will be women.

Difficulties experienced by Libyan women long predated the current crisis. Human rights monitors say women’s and girl’s rights are routinely violated by the state in so-called “social rehabilitation” facilities, where those suspected of violating moral codes – including rape victims – can be held indefinitely.

Libyan women photographed in an apartment in Tripoli on Wednesday, March 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Although Libyan law prohibits discrimination based on gender, the State Department said in its latest report on human rights, the government “did not enforce these prohibitions effectively.”

“In practice traditional attitudes and practices continued that discriminated against women,” it said. “Shari’a [Islamic law] governs inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property.”

“The widely accepted concept of male guardianship limited women’s freedom of movement in practice, particularly travel outside the country.”

Women in Iran arguably face even greater discrimination, and Iranian women’s rights advocates were appalled when Iran was handed a seat on the CSW last spring.

Iran got the seat in an “election” process in which the U.S. and other democracies raised no public objection – despite protests by hundreds of Iranian women’s rights activists. It therefore got the post “by acclamation.”

The CSW suspended its 55th session on March 4 without reaching agreement on an overall final document, but it did manage to pass three resolutions, including the Palestinian one.

The resolution called Israel’s occupation of disputed territory “the major obstacle for Palestinian women with regard to their advancement, self-reliance and integration in the development of their society.”

Among other things, it called on Israel “to facilitate the return of all refugees and displaced Palestinian women and children to their homes and properties.” (The fate of Arabs who became refugees when Israel became a state in 1948 and millions of their descendants is one of the thorny core issues at the heart of stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.)

The resolution passed by 26 votes to two – the United States and Israel – with seven countries abstaining.

The U.S. representative, Melanne Verveer, said the text contained one-sided condemnations that detracted from the real challenges faced by Palestinian women.

Her Israeli counterpart, Noa Furman, called it “politically motivated” and “factually flawed,” noting that it was the only resolution considered by the CSW that focused on a particular country situation.

If those who drafted it were genuinely concerned about the situation faced by Palestinian women, Furman told the commission, they would have included references to “a multitude of alarming internal social conditions that Palestinian women face in their community.”

“Living within a patriarchal society, Palestinian women are all too often the victims of restrictive gender stereotypes, domestic violence, severe oppression, and honor killings,” she said.

Furman cited reports by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Palestinian non-governmental organizations that refer to these factors, and to “gender-based discrimination” in Palestinian law.

The situation in Hamas-ruled Gaza was even more oppressive for women, she said.

“According to recent reports by Human Rights Watch, Hamas’ morality police have taken on an expanded role in the area, harassing, jailing, and abusing women for purported violations of Islamic law. These so-called violations can be as minor as failing to carry a marriage certificate when accompanying one’s husband in public.”

Furman concluded, “The situation of Palestinian women is caused by all of these conditions, but it is prolonged by the lack of political will among some member states to discuss inconvenient truths – and publicly recognize what they privately acknowledge.”

After thanking the CSW for passing the resolution, Palestinian envoy Somaia Barghouti said the Israeli representative’s statement was full of “distortions.”

Nothing affected Palestinians more “destructively” than the Israeli occupation and its illegal policies, she said

Earlier in the CSW session, Iranian representative Fatemeh Ajorlou condemned Israel, saying the violence meted out to Palestinian women “is undoubtedly one of the greatest tragedies of history faced by women in the contemporary era.”

‘Based on Islamic values’

In other comments, Ajorlou said that global decisions involving women’s issues had “failed to consider the diversity of cultures and characteristics of various civilizations.”

In Iran, she said, the model for women is “based on Islamic values.”

Iranian women photographed at a street market in Shiraz in 2005. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Iran’s civil and criminal codes contain a number of provisions that women’s rights advocates have called offensive.

Article 1005 of the civil code states that “the position of head of the family is the exclusive right of the husband.”

Article 1108 states: “If the wife refuses to fulfill duties of a wife without legitimate excuse, she will not be entitled to the cost of maintenance.” Maintenance is defined as food, clothing, a dwelling and furniture.

Article 1117 empowers a man to forbid his wife from employment “which is incompatible with the family interests or the dignity of himself or his wife.”

Article 1041 states that marriage before the age of majority (15 in Iran) is prohibited, but then adds that “marriage before puberty by the permission of the guardian and on condition of taking into consideration the ward’s interest is proper.”

Article 1133/4 states, “A man can divorce his wife whenever he wishes to do so.”

The Islamic republic’s penal code also contains provisions highlighting the subordinate legal status of women.  Article 75, for example, says that adultery may be proven on the testimony of two just men or four just women.

Article 300 says that “blood money” – the prescribed compensation to be paid to the heirs of a murder victim – for a woman is half the sum of that for a man.

The seven CSW members that abstained in the vote were Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Sweden.

The other members (not all of whom were present) are Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, Central African Republic, China, Comoros, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Haiti, India, Iraq, Namibia, Nicaragua, Niger, Pakistan, Paraguay, Philippines, Russia, Rwanda, Senegal, Spain, Swaziland, Turkey and Uruguay.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow