Sunday, March 21, 2010

Honoring The Lioness of Iran

          The Iranian government seized Simin Behbahani's passport while the celebrated 82-year-old poet was en route to Paris to receive an award for her support of women's freedom at International Women's Day. The famous poet, known as the Lioness of Iran, had planned to read a poem and give a statement about feminism at the conference and then return home. Other women activists have been barred from leaving Iran over the last four years. I honor Behbahani's courage in defending women's rights.
          Behbahani has been critical of Iran's Sharia-based law and its restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including women's ability to work and to travel. In the past she renounced the Iranian government's practice of stoning women who committed adultery. That law even specified the size of the stones used so that maximum punishment could be inflicted. The stones used should "not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes, nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones." More women than men were stoned because evidence from a man carries twice as much weight as a woman's in Iran's courts.
          Despite the August 2008 suspension of Iran's stoning law, women continue to suffer deprivations of their rights under regimes based on Islamic law, as Professor Kenneth Lasson explains:

Although many Islamic women become victims of gender-based violence simply for having been born female, they are marginalized and discriminated against in a variety of other ways as well. Strict standards are set for how they shall dress and act, including to whom they may speak and whom they must marry. They are often forced into arranged marriages, some at as young an age as nine years old. They are raped, physically abused, and mutilated. Women who work as teachers are given placements at schools that require a daily commute of several hours. Many die while traveling to work as a result of the poor road conditions, traffic jams, heat, and violence. Further, afraid of being forced to marry an undesirable spouse, or simply in fear because she is too young to be married, the suicide rate among Islamic women has increased dramatically over the past five years.

Professor Lasson is most critical of honor killings, in which male family members vindicate ideals of women's sexual purity by killing women perceived guilty of any sexual misconduct. Estimates are that at least 5000 women are killed each year in honor killings, although the actual numbers are widely underreported.
          The mistreatment of Behbahani vindicates secular constitutionalism as a better protector of women's rights than systems based upon any patriarchal religion, whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Women's rights are the child of secularism, a product of the shift from a religious to a secular state. A great article defending that thesis--Frances Raday, Secular Constitutionalism Vindicate--is well worth reading. 
          I honor the Lioness of Iran for her lifelong courage in defending women's rights. 


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