I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”, Audre Lorde.

As the persecution of women by the Afghan and Iranian regimes intensifies at the virtual indifference of other states, the End Gender Apartheid movement, led by women from the region including Nobel Peace Prize winners Narges Mohammadi and Malala Yousafzai, is calling for recognition of the concept of “gender apartheid” in international law. It is essential that this system of persecution be classified and criminalised if the international community is to fight effectively against these regimes and protect the women of Afghanistan and Iran.

War on women

In Afghanistan and Iran, women are no longer living. They are surviving. How can they live and flourish without being able to enjoy the most basic of human rights? On one side of the border, the Taliban regime, which came to power in August 2021, is suppressing the rights of Afghan women one by one. Deprived of education from the sixth grade, legally barred from working in the public sector, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and much of the private sector, banned from parks, sports halls and public baths, and forced to wear the burqa (full veil) outside, women are gradually being erased from the public arena. The dismantling of bodies defending their rights, such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (replaced by a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) and former shelters for women victims of violence, has led to an increase in domestic violence and forced marriages, against which Afghan women no longer have any means of action. On the other side of the border, Iranian women suffer a similar fate. Like their Afghan neighbours, they are placed under the yoke of their fathers from birth, and then transmitted to their husbands, and cannot travel without him. The fact that women are forbidden to study in some 75 university courses, to testify in court alone, or to access the highest political and judicial posts, is not surprising given that Iranian laws set a woman’s worth as half that of a man. In the public sphere, women are forced to wear the compulsory veil, in pain of being arrested, beaten or even killed, like Mahsa Amini. Since her death in September 2022, it is around the issue of the veil that the ferocious state repression has crystallised, and continues to do so today, against the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, which is fighting against the increasing penalties imposed on women who refuse to wear the hijab (a veil that leaves the face visible).

From racial apartheid to gender apartheid

Given the situation of women in these two countries, it seems impossible not to draw an analogy with the racial apartheid regime established in South Africa between 1948 and 1991. The term “apartheid” comes from the Afrikaans word for “separating” and “setting apart”. The crime of apartheid is recognised as an international crime (crime against humanity) by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The system of persecution and segregation of Black populations was supported and facilitated by law. The system is being repeated today in Iran and Afghanistan. The latter is a glaring example: not only have existing laws guaranteeing any kind of equality between women and men been invalidated, but new legislation has been introduced to restrict women’s rights. Of the 80 decrees promulgated by the Taliban during their first two years in power, 54 concerned women only.

Under apartheid in South Africa, racial laws had above all a spatial aspect. Today, like Black people in twentieth-century South Africa, women in Afghanistan and Iran are excluded from the public sphere. Like Black people in South Africa in the twentieth century, women in Afghanistan and Iran are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Like Black people in twentieth-century South Africa, women in Afghanistan and Iran are deprived of the fundamental rights enjoyed by men… As law professor Karima Bennoune simply sums up, “just as racial apartheid was for Black South Africans, gender apartheid is an erasure of women’s humanity“.

Recognising gender apartheid

The End Gender Apartheid movement defines gender apartheid as “the systematic segregation of the sexes imposed through law and policy as a governing ideology“. The movement, made up of Afghan and Iranian women, international lawyers and NGOs, is campaigning for recognition of the existence of gender apartheid in both countries. Their campaign, which celebrates its first anniversary on 8 March, has raised awareness, particularly within international organisations, of the reality on the ground for Afghan and Iranian women. At the United Nations, the Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, and his counterpart Richard Bennett, Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, have both acknowledged the gender apartheid in place in the countries addressed. More recently, in January 2024, a group of UK parliamentarians launched the Gender Apartheid Investigations, to gather evidence on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran, and to assess their persecution against existing international legal definitions of international crimes – a world first.

Criminalising gender apartheid

Today, gender apartheid is not yet an international crime. Under the Rome Statute, the systemic oppression of Afghan and Iranian women can now fall under the crime of gender-based persecution, which the Statute elevates to the level of a crime against humanity. However, many experts argue that the definition of gender-based persecution does not capture the nature of the oppression suffered by women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran. The international response must be commensurate with the repression put in place by these regimes.

The End Gender Apartheid movement is calling for gender apartheid to be criminalised as a crime against humanity, in the same way as racial apartheid. The aim of such criminal codification would not be so much to fill a legal gap that the crime of gender persecution cannot fill, but rather to involve other states in the fight against gender apartheid. The concept of apartheid makes it possible to put pressure on governments, and force them in turn to put pressure on the States responsible for such a crime against humanity. Furthermore, the concept of apartheid implies the status of “pariah states”, considered to be enemies of humanity, and dissuades other states from any complicity or tolerance towards them. In short, the concept of apartheid is the most effective way of encouraging states to uphold international law in such a situation.

It’s really (not) rocket science

Three main recommendations are put forward by professionals, all aimed at broadening international definitions of the concept of apartheid. The first is to interpret and/or broaden the definition of apartheid in the Rome Statute to include gender hierarchies and not just racial hierarchies.

The second proposal is to adapt the definition of apartheid in the 1973 International Convention on Apartheid by including a gender criterion. If the Convention was born in the South African context, why can’t the Iranian and Afghan contexts make it evolve?

Finally, the third recommendation, set out in a letter to the United Nations signed by a number of personalities, including Malala Yousafzai and Hillary Clinton on 5 October 2023, concerns the draft United Nations Convention on Crimes against Humanity. Once again, the demand remains the same: to take into account the gender criterion in the definition of apartheid and to put an end to the omission and neglect of Afghan and Iranian women. Because no woman will be free as long as their sisters in Afghanistan and Iran are subjected to gender apartheid.

A final proposal seeks to combat gender apartheid in a more unprecedented area: sport. Put forward by the International League for Women’s Rights, former boxer Mahyar Monshipour and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, this proposal calls for Iran to be excluded from the Paris 2024 Games, as the country prohibits women from taking part in many sports. The proposal is based on the case of South Africa, which was excluded from the competition in 1962 on the basis of the International Convention on Apartheid. The country was not reinstated as a competitor until 1992, after the apartheid regime officially came to an end.


The End Gender Apartheid Today petition

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