1. This is what has just taken place:
Iran is the only country willing to host Women's World Chess Championship matches next February, so it has been awarded the competition.
The Iranian law requires that all women, regardless of their religion, must wear Islamic dress which in Iran includes a hijab or a head scarf. This means that the chess-players from other countries, whether Muslims or not, must also wear the hijab, at least outside the game arenas.
Nazi Paikidze, a Georgian-American International Master and a Woman Grandmaster in chess, has announced that she will boycott the games because the players will have to wear hijabs (1). She has also
launched a campaign on Change.org demanding that the World Chess Federation reconsider Iran as a host for the women’s championship.
“These issues reach far beyond the chess world,” the petition says. “While there has been social progress in Iran, women’s rights remain severely restricted. This is more than one event; it is a fight for women’s rights.”
The petition has been signed by more than 3,000 people.
But some disagree with Paikidze’s stance. Mitra Hejazipour, a woman grandmaster (WGM) and the 2015 Asian continental women’s champion, said a boycott would be a setback for female sport in Iran.
“This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen; we haven’t been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past,” Hejazipour, 23, told the Guardian. “It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”
That quote reflects the general question whether sports (and other) boycotts (chess being counted as a sport here) for human rights reasons help or hurt those they are intended to help.
But it doesn't really reflect the extent of inequality Iranian women legally must accept, which goes far beyond an obligatory religious dress code (2).
Even within the limited world of spectator sports, Iranian women are banned from attending men's soccer or volleyball games. Within the wider world of international sports the religious dress requirement can make participation extremely difficult for Iranian women (3) or seriously hamper their chances of doing well, given that their competitors are not subjected to the same requirements.
2. This is what took place earlier:
The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has kept awarding Iran various volleyball events, despite Iran's ban on women as spectators at events where men are playing (4), and despite the fact that the FIVB's rules include one about no discrimination allowed in sports.
For example, Iran was awarded both the World Tour Beach Volleyball tournament which took place last February in Kish and Tehran's World League matches which took place last June, both after promises from Iran that women spectators would not be excluded, promises that had earlier been disregarded by the Iranian government.
And they were also disregarded in Kish, where security guards turned women away at the gates. A FIVB spokesman Richard Baker had this to say about Kish:
“There have been misunderstandings throughout the day, and we have had to seek clarification,” he told The Associated Press, adding that the Iranian federation “has the best intentions but there are cultural issues.”
Baker noted that some women were able to watch the event from the rooftop of a café.
Bolds are mine.
The June 2016 Tehran World League matches were hailed as a great step forward by the FIVB, because women were able to attend some games:
But the build-up was dominated once again by criticism over the ban surrounding female spectators, first introduced at volleyball matches in the Islamic country in 2012 as an extension of a similar ban in football.
Women attempting to buy online tickets have repeatedly received messages saying they were unable to purchase, with human rights groups claiming only specially selected groups would be permitted.
Female-only areas were full today as action began, with this hailed as a key "first step" by the FIVB.
"The attendance of women at the opening matches of the World League in Tehran on Friday is a first step of a long-term campaign to re-instate female spectators at volleyball events in Iran and one which the FIVB is 100 per cent committed to," a spokesperson told insidethegames today.
"Our policy is one of engagement and diplomacy to secure inclusion through sport not through the threat of isolation."
Bolds are mine. Note the references to "cultural issues" in the first quote and the preference for "engagement and diplomacy" over the "threat of isolation" in the second quote.
3. Let's keep that in mind and go back in time to the era of South Africa's Apartheid.
What did international sports bodies do at the time of Apartheid to express their disapproval of such racial segregation and discrimination? Were "cultural issues" mentioned? Were policies of "engagement and diplomacy" preferred over the "threat of isolation?"
Who knows? But this is what Wikipedia tells us about general sport boycotts against South Africa during the late Apartheid era:
In 1980, the United Nations began compiling a "Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa". This was a list of sportspeople and official who had participated in events within South Africa. It was compiled mainly from reports in South African newspapers. Being listed did not itself result in any punishment, but was regarded as a moral pressure on athletes. Some sports bodies would discipline athletes based on the register. Athletes could have their names deleted from the register by giving a written undertaking not to return to apartheid South Africa to compete. The register is regarded as having been an effective instrument.
The UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention against Apartheid in Sports on 10 December 1985.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) withdrew its invitation to South Africa to the 1964 Summer Olympics when interior minister Jan de Klerk insisted the team would not be racially integrated. In 1968, the IOC was prepared to readmit South Africa after assurances that its team would be multi-racial; but a threatened boycott by African nations and others forestalled this. The South African Games of 1969 and 1973 were intended to allow Olympic-level competition for South Africans against foreign athletes. South Africa was formally expelled from the IOC in 1970.
In 1976, African nations demanded that New Zealand be suspended by the IOC for continued contacts with South Africa, including a tour by the New Zealand national rugby union team. When the IOC refused, the African teams withdrew from the games. This contributed to the Gleneagles Agreement being adopted by the Commonwealth in 1977.
The IOC adopted a declaration against "apartheid in sport" on 21 June 1988, for the total isolation of apartheid sport.
Interestingly, a chess boycott also took place:
In the 1970 Chess Olympiad, a number of players and teams protested against South Africa's inclusion, some withdrawing themselves, and the Albanian team forfeited its match against the South African team. South Africa were expelled from FIDE while participating in the 1974 Chess Olympiad, finally returning to international competition in the 1992 Chess Olympiad.
I am not arguing that the Iranian gender apartheid is the same as the South African race apartheid. But it's instructive to ask why and how the two cases might differ, why "engagement and diplomacy" and "cultural" differences somehow appear more credible (even to me!) when it comes to the case of Iran, why "cultural" differences somehow seem to fit the mistreatment of a whole sex and not the mistreatment of a whole race. After all, racism was clearly a part of South African mainstream culture.
So let us look at some possible differences between the two apartheid examples. Or, rather, let us ask what it is about women's treatment that seems to set it apart from other sorts of mistreatment (though not all sorts).
Here is my short list of tentative differences, whether real or not, between the two cases:
A. Oil. Iran (and Saudi Arabia) have oil. The West needs that oil and is willing to overlook human rights violations. South Africa had nothing quite comparable to that pragmatic reason for closing one's eyes.
B. Religion. Iran is a theocracy. To criticize its gender discrimination means to criticize the Iranian ruling theologians' extreme interpretations of the sharia law, and that can be taken as a criticism of other people's most deeply held beliefs, even as blasphemy against god.
It can also be seen as a criticism of political Islam as it is based on theological interpretations by the Guardian Council of Iran, and that is problematic for those of us who do not wish to incite even more anti-Muslim bigotry in the West (5).
Racism is not as integral part of most literalist religious interpretations as sexism is, though one could argue that both xenophobia and the discrimination against LGBT people also have a religious justification in both the Bible and the Quran. This makes fighting against racism different from fighting against sexism or the oppression of gays and Lesbians, because the former is not juxtaposed with religious rights.
C. Women. Women are different from "people" in the minds of many. It's possible to see the treatment of women as a "cultural" thing, because "their women" belong to "them," "our women" to "us." The same thinking cannot as credibly be applied to other groups of people, though it certainly has been tried when it comes to sexual minorities by those who argue that opposing gay and Lesbian rights is what their culture requires.
Likewise, many believe that any inherent differences between women and men justify differential treatment of the sort which limits women largely to their biological roles and which awards control or protection of women to men.
On the other hand, note that racists would certainly not argue that all the "races" are the same. Thus, the theory of "difference" is not sufficient by itself.
D. Gender Equality As A Western Colonial Idea. This view regards women's rights as Western propaganda, employed by those Western nations who did so much damage to the countries which they colonized or exploited for oil. Though Iran was not colonized by any Western country, the US certainly has had its greed for oil affect the past history of Iran. A backlash against the Western meddling has emphasized the importance of Islam and the local traditional values.
From that cultural-relativism or cultural-sensitivity-towards-oppressed nations angle (which is not applied to racism, in general), women's rights can appear something alien, something that the past oppressors are trying to force on Iran and various nations with Western colonial histories, something that is not part and parcel of the histories of those countries.
But then neither is gender equality part and parcel of the Western history or the history of the Christian Church. Rather, women and men fought for those rights, often against a church and/or a government which was extremely reluctant to cede one inch, and the progress is certainly not finished in the West. Just look at the Catholic Church for examples. (6)
E. Gender Inequality As A Majority Choice. This is the argument that culturally conservative countries have majorities of both men and women in support of laws which give women fewer rights than men are given. Most Iranians might be comfortable with the legal differences in how men and women are treated, with the exception of a small number of people with Westernized values who want to see changes, and that would make the meddling of outside nations inappropriate.
To test that theory, we might ask if Apartheid in South Africa, with all the racial discrimination accompanying it, would have been acceptable if it had been based on the choice of some majority of the country's citizens. Your answer to that question tells you if you are a cultural relativist or a universalist when it comes to human rights.
To test it further, ask yourself if the way religion is interpreted by the powers that be might have anything to do with such apparent "choices" by many.
4. In Conclusion: I have not answered the questions the title of this post poses. The answers are ultimately empirical: Find out what works, and then do that.
Still, it is well worth our while to ask if women's rights, in general, are treated the same way as other types of human rights by various international organizations. I believe that they are not, because it is easier to argue that women's rights clash with other important values, such as the respect for religions or the respect for cultural traditions, and also because sizable contingencies on this globe do not actually believe in the equality of the sexes.
(1) The consequences of not abiding by this requirement can be severe:
Women who appear without an Islamic hijab risk arrest and imprisonment of between 10 days and two months, or a fine of up to 500,000 rials. Approximately 30,000 women were reportedly arrested between 2003 and 2013, with many others subjected to expulsion from university or banned from entering public spaces, such as parks, cinemas, sport facilities, airports and beaches.
For negative views on the obligatory hijab in Iran, see here, here and here. For positive views on the obligatory hijab in Iran, see here and this:
In 2010, 531 young women (aged 15–29) from different cities in nine provinces of Iran participated in a study the results of which showed that 77% prefer stricter covering, 19% loose covering, and only 4% don’t believe in veiling at all.
Note, though, that this post is not about an obligatory religion-related dress code for women or the banning of religious dress, but about the use of international sports boycotts to protest human rights violations of more widespread types.
This article covers the laws concerning the hijab, the niqab and the burqa in both predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim countries. The niqab and the burqa are different from the hijab in that they make the wearer invisible and anonymous,which means that the bans of the first two have a different justification where they have taken place. As an aside, it seems that even ISIS has banned the face veil in its own headquarters, due to security risks.
(2) Indeed, one can argue that the obligatory religious dress code might be the smallest of the problems Iranian women must face:
Iranian marriage law defines marriage essentially as a labor contract where the husband is always the employer and the boss. The wife, the employee, must provide obedience to the husband and sexual access whenever he wants it, while the husband must maintain her. If the wife disobeys her husband (which includes the refusal to engage in sexual intercourse), she loses her right to maintenance. Her disobedience may also be grounds for polygamy, divorce or physical punishment. Polygamy is legal for men under certain conditions, polyandry is not legal.
In order for the wife to provide the necessary obedience and sexual access, a husband can control his wife's ability to travel: A married woman cannot travel abroad (or, say, take a job in a different town inside Iran) without her husband's written permission, and he can limit her choice of occupation outside the home if he deems it incompatible with family responsibilities, his own dignity, or that of his wife.
Obtaining a divorce is harder for women than for men. A divorced woman who has physical custody of the children loses that custody if she remarries, whereas a divorced man with physical custody of his children does not lose custody after remarriage. The minimum marriage age for girls is thirteen while for boys it is fifteen, though a nine-year-old girl can be married with the permission of a legal court.
Women cannot become judges in Iran. In some courts, at least, a woman's testimony is worth one half of a man's testimony, based on the assumption that women are more emotional and less trustworthy than men. The legal compensation for a woman's life ("blood price" for homicide, say) in courts is one half of the legal compensation for a man's life. The age of criminal responsibility is eight years and nine months for girls and fourteen years and seven months for boys.
Women are more likely to be stoned for adultery than men, not because of different legal rules concerning adultery, but because of the right of men to have more than one spouse. Thus, a married man can claim that his extramarital affair is really a temporary marriage (which is allowed in Iran), whereas a married woman cannot make that claim, because she cannot have two simultaneous husbands.
Men do not have to wear as restrictive a religious attire.
Daughters inherit half of the amount sons do. A wife can never inherit more than one quarter of her husband's estate, even if there are no other heirs. A husband in that situation can inherit all of his wife's estate.
The sexes are segregated in primary and secondary schools (as well as in much of private life), and repeated attempts have been made to create gender segregation in universities (by, say, making certain courses only available to men or to women). The goal of the religious authorities in Iran is to ultimately have all medical and dental care provided within a sex-segregated framework. For that not to severely disadvantage Iranian women as patients, the numbers of female physicians and dentists must be much higher than is the case today.
The above examples of how Iran interprets the Islamic sharia law when it comes to women's rights and roles come from this source.
Recently the Iranian parliament has focused on renewed attempts to keep women out of labor force by shortening the allowed weekly working hours for female employees (which makes women less attractive to employers), by providing women incentives to stay at home and by explicitly allowing employers to give married men preference in employment decisions over married women who, in turn, are given preference over unmarried women.
At the same time, women's rights activist face imprisonment and are viewed as enemies of the state, and there are indications of a new crackdown on women whose dress doesn't please the morality police.
It's also important to point out that women (and men) in Iran have actively fought for women's rights, that women are now the majority of university students (though maximum quotas on their numbers may change that) and can also be found among the members of the parliament.
Sadly, women's chances to become political decision-makers are determined by the religious Guardian Council which doesn't allow feminist women to run for the parliament, and so far it has not approved a single female presidential candidate. Indeed, it is the all-male Guardian Council which is the major architect of the restrictions under which Iranian women in a theocracy must live.
(3) Sometimes because the hijab is banned, as has been the case with the International Basketball Federation.
(4) Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian woman, was arrested and imprisoned in 2014 for protesting this ban. The charge against her was "propaganda against the state."
(5) It's crucial to stress that the criticism is not against Islam, but against the most extreme and selective way of literally interpreting a very old and complex text, with other interpretations ruled out, and done by those men who run a theocracy, and who are therefore able to force their own interpretations on the rest of the population. There are interpretations of Islam which are compatible with gender equality.
(6) I doubt that the question of how to influence women's access to sports in Iran is best explained by a certain kind of cultural relativism. Still, there is a school of thought in Western feminism which argues that outsiders shouldn't dominate or steer indigenous feminist movements in countries which the West once colonized or exploited for oil or other resources, that it is up to the local feminists to run the campaigns and wage the battles.
The dilemma Western feminists then face, of course, is what to do if the local feminists are interrogated, arrested and sent to prison for "propaganda against the state," if their organizations are dismantled and their message muted.
The wider dilemma is that this approach ultimately makes global feminism difficult in this era of globalization and the mass movement of people, and that it can easily slip into the view that equality of men and women is a purely relativist concept, that each culture should decide how much gender equality it might wish to have, even, say, in multicultural societies, even if it is the old patriarchs of a culture who determine the answers to such questions.