THE protests led by women and young people in Iran and supported by a cross section of society under the slogan of ‘zan, zindagi, azadi’(‘women, life and freedom’) is a matter for celebration for the region. It comes at a time when not only are women fed up with being dictated to by men as to how they should dress and the freedoms they are ‘allowed’ — as if they were born in chains and need to fight for all basic rights — but they come at a time when Afghanistan is under the Taliban who have clamped down on women’s fundamental rights including mobility, expression, employment, and education.
This should be cause for alarm for any state in the region that values the freedoms and rights of its populace. In this context, it is disappointing that the Pakistani delegation at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva voted against a resolution calling for investigation of the violation of basic human rights of the Iranian people by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The regime has so far killed hundreds of protesters for exercising their fundamental right to protest, a string of which started with the killing of Mahsa Jina Amini in Iran for not covering her hair ‘properly’. The imposition of such standards is policed by a moral police in Iran that punishes women for ‘excesses’ such as letting their hair show. Whereas it is the right of each woman, as much as of anybody else, to decide how they want to dress, such draconian measures have become a cause of frustration for the Iranian people and are symbolic of the wider oppression perpetrated by the regime.
It is important to remember that the rights the people of Iran are fighting for are the same fundamental rights protected by the Constitution of Pakistan. Article 9 protects the right to life, Article 14 guarantees the right to dignity, Article 17 protects the right to freedom of association, Article 19 protects the right to freedom of speech, and Article 25 protects the right to equality.
The rights Iranians are fighting for are the same ones in our Constitution.
In this context, it is the moral responsibility of the Pakistani government to stand for the basic rights of all people in the world as per the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights that highlights the inherent dignity of people everywhere, with all UN member states under an obligation to uphold and protect these rights.
As there is credible evidence of a government violating these rights, the UNHRC is obligated to call for an investigation into these violations by a designated special rapporteur. It is a matter of pride for Pakistan that our foremost human rights activist, the late Asma Jahangir, was the special rapporteur for Iran on behalf of the UNHRC at the time of her untimely demise.
Pakistan should exercise leadership in the region for the protection of the rights of the people and progressive values. As the first Muslim country in the world to have had a woman elected as prime minister, we have a special responsibility to lead when it comes to the protection of the rights of women. Many hailed the symbolism of Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar leading the delegation from the foreign ministry to speak to the Afghan Taliban in Kabul recently. This must translate into strong policy positions around women’s rights and leadership regionally and globally.
As non-state extremists get emboldened in Pakistan to attack girls’ schools, as happened in Waziristan and Swat recently, the regional trend of restraining the rights of the girl child and women is trickling across borders. Hence a strong policy position in favour of girls’ right to education and women’s right to dignity must be protected and advocated for by the government here.
Maintaining relations with Iran’s government must not be at the cost of letting down the people of that country, who are risking it all for their inherent dignity. What the Constitution guarantees for Pakistanis is committed to by Pakistan and Iran, and required by international law under the United Nations — and it must be respected.
It is as important for us to support the right of women, and transgender people, to not be forced to wear headscarves in Iran as it is for us to advocate for the right of women in France and India to wear headscarves as governments try to dictate women’s basic choices. Killing women for defying deeply entrenched and misguided patriarchal dictations, and torturing and killing protesters who demonstrate in support of them, must not be overlooked.
In this light, it is important that Pakistan revisits its policy that guided the ‘no’ vote at the UNHRC in November, as Pakistanis have every reason to stand in solidarity with the ‘zan, zindagi, azadi’ slogan of the people of Iran.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2022