In 2015, the United Nations elected Saudi Arabia to the Human Rights Council, something which caused an outrage at the time. Today the United Nations has just repeated a measure that can only be qualified as criminal idiocy by appointing Pakistan and Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Let us recall the definition of this commission, obviously « forgotten » not to say, even scorned here, as stated on their own website : The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women..The CSW is instrumental in promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Furthermore, the resolution of the 65th meeting of this commission held this spring of 2021 for the first time stressed the importance of female decision-making and underlined the elimination of violence against women which has increased exponentially since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. On paper or on our screens, this indeed is a lofty mission and a huge set of responsibilities for the UN member states.

What on earth was anybody thinking of (and that includes 4 European votes) when choosing Iran and Pakistan for the Commission on the Status of Women. The mind indeed boggles. The UN least of all cannot be unaware of their appalling Human Rights record, in particular women’s rights? The Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s report for 2021 is damning. The repression in Iran against female activists systematically leads to incarceration and torture in prison. Add to that Ayatollah Khomeini’s adviser Hossein Ali Montazeri’s recommendation Female prisoners who are virgins must be raped before execution, to prevent them from entering heaven

The notorious Evin prison in Tehran holds many famous political prisoners recipients of international prizes and the subjects of international campaigns for their liberation such as Nasrin Soutoudeh (see photo above), the prominent lawyer defending women and children’s rights. Also imprisoned are Narges Mohammadi, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraei, Atena Daemi, Shahnaz Akmali, Yasaman Aryani, Saba Kord Afshari, and Neda Naji all well-known for their struggles. Since 2019, many more peaceful activists have joined them, their number increasing from 10.5% before 2018 to 19% female political prisoners. The charge? Protesting against the violently unequal status of women in all matters relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, child rearing. Add a few other grievances: the, prohibition of personal life choices, early marriages, lack of access to employment, compulsory head-covering and « modest » attire, marital rape, domestic violence, exacerbated by the pandemic. The minimum age of marriage is 13 for girls and 15 for boys; note that the age may be lowered by decision of a cleric. As in Pakistan, LGBTI relations are criminalized, but in Iran they can lead to death by hanging. Despite the media coverage of the arrests, prison conditions are appalling, the untreated COVID-19 cases continue to multiply .

The press has pointed out the criminal absurdity of Iran’s presence on this commission, but not in major, analytical articles . But what seems to have been left out is the presence of Pakistan, surely one of the worst places in the world for women. Their condition is comparable to that of Iran. Remember that since 1973, Pakistan has overturned the original secular constitution to become a Fundamentalist Islamic republic, where religious law, Sharia, rules.  Unlike Iran, the state is weak so in rural provinces, tribal law, even more rigid than Sharia dominates with catastrophic consequences for women, comparable to Taliban Afghanistan.
Women’s rights groups have reported that extreme domestic violence had increased by 200% between January and March 2020, i.e. before the pandemic when the situation worsened as elsewhere. Amnesty has noted the arrest and police violence against health workers who were protesting against the lack of means to effectively combat COVID-19 .Furthermore, women’s organisations have recorded at least 1 000 so-called « honour crimes » per year, a significant proportion of which are never reported. Pakistan is rated top for forced marriages involving abducted diaspora Pakistani girls (often British and generally minors) and older men in the parents’ country  Despite criminalization in Europe, the practice continues, seemingly unabated and definitively under-reported.

Malala Yusafzai at the United nations

Somehow all this was already going on when Pakistan was part of the CSW from 2013 to 2017, without anyone remarking on their failure in the women’s rights department. How could the UN let this criminal country keep their place at CSW when in 2014, in mid-mandate, 17-year old Malala Yusafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize, after she had almost been killed by Pakistani Taliban because she was demanding education rights for girls in Pakistan. And address the UN about this, Malala certainly did, but at the UN nobody turned to the Pakistani representatives for official explanations and a promise of improvement. Today, Pakistan is once more rewarded by a seat at this commission next to nefarious Iran. Yet where are the protests?

It is true that Iran, unlike Pakistan, has actually developed the school and university sector for women, thereby only following the path set by the Shah’s government. Admirable as this may be, such a policy was logical. It would have been hard to reverse the drive for modernity that Iran set in motion in the 1960s, and unwise politically for Ayatollah Khomeini to close down the education of Iran’s female citizens, Taliban-style.

Iran may certainly be a truly modern country in many ways, especially in Tehran, but the systematic repression of human rights engineered by an authoritarian religious regime negates any form of progress and development.

At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a massive regression in women’s rights, both in the field of education, political rights, reproductive health, early marriage, FGM why elect « specialists » on the status of women from among the world’s most ruthlessly reactionary countries?

The World Economic Forum in March 2021 measured the gender rights gap on the planet and ranked Iran 150th out of 156 and Pakistan 153rd Do we really imagine that these countries, given a position of responsibility in the CSW at the United Nations, will try to improve their performance? On the contrary, there is every reason to fear that this platform, by becoming the supreme judge of ethical values, will be used to influence the status of women in a negative way, precipitating a fall in rights already accelerated by the pandemic.

Let’s put it in another way. Since Saudi Arabia joined the Human Rights Council at the U.N., has the situation of women improved? Initiatives and appeals such as the Every Woman Treaty, a campaign for a specific global treaty to eliminate violence against women and girls to be voted on at the United Nations, have fallen on deaf ears, despite garnering massive support world-wide  Almost the same thing for a courageous NGO Widows for Peace and Democracy which is trying to get a ruling on the countless war widows, often minors, whose number has multiplied with the growing number of refugees and the numerous ongoing wars and steadily increasing numbers of refugees.

With Iran and Pakistan on this commission, this kind of urgent project will continue to be ignored and the situation can only get worse. Please remember that this commission officially starts work in early 2022 and remains in place for four years. It must be possible to reverse these choices that threaten the future of human rights on the planet.


When the French version of this article was published in France by Mediapart, a reader raised an objection regarding to the Eurocentric, possibly Islamophobic views of its author.

This needs some unpacking on my behalf and will relate to first-hand experience in Afghanistan early on in the century. USAID up to about 2010 did try to impose a cut-and-paste-version of Western women’s rights which proved to be ineffective: empowering Afghan women (or men for that matter) as « free » individuals, bereft of any family obligations was indeed senseless, as I found out teaching a seminar on women’s rights at Kabul University. The notion of rights only began to be truly endorsed by Afghans (with the exception of the Taliban and like-minded) when they saw that female education and health actually improved living standards for families and society at large.

CSW at the UN should be a forum where conservative, religious countries could find acceptable solutions to stop violence and abuse of women (which as I understand it is not recommended by Islam) and the more liberal ones could learn how to live with diversity. Our future resides in this desperately needed conversation and exchange.