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Iran's Human Rights Maneuvers No Laughing Matter

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In the span of the last 10 days, Iran dropped its bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, only to turn its sights instead on a position on a U.N. commission devoted to the protection of women's rights. In the meantime, a senior Iranian cleric claimed that scantily clad women are an indirect cause of earthquakes, leading to a protest on social media sites around the world.

No country in the world has a spotless human rights record, but Iran is a perennial target for human rights advocates for everything from its attacks on free speech and freedom of association, to its alleged use of torture and extrajudicial killings.

Rights advocates objected to Iran's bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council not only on the basis of Tehran's poor record, but also because the 47-member council already includes perennial rights offenders China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba. The council itself has repeatedly come in for criticism from rights defenders.

"Iran saw the writing on the wall in the face of mounting global opposition over its abysmal human rights record," Peggy Hicks, HRW's global advocacy director, said in a press release. "Iran's withdrawal shows that international pressure can work to improve the council's membership."

Iran's subsequent effort to seek a seat on a U.N. body dealing with women's rights was likely to encounter equally stiff resistance from rights advocates. But Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi's widely ridiculed statement tying women's "immodest" attire to earthquakes will certainly add fuel to the fire.

"Many women who do not dress modestly . . . lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which [consequently] increases earthquakes," Sedighi, the acting Friday prayers leader for Tehran, was widely quoted as saying in the international press last week.

There was some argument over whether the cleric meant literal earthquakes -- something Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has repeatedly warned about in recent weeks -- or societal "earthquakes." Either way, the statement was widely viewed in rights circles and the Western press as just the latest salvo by Iranian authorities against women's rights.

Beginning on Monday, women around the world responded by posting photographs of themselves online in tight, curve-revealing clothing, but also by participating in similar live events to register their opposition. University student Jen McCreight has been credited with starting what's become known as the "#boobquake" movement to demonstrate that allowing women to decide how to clothe themselves would not cause any earthquakes.

As bizarre and humorous as the turn of events has become, the sad reality is that millions of Iranian women -- as well as their male counterparts, for that matter -- do not enjoy many of their basic rights. Now, as the international community struggles to find a way to pressure Iran to improve its rights record, it must also be wary of Tehran's efforts to co-opt the very institutions that might eventually be used to do so.

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