Gender Apartheid Inquiry: SHATTERING WOMEN’S RIGHTS, SHATTERING LIVES Parliamentary Ad-Hoc Inquiry Into The Situation Of Women And Girls In Afghanistan And Iran G

Source: International Bar Association

The Gender Apartheid Inquiry (the Inquiry), convened by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), has published a new report titled Shattering Women’s Rights, SHATTERING LIVES: Parliamentary Ad-Hoc Inquiry Into The Situation Of Women And Girls In Afghanistan And Iran. The report was launched in the United Kingdom Parliament on 4 March 2024.

The report responds to the marginalisation faced by women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran, which closely resembles segregation: they are treated as second-class citizens, deprived of their freedoms and forced to adhere to strict dress codes under the threat of severe punishments. They encounter obstacles in their everyday lives, while their male counterparts exert increasing control over their lives and freedoms. All these forms of discrimination are institutionalised, as they stem from policies and practices put in place by the authorities. The existing legal framework fails to fully capture the nature of this situation and, in turn, provide adequate accountability for perpetrators. In light of this, investigating the feasibility of formally recognising the crime of gender apartheid and codifying it has become imperative.

IBAHRI Director, Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws KC, stated: ‘The Gender Apartheid Inquiry is an unprecedented investigation into the grievous situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran. Afghan women are not only treated as inferior citizens but are actively denied full participation in society. They lack fundamental rights such as freedom of association, speech and movement. They are excluded from the legal system, denied access to positions of power and restricted in their ability to work outside their homes. Education is also systematically withheld from them. Similarly, in Iran, women face extensive discrimination, especially in matters like marriage, divorce and child custody. The mandatory hijab laws drastically limit women’s public lives, affecting their employment, education and healthcare access. What distinguishes this condition from the crime of persecution of women is the systematic nature of the phenomenon, where laws are specifically crafted to constrain the lives of women and their advancement in society. This serious issue can only be described as the crime of apartheid: by replacing “race” with “gender”, it becomes evident that the legal definition reflects the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran.’

In January 2024, the Gender Apartheid Inquiry was convened as prompted by growing concerns over the segregation and oppression experienced by women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran under the rule of the Taliban and Mullahs, respectively. The Inquiry, led by a panel of UK Parliamentarians chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws KC, engaged Afghan and Iranian human rights defenders and experts, as well as international experts, including the relevant United Nations Special Procedures mandate-holders, who urged the acknowledgment of the situation as ‘gender apartheid’.

The Inquiry report was published by Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws KC, Baroness Fiona Hodgson, the Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP, and Joanna Cherry KC MP. Several other parliamentarians attended the oral hearings and are to engage with implementations of the next steps of the Inquiry.

Dr Ewelina Ochab, IBAHRI Senior Programme Lawyer and lead author of the report, commented: ‘The Gender Apartheid Inquiry was the first and, for now, the only such Inquiry led by politicians in the world. It accommodated important conversations and provided a platform for Afghan and Iranian women to tell their stories and explain how the situation needs to be addressed. There should be nothing about them, without them. I hope that this Inquiry will shape the UK’s responses to the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran, but also, that politicians in other countries will be encouraged to engage as well. We can’t remain silent on the issue as this silence only empowers the perpetrators. We look forward to working with Afghan and Iranian women on the next stages of the Inquiry.’

Currently, the crime of apartheid is codified within international legal instruments to address a specific form of oppression based on race, as was the case in South Africa. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, it encompasses inhumane acts perpetrated within an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and dominance by one racial group over others, with the explicit intention of perpetuating such a regime.

The Gender Apartheid Inquiry has now concluded its deliberations, having hosted three days of oral hearings in the UK Parliament, additional sessions with experts and an open call for written submissions. Members of the Inquiry’s Parliamentary Panel held oral hearings with women from Afghanistan and Iran, including lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists. The women provided testimonies detailing their first-hand experiences of threats, intimidation, unfair trials, arbitrary detention and – in some instances – torture. Many of these women were compelled to flee their countries or abandon their professions to safeguard their families and start a new life.

Among the key testimonies heard by the Inquiry were first-hand accounts of:

  • torture, including ‘needling’ whereby needles would be put into the fingers and other torture practices of suffocating the victims/survivors;
  • a mental health crisis in Afghanistan in response to the suppression of women’s rights and their segregation and removal from society and the high number of suicides among women and girls, with witnesses calling it an ‘endemic of suicide’;
  • the use of technology by Iran to enforce its hijab laws; and
  • the use of transnational repression against critics of the Iranian regime, including in the UK.

Future actions:

The IBAHRI will continue to collect testimonies from women from Afghanistan and Iran and, in the case of Afghanistan, prepare Article 15 submissions to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The IBAHRI will further organise a roundtable for women from Afghanistan and Iran, to discuss the progress made on the report recommendations and other avenues to support women and girls in these countries.

Furthermore, the IBAHRI will take the report to the 55th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) currently underway in Geneva, Switzerland where Emily Foale, IBAHRI Programme Lawyer, will engage in the consultation with the UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan.

Dr Ewelina Ochab will take the report to the 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, where the topic of Afghanistan will be discussed.

The final report, which includes findings as well as recommendations that outline legal and practical measures to address the current situation, was presented on 4 March 2024 in the UK Parliament. Among the speakers were Professor Karima Bennoune, distinguished scholar who covered the issue of gender apartheid, and Fawzia Koofi, Afghan politician and prolific human rights defender.