An open letter to Switzerland's Foreign Ministry
Date: 2008/05/20   

Dear Mrs. Calmy-Rey

As an Iranian woman who graduated in women’s studies and women’s right activist, I became very happy when I understood that, according to the foreign ministry’s declaration, human rights will be the first priority in your negotiations with the Iranian authorities on 17th March. Especially because just two weeks before your travel to Iran, you emphasized the gender perspective in human rights in your speech to the 7th session of the Human Rights Council. In that speech you asked for systematic attention to the advice of the commission on the elimination of discrimination against women.

I hoped that because of some similarity in our experiences as women, you would not forget Iranian women in your negotiations with the Iranian authorities.

As you may know, the Iranian government hasn’t yet signed CEADAW and there are lots of formal and informal injustices and discrimination occurring regularly against women in Iran.

Women’s rights activists are oppressed. According to a nongovernmental organization’s report, between March 2007 and March 2008, 63 women’s rights activists were arrested and 38 women’s rights activists were summoned to appear to the court. Furthermore, 114 female students were sentenced to exclusion from education. Two female prisoners were killed under suspicious circumstances, and 37 women were sentenced to execution and stoning. Our first and most important feminist magazine was forced to close three months ago by the government and many women’s websites and web logs are filtered. I supposed that you would have been aware of these issues and would have asked the Iranian government about them.

But when I saw you veiled in Tehran, I understood that it was the wrong expectation! When you can’t even defend your right to choose your own clothing, how can you defend the rights of millions of women? And later when I heard your justification for your wearing a scarf, I was even more shocked: "When you are a guest, you should respect local customs".

Mrs Minister: if you were to travel to a country where circumcision for little girls is a cultural practice, would you respect that culture? Do you respect cultures in which families force their girls to marry in childhood as a way of making money? Do you respect those rules or customs in a country which is against the World Human Rights Declaration? Do you think the Islamic Republic of Iran would accept Switzerland’s customs and let Iranian women diplomats (if there are any!) remove their scarves?

The hijab is a matter of individual choice. Thus a woman’s decision to wear the hijab is as respectable as a woman’s decision not to wear the hijab. The women’s movement in Iran is not against the hijab but is against the “compulsory hijab law”, under which one million women have been threatened by the police. They have faced violent behavior for wearing the same sort of "hijab" which you were wearing in your meeting with Ahmadi Nejad, i.e., one that is rather open or loose around the face and very thin and delicate.

According to official reports of the IRI police, almost 20 thousand of these women were summoned to appear in court because they did not immediately obey the police. I, too, was arrested by the police four times last year because of issues related to the hijab, and I was humiliated and threatened by the morality police. In addition, my belongings were confiscated. Many Iranian women are against the compulsory hijab law. Some of them, however, believe in the hijab but are against governmental pressure on women and are resentful because of that. What is your response to these women?

You don’t seem to respect Iranian women while respecting the anti-human rights law of a government that takes away Iranian women’s right to choose their own clothing. I am writing this letter to you after three other women and I have been recently sentenced to six month of jail and ten lashes. Do you also respect these sentences as you respect the hijab?


Nasrin Afzali

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