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Iran’s Tone-Deaf “Women’s Congress” Sparks Fury

On January 20, Iran hosted what it described as the “First International Congress for Women of Influence” in Tehran. The event brought together female attendants from dozens of countries, including Serbia’s First Lady, Tamara Vučić, and the wife of the Armenian Prime Minister, Anna Hakobyan. According to the Iranian government, 300 guests from 90 countries traveled to Iran for the much-touted event, although a complete list of attendees has not been published.

At a time when the Islamic Republic has been the subject of increasing opprobrium over the brutality of its morality police and its violent crackdown against the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests, the sumptuous congress clearly failed to change the narrative both inside and outside of Iran. Reactions on social media and in the national press were overwhelmingly negative, suggesting that the Iranian government failed to alter perceptions of its treatment of women and the gender disparities that pervade society.

Khabar Online, a centrist news website, covered the extravaganza in a critical report titled “A meeting, some photos: which knot was untied? How much did it cost?” The pro-reform Shargh Daily challenged the conference in a story titled “A congress in the shadows.” The Taadol Newspaper also lambasted the event and its organizers in several stories, including an opinion piece, “The Congress for Women of Influence: in our name, in favor of others.”

Anatomy of a PR Stunt

In a new precedent in the history of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the 54-member body voted in favor of ousting Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) for the remainder of the four-year term it was scheduled to serve until 2026.

Founded in 1946, the CSW is the primary UN body tasked with promoting women’s rights and documenting the wellbeing of women across the world. Its 45 members are elected by the votes of the ECOSOC countries. Since the earliest days of the protests—sparked by the brutal murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the religious police—the United States and many human rights organizations had been campaigning to remove Iran from the commission, arguing that Tehran’s treatment of women stripped it of any credibility to participate in an elected body that champions women’s dignity.

On December 14, the ECOSOC member states voted to suspend Iran from the commission. Although authorities in Tehran downplayed the importance of the suspension, the outcome was widely regarded as a diplomatic humiliation for the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi. Altogether, 29 countries voted in favor of the removal, while only eight supported Iran. Meanwhile, world leaders have pulled no punches when criticizing the Iranian government over its repression of anti-government protests sparked by Amini’s murder. Outside of regime-controlled outlets, the media narratives of the Islamic Republic’s human rights record have been overwhelmingly negative, describing a longstanding pattern of harassment directed at women over the compulsory hijab, among other forms of discrimination.

These criticisms of Iran’s domestic human rights existed long before the outbreak of the Amini protests. However, as the government’s reputation reached an all-time low in the wake of the protests, the last thing it could afford was a bungled event that would amplify, rather than moderate, criticisms of its policies and actions. The state presumably believed that a lavish congress with excessive publicity could flip the narrative and depict Iran as a progressive country. However, rather than position Iran as a leader in protecting women’s rights, the First International Congress for Women of Influence appears to have backfired, heaping scorn and attracting further scrutiny of its record. On social media, Iranians questioned the credentials of the individuals participating in the event, inquiring why the government refused to publish a full list of attendees so that the public could determine who the so-called “influential” women actually were. They lamented that while the uncompromising policies of the Islamic Republic have forced the most accomplished Iranian women to emigrate to other countries in search of opportunities and personal freedom, the government welcomed unknown foreign women to Iran on an all-expenses-paid trip to engage in grandstanding.

The example of Maryam Mirzakhani, the late Iranian mathematician and the first female recipient of the Fields Medal from the International Mathematical Union since the award’s inception in 1936, the highest honor in mathematics, illustrates the frustrations of many in Iran. A professor at Stanford University until her passing in 2017 at the age of 40, Mirzakhani was a striking example of Iran’s human capital flight; after she graduated from the Sharif University of Technology, Iran’s most prestigious university, she traveled to the United States to pursue graduate-level education because no institutions of the same caliber existed in Iran. Like Mirzakhani, hundreds of thousands of talented Iranian youths have left the country to find skilled work in Western countries simply because of the government’s failure to invest in education and provide ambitious Iranians with opportunities for excellence. Entrenched patriarchal norms render it even more difficult for women looking to enter competitive careers.

The congress committed a second major faux pas when it awarded €20,000 to seven participants. Many Iranians pointed to these gifts as excessive, given the financial hardships that ordinary citizens face. Unsurprisingly, one of the cash awards was offered to the daughter of a former member of parliament and an influential hardline figure close to the Islamic Republic’s leadership.

Renewed Fury

It is common for governments to indulge in flamboyant publicity to project their soft power through events featuring large cohorts of international participants. For the most part, however, such events are carefully crafted and organized by professional planners with an eye toward sensitive political issues. The Raisi administration’s decision to host an international women’s conference in an attempt to distract from the abuses of Iranian women in the country’s streets has only resulted in greater criticism of Iran’s leadership.

The wounds caused by the government crackdown are still fresh, and the tragic death of a young Kurdish woman for allegedly wearing a headscarf inappropriately has not slipped from the collective memory of Iranians—many of whom are disgruntled from decades of intrusive government regulations on personal behavior. The government has made no effort to address the protesters’ grievances. Instead, it has promoted conspiracy theories about Western backing for the protests and escalated its confrontational foreign policy to distract from problems at home. As long as Iranian women feel alienated within their own country, and as long as their identities and aspirations are not recognized by the ruling elite, extending invitations to powerful women from other countries—or bestowing grand awards to “changemakers” while simultaneously working to thwart reform through violence—crashes in changing the reality that Iran remains one of the world’s most inhospitable countries for women.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning journalist from Iran, an Asia Times correspondent, and a former Chevening Scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2022 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He is the recipient of a Professional Excellence Award from the Foreign Press Correspondents Association. Also, he is the silver winner of the Prince Albert II of Monaco and United Nations Correspondents Association’s Global Prize for Coverage of Climate Change. Ziabari was a finalist for three Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism, in 2020, 2021, and 2022. His writings appear in Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, The New Arab, the National Interest, openDemocracy, Responsible Statecraft, Middle East Eye, Atlantic Council, and The Middle East Institute.

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