DIVERSITY OF CULTURES IS NOT MENTIONED IN INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTS
Mostafa A'layi has an M.A of political sciences. Since 1992 he has been working as an international political expert in the field of human rights and women's rights in the ministry of foreign affairs. He has been the representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Geneva, New York, the United Nations and other international meetings.
In this interview we tried to discuss the most important challenges that Iran faces internationally regarding women's issues.
As the representative of Iran in different U.N and other international meetings what do you think are the most important international challenges in the field of women?
Well, I answer your question based on my own experiences and international reports. We face three different kinds of challenges. The first one is related to cultures and traditions and some governments that shape their rules and regulations based on these cultures and traditions. When I say traditions and cultures I mean customs; the negative ones. There are traditions in some countries that are positive, and this helps. Like for example respecting parents, respecting their rights; these are traditions in Islamic countries. In non-Islamic countries too there are positive customs that are welcome. So when I say traditions and cultures could cause challenges I mean negative traditions and cultures not positive ones. For example in African countries, not Islamic countries, there are harmful customs for women; customs that violate women's rights and their dignity. And governments of these countries do not pay attention to these customs; they even allow them in the rules. Like for example marriage of an immature girl in a tribe, just because it is a custom. This is very common or even burying alive a girl who has done something wrong. And circumcision of women which is more common in Africa and is harmful for women's health, these are traditions, cultures and customs that cause international challenges.
Or for example in many countries they are working on women's share in inheritance. In some countries women did not have any share at all. Women had no share in their husbands' inheritance, or their fathers' inheritance. There were discriminations against women. Girls were not allowed to go to school. There were discriminations against women in all arenas; educations, health, economy... in many countries women are not allowed to take part in any social event. In Beijing + 5 and Beijing + 10 these are listed. And solutions were offered for each of these cases. There are 12 areas of concern that they have been working on; and solutions were offered for every one of them. There are challenges that even European countries face; even the U.S. for instance in the U.S men beat women or for example polygamy is very common. For example one man has 10 wives at the same time.
Does the human rights watch ask the U.S to do something about this or are these just some researches and studies that have been done?
They don't name countries even for African countries they don't name them they just say in Africa… I just mean that negative customs exist in all countries. But in their own special way. I will talk about European countries later on and will mention their specific challenges. Their challenges are in a different category. So the first group of challenges was related to obsolete and outdated customs.
So what is the second type of the challenges?
The second type of challenges is the result of liberal democracy. That is looking at women from liberalism point of view. The result is that many negative customs disappear but new challenges appear. They look at women as commodities. Because in a capitalist system they look at everything as a kind of capital. And moralities do not exist in such a system (liberal democracy) as in traditional systems. The legal and moral systems in liberal democracy are not like the moralities in traditional systems. They mention ethics; it's just their definition of human relations. Their ethics has nothing to do with spirituality and God. They evaluate everything based on human beings' liberty; absolute liberty for human beings, this in turn leads to looking at women as commodities. This posed new challenges for women that even in the U.N they mention these; prostitution, pornography, sexual tourism. Sexual tourism is a big industry worldwide; the revenue is comparable to oil revenues; even more than oil revenues. When the legal system in a country allows this industry to grow, it is okay from the liberal democracy's point of view. They say some women are willing to do so and no one can stop them. Moralities and chastity have no meaning for them. The consequences are destruction of families, increase in the number of divorces, increased depression and suicide rates in women, AIDS, and these have posed challenges for women that the U.N has listed in the documents. But some challenges are not in the list for example prostitution is only mentioned as forced prostitution not prostitution generally. We believe that if someone is willing to do so it still has negative consequences. But they say no, it's okay, it's her decision. We say is it okay and allowed if somebody decides to be the slave of someone else? Prostitution is a kind of slavery too. In the U.N they talk about modern forms of slavery. This is a kind of slavery too and it has caused a lot of problems. For example there are 40 million people all over the world who have AIDS. Most of them are in African countries. They did exactly what the west prescribed for them: liberal and free relationships with no limitations whatsoever. These 40 million people have attracted a lot of attention and a lot of investments too. So this is one of the challenges. Or trafficking human beings is a phenomenon which is he result of liberal democracy. It could be the result of poverty too. The country from which human beings are trafficked has some reasons and the country that receives that has other reasons. In Thailand and the Philippines (countries from which people are trafficked) they do this because of poverty but countries that receive them are countries in which liberal democracy is dominant and in such countries it doesn't matter if a woman comes and wants to be a prostitute. For example in the Netherlands sexual industries work like other industries. Women are behind the showcases in shops and they have prices too. And people get what they want and pay the money. And the challenges and consequences of liberal democracy as I said before are human trafficking, sexual tourism, Aids, increase in the number of divorce, more people get depressed, more people feel lonely, population decreases and these are threats for the human race.
Liberal democratic thought system criticizes other thought systems, for example one of their major criticisms is about abortion. They criticize countries like Iran because of the rules they have regarding abortion.
They believe that owning one's body is an absolute kind of ownership. Every human being owns his/her own body. In the holy Quran we have the verse that says everyone owns himself. But if you have an absolute kind of viewpoint it poses some challenges. It is true that women own their own bodies but if this ownership transgresses the limits, challenges appear. If women disregard human dignity, and spirituality we will have problems. In the U.N we always try to discuss the fact that women do own their bodies but there are some limitations. Like for example freedom of speech is a human rights but no one can say okay I have freedom of speech and I can insult people. There are limitations for freedom of speech in international treaties. The liberal democratic way of looking at women has posed challenges that were mentioned in the U.N and related documents too.
And the third type of challenges is?
The third type is related to international treaties. International treaties and international rights work on credit. I mean some events happened that international rights are what they are right now and if different events had happened rights, treaties and disciplines would have been different. For example when we say Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it doesn't mean that it's something fixed and unchangeable. From the religious point of view when prophets had inspirations or revelations they were fixed because God defines such thing and he knows everything but international rights are not like that. In 1948 when the declaration of human rights was formed if events other than what happened had happened the declaration would not have been like what it is today. At that time liberal movements were dominant and they were more influential. The tone in international treaties has changed since then; for example some have a communist tone, or some that were formed in the 1960s have another tone because at that time decolonization movements were dominant. Many international treaties were formed like that; I mean that the dominant culture or political changes at the time had impacts on international treaties. Treaties have caused challenges because they were not written based on the human nature. For example the CEDAW has dealt with many challenges very well like discrimination but still because it was not written based on human nature and external events had influences on it, it has caused some challenges too. They did not consider the variety and diversity of cultures. Therefore their solutions are not universal. Because CEDSAW was under the influence of liberal democracy it has caused new challenges. If it had been written based on the positive values and cultures of different societies many countries could implement the CEDAW. 188 countries are CEDAW members but not all implement the rules defined by the CEDAW. Many have joined only because of political reasons. They can not implement it in their countries because the atmosphere in those countries is different from what is described in the CEDAW. If CEDAW had been made up of positive values and customs it could have been universal for women. For example in Iran instead of gender equality we talk about gender justice. I believe that the phrase "gender equality" in English is wrong. It means that men and women are equal in human rights and dignities. But they are not equal in the roles they have and it's because of their different natures. But they think that gender equality means equal roles too; this is the cultural difference I'm talking about. This is the cultural difference that is not mentioned in the CEDAW. If this problem is solved this document can solve a lot of problems that different countries have.
What should be done in your view in order to solve these challenges?
First of all we should solve the problem we have in our country regarding concepts that we use. Are our regulations and rules exactly what they should be in an Islamic society? Our rules are not exactly according to Islam. Either we should provide a new series of rules and regulations or review the previous ones. In article 230 of the fifth program this is mentioned. In this article some fields and aspects are chosen that need to be reviewed and changed. First of all we should fix our own rules and regulations.
You mean that some of the problems we have with the international system is because of our own rules and regulation?
Yes, for example we were criticized for stoning and this is why in the new Islamic criminal law we did not include stoning at all.
What are the other rules and regulations that we are criticized for internationally?
There are some rules but juristics and legislators should fix them and tell us whether these rules are Islamic or not. They should tell us the benefits of these rules for our country, the benefits of these rules for women, the impacts on increasing people's chastity, and how they deter people from committing crimes…
For example rules of stoning and equal blood money for Muslims and non-Muslims have changed. The legislator believes that considering the international and internal conditions these rules had to be changed. Or for instance article 630 (honor killing) must be reviewed by the legislator, and they should tell us whether we can keep this rule or not.
Besides stoning and article 630 what are other demands of the U.N from us?
They demand things that are related to gender equality like equal share in the inheritance, we can never accept such a thing. Inheritance must be defined according to Islamic rules. In Islam ownership is equal; men and women can have equal shares in ownership of things but inheritance is different; it is related to the family system in Islam; it's related to the money the men and women receive and spend. If you count the money that women receive we see that they have enough; for example they get alimony, and it's not women's responsibility to pay for anything. We can not change these things because these are written in Quran.
What is your response to the international society regarding these cases?
We say we can not change these. And we don't hide it. Our family system is different from yours. And this is why we can not accept equal shares in inheritance. In the western family system both men and women are responsible and have to pay for the expenses. But in the religious form of family it's not like that; only men are responsible. Women are legally independent and they have the right not to tell their husbands how much money they earn. These are things that we don't agree with and we will definitely tell them. But there are some cases that there is no clear consensus among the clergies regarding those cases. These are the ones that the legislators should decide about. It depends on the conditions in the society, the consequences of implementing these rules inside our country and internationally. May be we can postpone implementing some rules for some time.
Has the ministry of foreign affairs demanded anything from the legislature and judiciary systems for changing these rules?
See, the ministry of foreign affairs has clear responsibilities. It can not demand anything but it can inform. This ministry is like a watch. But it's the clergies, who should decide how to behave; based on people's interests, religious values, or international interests.
Regarding the challenges that you mentioned what do you think the Islamic countries and specifically Iran should do?
One thing we can do is working on some concepts. For example some NGOs like Taranom e Andisheh hold seminars and discuss some concepts and this helps conceptualization. Being present in international organizations poses some problems; not just for combating the west, but also for moderating the international atmosphere regarding women. No matter how we're looking at women; from a western view point, from a negative traditional view point or an extremist view point. There are international treaties against negative traditions that we are a member of. Like circumcision of women. And we have said that this tradition is actually a kind of crime. Or when an old man marries an immature girl, this is a crime too.
In order to defend ourselves against liberal democracy's attacks, do you think conceptualization is enough?
We should work on three things: conceptualization, institutionalization and streaming. conceptualizations means talking about concepts that we think are moderate and can solve international challenges. Institutionalization means forming institutions inside and outside the country that can help with the conceptualization and streaming. For example the Women Scientists of the Islamic world is a network. This is an international institution suggested by Iran through which we can talk about our concepts. Or the meeting that was held in the research office of the ministry of foreign affairs. In fact the Non-Alignment movement held this last meeting on human rights and diversity of cultures. This is a non-alignment institution but they can help us a lot to promote the concepts that we want.
We should know different streams in the world. The cycle of streaming is defined clearly in international organizations. There are stations and steps that we should work on. In the Organization of Islamic countries summit that was held in Tehran, we suggested that a studies center for the OIC be formed in Tehran too. Such a center can promote some concepts and do some things. These are the things that we can do.
How do you evaluate our country's performance in these three fields?
I believe that what we have done so far is really good but we should not classify things that we have done. For example human rights is not only related to the ministry of foreign affairs. If we agree not to classify these things and all governmental and non-governmental organizations take part in this, we can do much more. We have done all that we could have done. So far we have institutionalized three concepts in the U.N. like for example diversity of cultures and human rights that since 1999 I myself have been working on. I wrote the statement, and talked about it in the general assembly, and it was approved by unanimity rule. "Improvement of human rights and international cooperation" is another concept that we have institutionalized. Of course most western countries are against this concept because we say improvement of human rights depends on international cooperation and not international conflict. Since 15 years ago we have institutionalized some concepts. Like for example this non-alignment institution was suggested by the ministry of foreign affairs. God's willing if we put away classification and just work all together we will experience more improvements.
Thank you for the opportunity you gave us for having an interview with you.