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"Ahwazi Arab women are third class citizens"

Speech by Ahwazi women's rights activist Elham al-Saedi at the Ahwaz human rights meeting in the UK's Houses of Parliament, 15 May 2013

Ahwazi Arab women suffer double persecution by the Iranian regime due to their ethnicity and gender. This operates in the areas of education, health, politics and social life. While Ahwazi Arab men are second-class citizens, Ahwazi women are third-class.

Illiteracy among Ahwazi Arab women is around 80 per cent, compared to around 50 per cent for Ahwazi men and 27% for Iran as a whole. Ahwazi women suffer health problems as a result of a lack of adequate health facilities. As a result, Ahwazi women suffer gynaecological problems and have a high incidence of infertility, stillbirths and birth deformities.

Ahwazi Arab women are also subjected to state terrorism. The wives of Ahwazi political and cultural activists are often arrested and imprisoned, along with their small children, in order to put pressure on their husbands to confess to crimes they did not commit. Women and children are held as hostages by the Iranian regime and often held for months without charge.

Some incarcerated Ahwazi women have been pregnant and have either miscarried or forced to give birth in prison without adequate medical assistance and in unsanitary conditions. An example is Fahima Ismail Badawi who gave birth to her daughter Salma in prison. She was held in custody as punishment for refusing to denounce her husband Ali Matouri Zadeh and divorce him. She refused and as a result is currently serving a 15 year prison sentence following a secretive trial by Branch 3 of Ahwaz Revolutionary Court. Her husband was tortured into confessing to being a British secret agent involved in terrorist attacks and was executed.

Officially, Ahwazi Arab women have the same legal rights as every other woman in Iran. However, Ahwazi women share same the same culture and social existence with women in neighbouring Arab countries.

In terms of their social and economic life, they endure a great deal of backwardness even in Iranian terms. We cannot blame only the discriminatory laws against women in Islamic republic regime as the cause of this problem. These laws are applied to both Ahwazi Arab women and women in central areas of Iran, although non-Persian women are subjected to more political repression. We cannot blame the ethnic tribal customs and traditions of Ahwazi Arabs people either. Women with same culture and social beliefs in neighbouring countries, for instance in Bahrain, have become advocates and judges. As such, ethnic customs are not the only cause of Ahwazi women’s oppression.

Non-Persian women suffer multiple discrimination in terms of criminal and common laws. Because they are less protected by law, they are subjected to more social crimes and violence, such as honour killing. Honour killings are more common in non-central, non-Persian areas and are justified by law and custom. Women are subjected to domestic violence, forced marriage – sometimes while they are still children and traded like objects as gifts between some tribes in economically backward areas. Arabistan leads all other regions in anti-women crimes due to backward cultural attitudes that are tolerated and encouraged by the regime.

Only through education and culture can Ahwazi women be free of persecution. But the Iranian state prevents any form of Arab cultural activity. All cultural modes, such as television and newspapers, are controlled by the state. The government wants to sustain traditional tribal systems of control to keep the Arab community in a backward state and prevent self-directed cultural improvement. Meanwhile, official positions that are supposed to cover women’s issues in the Arab-populated region – such as the chair of women’s affairs in the provincial governor’s office – have always been occupied by non-Arab, non-local women. They do not know the culture, customs and tradition of these people.

Ahwazi Arab women's problems and concerns are rooted in their community culture, customs and traditions and they are not going to be solved unless there are civil society organisations which originate in the heart of their culture. These civil organisations can play a major role in providing the best environment to work against discrimination against women.

Ahwazi Arab women are capable of social activism, as seen in their participation in political activities during the short reformist reign of President Khatami which to some extent was politically tolerant. During this time, Ahwazi Arab women won three out of nine seats in the Arab-majority city of Showra. But in the current situation, with the regime imposing discriminatory practices against ethnic nationals, women will be the most disadvantaged people. As such, it is no surprise that Ahwazi Arab women are absent from social and political life.

The freedom of all Ahwazi Arabs depends on the freedom of the female half of the population. Women’s rights should be central to the Ahwazi struggle.