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Iran: Women’s Rights

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of recent events in Iran and the impact of those events on women's rights in that country.

My Lords, the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran is a shocking reminder of the repression faced by women in Iran. I am sure I join all noble Lords in commending the bravery of ordinary Iranians seeking to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in the face of appalling police violence. We urge Iran to listen to its people, exercise restraint, lift internet restrictions, release unfairly detained protesters and ensure women can play an equal role in society. The position of the United Kingdom Government is clear: through our words, our sanctions and indeed our work with international partners we will hold Iran to account.

My Lords, I agree with the Minister. The bravery of the women of Iran, especially the very young women, is highly inspiring. Does the Minister agree that this is the wrong time for the World Service to be closing its Persia radio service? It is a technology which is highly relied on in times of difficulty. As the Minister said, with digital repression, moving to a wholly digital platform will not offer the kind of support that this service does. The Government put forward emergency funding for Ukraine for the World Service in the spring, so will they step in? If the difficulties in Iran escalate then we may be in a position where we have to offer safe refuge for women in Iran. Will the Government start preparations now for a resettlement scheme, so we do not repeat the errors of previous schemes with delays in having them up and running?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the important role the BBC plays both in Iran and elsewhere in the world. Although it is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, we recognise that the BBC World Service plays a very important role. The FCDO is providing the BBC World Service with over £94 million annually for the next three years, supporting services in 12 languages. Of course, I hear very carefully what the noble Lord has said. BBC Persia itself and the journalists have suffered great suppression. We have spoken out very clearly and loudly against that suppression as well.

My Lords, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, has said about rights for women and declare my interests as in the register. When the Minister next meets a counterpart from Iran, will he point out to them that even Saudi Arabia is liberalising dress restrictions and has confined the religious police to barracks, and that Iran is in danger of becoming more restrictive even than Saudi Arabia? Will he not agree that, if the president of Iran wants it to be believed that wearing the hijab is a personal choice, he should not insist that western journalists interviewing him in New York wear the hijab?

I agree with my noble friend but I would go further. It is not the president of Iran; Islam states that it is a woman’s choice. It is the religion that gives women the choice. We cannot have coercive practices. It is a woman’s choice as to whether she wears the hijab, the niqab, or no hijab or niqab at all. That is what should prevail in Iran and elsewhere.

My Lords, in his initial Answer the Minister said that the Government would hold the Government of Iran to account for their treatment of women. How does he propose that the British Government do so?

I have great regard and respect for the noble Baroness, who has played an important role on women’s rights across the world, including in Iran. Specifically on this point, only yesterday we sanctioned further individuals, particularly those in the morality police. We are working in conjunction with our key partners, including the United States and the European Union, because acting together we can not just limit Iran but restrict it and show it that we mean business in this sense.

Events on women’s rights in Iran are not acceptable to anyone in the world. Iran should learn the lesson that women have equal rights with men. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, reminded the world five and a half centuries ago that women are to be not degraded by men but looked upon as those who give birth to all, men and women, kings and the poor.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Indeed, all the major faiths put women at their heart. The first person in Islam to accept the Prophet Muhammad’s mission was a woman. He was working for her. She employed him. She proposed to him. In Christianity—my children go to Catholic school—mother Mary has an esteemed and respected status. In all religions and faiths, women are central, pivotal guides and figures. All people around the world, if they claim to follow a particular religion or faith, should live up to that living example of their own scriptures.

My Lords, with teenage girls being beaten to death in the streets for protesting, I press the Minister to agree that now is not the right time for the World Service to scrap its Persian radio service. Digital services are all very well, but if internet access is blocked or restricted, as in Iran, the radio can be a lifeline. Can the Minister say what the Government can do about the disturbing increase in harassment by the Iranian authorities of the families in Iran of London-based BBC Persian staff?

I have already alluded to the noble Baroness’s second point; we have called that out specifically. I have heard very clearly from both the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble Baroness about its importance, and I assure your Lordships’ House, as the Minister now responsible for our relationship with Iran, that this is something I will take back. I will update the House accordingly.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the sanctions against the morality police, and I welcome them. He said he was liaising with other countries. Can he tell us how many other countries have adopted exactly the same policy? On his point about faith groups, and following on from the FoRB conference, what are we doing to amplify the voices he mentioned to ensure that we isolate radicals? It is not simply faith groups that are articulating these sorts of practices. Amplify those voices.

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that I totally agree with him. I often hear that we need to give women a voice. For God’s sake, if I may say so in this place, we are living in 2022; women have a voice. They have a clear and pivotal role to play in every society and country. When women are central to any society or country, it prospers. It is not me saying this; the evidence suggests so. The noble Lord is right: whether it is freedom of faith, of religion or of belief, we must ensure that all voices stand up and that women play the pivotal, progressive and necessary role that the world needs. Whether it is conflict resolution or society’s progress, women must be at the heart and soul of every country.

My Lords, the Revolutionary Guard’s violent oppression against dissidents inside Iran has long extended beyond Iran’s borders. This summer’s attempted murder of Sir Salman Rushdie, last year’s attempted kidnapping of Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad and numerous foiled plots are only the tip of the iceberg. The Revolutionary Guard represents a present danger to anyone the Iranian regime believes is a threat. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to proscribe the Revolutionary Guard to protect civilians outside Iran as well as those within Iran?

I agree with the noble Lord about the destabilising activities of the IRGC. Under our sanctions policy, about 78 sanctions on Iran are in place, including those restricting the destabilising activities of the Revolutionary Guard. I note what the noble Lord says about proscription, but he knows that I cannot give him that assurance at this time. We keep all issues such as proscribing organisations on the table. I will reflect on the noble Lord’s comments, and I am sure that others will as well.

My Lords, I commend the bravery and resilience of the Iranian women, and I commend the men who are standing shoulder to shoulder with them. I welcome the Government’s sanctions on the morality police, but will they really be effective? How many of them will travel to the UK or hold assets here? Could we extend these sanctions to more senior political figures, and to other sectors—for example, by working with sporting bodies to ban Iranian athletes and sporting teams from competing in international competitions? Would that be more impactful?

My Lords, I first welcome the noble Baroness. I have not yet had an opportunity to answer a question from her, so I welcome her to this House. I also welcome her insights on this matter and other issues. She raised the important issue of alignment, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, also mentioned. We are working with the United States and other key partners, including the European Union, on sanctions policy—when we act together, it is more effective. The noble Baroness raised a number of other areas where we can perhaps also act. I cannot speculate, but we will keep all options under consideration.