reproductive rights
Iranian officials are taking steps to restrict access to birth control options in Iran, in hopes of increasing fertility rates and population growth.

Last week, Iranian lawmakers ratified a bill which would ban birth control surgeries and criminalize any act to reduce fertility. According to the bill, every individual who performs a vasectomy or tubectomy or engages in sterilization could face up to five years of imprisonment. This new bill indicates a dramatic shift from progressive population policies previously implemented in Iran.

In the late 1980s, Iran launched a national family planning project, as the country was faced with one of the fastest population growth rates in the world. The baby boom was a result of Iranian authorities’ demand for more soldiers in the 1979 Revolution.

By introducing birth control policies, Iran succeeded in reducing the uncontrolled population growth from its peak of 3.2 percent in the 1980s to a current low of 1.22 percent. The policies have also allowed Iranian women to make significant strides, as women now comprise 60 percent of college students, and socioeconomic trends show that most women choose to develop careers rather than starting families.

However, Iranian officials have recently begun to worry about the low birthrates and the projection of the country’s population in the coming decades. In 2012, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a 14-point decree that promoted population growth to 150 million or more. He established a goal of increasing the population by 76 million, claiming in his decree that attaining this goal would “strengthen national identity.”

In response, Mahmoud Almadinejad’s conservative government eliminated the population and birth control budgets of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education. The government even legally agreed to pay Iranian families for every new child produced. This is quite a significant turnaround from the “Fewer Kids, Better Life” motto widely promoted in the 1980s.

Furthermore, a new set of policies were established by the Expediency Council to advance Khamenei’s goal. These policy reforms include encouraging youth to marry at a younger age, financially supporting young couples, providing mothers with special resources, ensuring the health and proper nutrition of the people and reducing population pressures.

The objective of these conventions is not only to increase population, but also to balance the country’s challenging demographic profile, which foresees an older population, in the future.

The new population regulations will particularly target Iranian women, threatening the legal rights they have obtained in the past few decades. Female Iranian activists regard the new policy reforms as a method to curtail women’s economic, political and financial roles, and restrain them to their houses.

For women in the rural working class, the elimination of reproductive services, including free contraception and health care, will leave them with more children to support and no education or share of job markets. According to the Statistical Centre of Iran, women only make up 12.4 percent of Iran’s work force and, with these new policies, this figure will only drop.

These recently employed policies, in addition to the pending bill that involves punishments and restrictions, denotes a complete reversal of women’s reproductive rights in Iran.

– Abby Bauer

Sources: Global Post, Al Monitor, Huffington Post
Photo: National Geographic

Hear “Over Under Sideways Down” and you may think of the experimental, blues-rock single released by the English Yardbirds in the 1960s. On the off chance that experimental 1960s English music is unfamiliar, the song is sung by someone lost to the high life. “Over, under, sideways, down, backwards, forwards, square and ‘round…when will it end?” asks the chorus.

Though for completely different reasons, the feelings of confusion and displacement professed in the song are echoed in a recently released comic of the same name. Commissioned by Amnesty International in honor of Refugee week, it tells the story of Iranian Ebrahim Esmail.

Esmail is Kurdish Iranian, one in a group of people marginalized and often very poor. In addition to the trials he faced as an ethnic Kurd, he has long been a victim of political persecution. At 6 years old, he was shot in leg, an event from which he still bears a scar. His father, a reformer and activist, was murdered. At 9, he was passing out political flyers for his stepfather. At 15 it was revealed that he was in danger, and he was forced to leave his mother and his home.

The smugglers who led Esmail and others to the United Kingdom took complete advantage of the vulnerability of their charges. They were brutal and inhumane in their treatment of the men and women with whom they had been entrusted. They abandoned Esmail as soon as he reached the U.K. Left with no money and no connections, he found police authorities, then spent four years in examination after interview after court case. He was finally given “leave to remain” in the country.

This was, briefly, the story given to comic creator Karrie Fransman. Having written for The Guardian, The Times and Random House, she was hardly short on experience. But the task was daunting. “I listened to everything Ebrahim was telling me and thought, how on Earth am I going to draw this?” she said in a recent interview.

To some, comics are for children. But it is immediately apparent that Fransman’s work is not. Muted in tone and understated in narrative, it simply and sympathetically presents Esmail’s story, without overpowering it.

Fransman expresses her honor in speaking with Esmail and committing some of his life to the page. Esmail seems satisfied with the result. “The experiences I’ve had are not always easy for me to talk about, but I wanted people to be able to understand what it means to be forced from your home and made to start all over again,” he says. The comic does just that.

Olivia Kostreva

Sources: Broken Frontier, The Red Cross, Refugee Week
Photo: The Guardian

Masih Alinejad
Masih Alinejad is a prominent Iranian journalist and activist who is currently in the news regarding some unfortunate circumstances. Last week, the Iranian TV personality Vahid Yaminpour reported a fake story that Alinejad was raped while on drugs in London, where she is living in exile, and subsequently called her a whore on his Facebook page.

This type of slander is despicable and some of the worst that Alinejad has had to endure. As an outspoken activist against the Iranian government, she understands that “they want to keep journalists silent.” However, she goes on to further explain that even though she’s been attacked many times in the past, “this was the most fabricated, most disgusting news about me.”

In the face of such adversity it is important to give support to Alinejad. She believes the reason for the fake report is in retaliation to a Facebook page she created last month which has garnered almost 500,000 likes. The page is called My Stealthy Freedom, and its main purpose is for Iranian women to post pictures of themselves in public without wearing the hijab.

Iran has a 35-year old law that forces women to wear the hijab. Many women protest this law because it denies them their freedom. Hundreds of women from Iran have written to Alinejad so their pictures can be posted on her Facebook page.

One woman sent a picture of her throwing her hijab while in the street with an accompanying text saying, “what I want is freedom of choice, not a meter of cloth! I’ll remove this piece of cloth! Look! I am still a human!”

Alinejad’s personal favorite photo is of women wearing the hijab but holding a sign that says, “I support and wear hijab but I am against compulsory hijab.” Although the page is mostly in Arabic, some of the pictures are truly moving and beautiful.

Alinejad sees the hijab as a form of control by hardliners in her country. They use it to remove any possible power or participation in society for women. Since Iranian media is controlled by the government, they have an easy time of shaping the citizens’ perceptions. Those in power want to keep women wearing the hijab.

Alinejad believes the fake report about her is an attempt to discredit her and her My Stealthy Freedom campaign. Her campaign challenges those in power and the status quo in Iran. Specifically, it challenges the hijab and promotes women’s rights to more freedom. As evident by her favorite photo on her page, its not that she is against the hijab itself, but what it represents: male domination over women.

Eleni Marino

Sources: Facebook, Time, ABC
Photo: WordPress

As the rest of the world begins to tackle the growing population problem and the threat humans have to the environment, Iran pushes forward with a goal in mind to increase the country’s population.

Hovering around 77 million citizens, Iran is no small country. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently announced on his website that he wishes to “strengthen national identity” with this proposed Iranian population increase.

He also blamed Western culture for the rise in contraception usage and stated that the country should avoid these “undesirable aspects.”

The inherent expectation to come of this campaign is the reduction in access to contraceptive health, damaging the future of women’s rights as well as public health in Iran. Contraception was only introduced to Iran in the 1980s, and its likely disappearance will surely not be taken lightly. Not only will the population increase with no access to contraceptives, but so will the rates of sexually transmitted diseases. Contraceptives have long held more function than simply birth control.

Groups such as the AIDS Research Center at Tehran University have recognized the dangerous path this campaign is heading toward. Without complete access to contraception, educators will not be able to teach community members ways to practice safe sex and prevent the spread of AIDS.

This population policy does not address the needs of the modern Iranian citizen as represented in the reformist group. Those in poverty who struggle to support a small family will face great hardships if they have restricted control over the size of their family.

Iranian reformists are concerned with the future of the country under this new ruling due to its potential impact on women’s equality.

Many believe Iran is taking steps backward with this course of action, shying away from progressive women’s rights. Women’s rights in Iran have seen dismal support and this does little to eradicate that.

Since 1986, the population of Iran has fallen about 2 percent, which may play a part in the government’s decision to incite this new ruling for Iranian population increase. However, according to the World Population Review, Iran’s population is already on the road to rapid increase, with a majority of the population being held in the younger generations and immigrants from surrounding countries. It’s possible that with this new decree, the population will shoot up at alarming rates and threaten the stability of the country.

-Elena Lopez

Sources: Reuters, NY Times World Population Review, Khamenei
Photo: LA Times

Israel is but a pawn on the playing board of the massive Chinese economy. But it is a strong and able pawn.

On April 8, Israeli President Shimon Peres made the first trip to China by an Israeli President since 2013. He met with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, in order to improve economic and diplomatic ties between the countries and to bolster a mutual commitment to opposing the spread of nuclear and other non-conventional weapons throughout the Middle East. According to Peres, China has the ability to strengthen safety and stability in the region.

Just last year, in 2013, Xi met with both Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. China has made a point of urging a revival and reinvigoration of peace talks, giving Israel confidence in cooperation.

A member of the United Nations P5+1, Xi comforted Peres with a pledge from China to continue supporting international nuclear negotiations with Iran. He said China understands Israel’s security concerns with Iranian nuclear proliferation and that he wants to help prevent Iran from obtaining those weapons.

China’s stance on Iran, however, is a bit complicated. A customer of Iranian oil and thus a backer of Tehran, China has resisted imposing heavier sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Consequently, in an effort to achieve diplomacy in all corners of the ideological world, China hopes to both maintain ties with Iran and to improve relations with Israel simultaneously. Israel shares these hopes.

If China manages to retain its close ties with Iran, Israel can potentially utilize those connections and push its own initiatives through the Chinese hand. Peres, for example, claims that China can significantly help in the Middle East, particularly in light of the present tumultuous circumstances of the Arab Spring aftermath. China has brought millions of people out of poverty without relying on foreign aid and assistance and, as such, Israel believes China can bring its expertise to the region.

Though circumstances may not be the same in reverse, China is Israel’s third largest trading partner and Israel can use China’s desire for diplomatic ties in the region to its advantage. In order to solidify ties, Israel is even considering setting up a model farm in southern China. That way, China can study and make use of Israel’s agricultural technology while asserting its power in the Middle East.

– Jaclyn Stutz

Sources: The Jerusalem Post, The Diplomat, The Times of Israel

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran inherited an interesting situation upon entering office last June 2013. Elected under the pretense of repairing and improving a broken economy, Rouhani’s shoulders have had to carry increasingly heavy burdens.

Despite denial by various Iranian leaders, a plethora of scholars and academics attest to the claim that the downtrodden economy resultant of sanctions by the Western world significantly contributed to Rouhani’s willingness to participate seriously in nuclear talks. Such willingness has led to an easing of sanctions, ultimately permitting Iran to do business more freely on an international scale. Since Rouhani’s election, inflation in Iran has dropped from 43 percent to 33 percent and the nation’s currency has begun to revive from losing almost 80 percent of its value over the past two years.

Rouhani has helped to stabilize Iranian currency, started a path toward a nuclear deal and greatly reduced inflation. Yet the slow and steady pace of economic revitalization is not fast enough for the people of Iran. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left finances in a despicable state, far worse than suspected. In order to undo what was once done and produce long-term results, Rouhani has had to take short-term steps that have unfortunately made current life worse for many Iranians.

Sanctions as experienced under Ahmadinejad’s rule created a society accustomed to drastically higher prices of everyday goods. People learned to leave out the unnecessary goods and buy only those that were utterly indispensable. Now, however, individuals may experience an increase in gasoline prices, perhaps by as much as 30 percent.

And while the government attempts to keep prices at local markets fair for consumers, many shopkeepers and vendors complain that it is not worth it for them to sell their goods in such regulated arenas. No matter how much they sell, one vendor explained, they will end up losing money.

The Iranian New Year is here, welcomed with the sting of disappointment in the air. Rouhani is doing what he can, but patience is a virtue that financial misfortune makes difficult to uphold.

– Jaclyn Stutz

Sources: New York Times, NPR, Times, Washington Post
Photo: Joojoo

Israel announced this week that it had intercepted a ship carrying Syrian-made rockets from Iran to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Tehran immediately denied that is was behind the shipment, with the country’s foreign minister calling the Israeli accusations the “same failed lies.”

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Wednesday that it had found rockets on a Panamanian-flagged vessel that it had tracked for several months and seized in the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan. Dozens of M-302 rockets, which have a range of 93 to 124 miles, were found on the ship, called the Klos-C, according to Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Moti Almoz.

“The ship may be carrying other weapons as well, but we can only know this when it reaches Eilat,” Almoz said.

In a detailed post about the seizure on the Israeli military’s website, the IDF said the weapons shipment had begun in Damascus, where it had been flown to Tehran and then taken to the southern Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas and loaded onto the Klos-C. From there, the Klos-C headed to the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr, where containers of cement were added, before the vessel sailed around the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea, where it was intercepted by the Israeli navy on March 5.

The ship, whose 17-member crew was apparently unaware of the vessels elicit cargo, was headed for Port Sudan, according to the post on the military’s website.

Israel accused Iran, a longtime enemy of the Jewish state that supports militant groups in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, of being behind the shipment of rockets, which included “numerous advanced weapons,” according to the military’s website. “There is clear and unequivocal information that this came from Iran,” Almoz, the military spokesman, said.

On March 6, Iran denied that it was involved in the shipment, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accusing Israel of concocting the story “just in time” for the annual conference of AIPAC, a powerful pro-Israeli American lobbying group. “An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza,” Zarif said in a Twitter post. “Captured just in time for annual AIPAC anti-Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.”

Hamas, an armed Palestinian Islamist group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, denied any connection to the shipment, with a spokesman for the organization characterizing the Israeli accusations about Iranian weapons shipments to Gaza as a “silly joke.”

Hamas contends that it has not fired any rockets at Israel since a ceasefire between the militant Islamist group and the Jewish state came into fruition in 2012. Israel says that more than 60 rockets have been fired from the densely populated and impoverished coastal enclave since the beginning of the year and holds Hamas responsible for rocket attacks launched by other Gaza-based militant groups.

Israel captured the Gaza Strip, along with the Sinai Peninsula, from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, when the Jewish state also seized the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982 and withdrew from Gaza in 2007, but continues to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem, home to more than 100 Jewish settlements that are viewed as illegal under international law. In 2005, Hamas seized control of Gaza after beating Palestinian Authority security forces dominated by Fatah, the secular Palestinian faction supported by the west, in a brief war.

– Eric Erdahl

Sources: BBC, Israel Defense Forces, Twitter
Photo: The Malaysian

Women living in the Islamic Republic of Iran still experience inequality on a day-to-day basis. However, in terms of education, Iranian women have been granted more access to educational institutions since the Iranian Revolution. For example, before the Revolution in 1976, the literacy rate of women was 35 percent. By 1986, the female literacy rate had risen to 52 percent. Now, despite political turmoil and internal strife, females in Iran between 15 years old and 24 years old are at almost universal literacy.

Iranian women have not taken this increased access to education for granted. For instance, the enrollment rate of females in primary education is higher than that of males. Furthermore, Iranian women and men now complete their primary education schooling at nearly the same rate. However, in efforts to “Islamicize” Iranian life, women face restrictions on what secondary education fields that they are eligible to pursue. For example, 36 Iranian universities have prohibited women from up to 77 academic fields.

Academic pursuits that have been made exclusive to men include accounting, engineering, mathematics and many sciences. According to Iranian education official Abolfazl Hasani, this decision was made since “some fields are not very suitable for women’s nature.” The process of “single-gendering” also applies to men. While men are free to pursue engineering and mathematical interests, they are restricted from pursuing history, language, literature, sociology and philosophy.

It is critical to note that although Iranian universities had limited women’s rights by banning their access to these stereotypically male-dominated courses, the Iranian government itself had not necessarily sanctioned such a prohibition. For instance, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself had struck down the proposition of segregating educational settings by gender.

Furthermore, Iranian women graduate from secondary programs at 86 percent of the rate of their male counterparts in a far cry from rampant female illiteracy during the 1970s. Additionally, women actually comprise the majority of university students in Iran, as 60 percent of secondary school students are women. Thus, Iran boasts one of the greatest ratios of female-to-male educational participation not just in the Middle East, but also in the world.

– Phoebe Pradhan

Sources: The Diplomat, The New York Times, Ajam Media Collective, Human Rights Watch
Photo: Uncommon Market

death penalty
A decreasing number of nations around the world utilize capital punishment, but according to Amnesty International, countries that use the death penalty do so at an “alarming rate.” Between 2010 and 2011, known executions increased from 527 to 676, a 28% rise.

In 2012, the number increased again to 680. There are many executions in nations such as Iran, China and Syria that go unreported. Amnesty International has not published Chinese reported figures on executions since 2009 because the organization declares that the government’s official numbers are exceptionally inaccurate. The organization estimates that annual executions in China are likely to be in the thousands.

Iran faces similar criticism. Amnesty states that it has received “credible reports” of a high volume of clandestine and unconfirmed executions in the country. Adding in these reports would effectively double Iran’s death penalty numbers.

In 2011, only 20 out of 198 countries, or roughly 10%, performed executions, and in 2012 the number of countries that had abolished the death penalty was five times higher than those that had not.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States have the highest total number of executions from 2007 to 2012. The Middle East has the highest number of executions of any region (557 executions in six nations.) With the notable exception of the U.S., most countries that still use the death penalty are in the developing world.

The U.S. is the only G7 country where capital punishment is legal.

Methods of executing prisoners vary globally but include lethal injection, beheading, hanging and shooting. In some nations such as Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, public executions still occur.

Crimes that are punishable by death also vary but can include drug offenses, rape, sorcery, adultery, “crimes against the state” and murder. Amnesty International also articulates concern over an increase in military courts sentencing people to death in Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, the U.S. and other nations.

Japan, India and Pakistan, contrary to global trends, all reinstated the death penalty after long periods of not executing prisoners. In these nations, changes generally occur because different political parties come into power, which leaves sentenced prisoners’ fate to the politics of the moment.

More than half of the world’s nations voted in December 2012 for a United Nations resolution, creating a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. And the international pressure on countries like the U.S. has intensified.

Due to stated ethical obligations, the European Union banned the export of drugs such as sodium thiopental to the U.S. because they were being used for lethal injections.

Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center states that the E.U. embargo has stalled, but not ended, executions in the U.S. He asserts, “It has made the states seem somewhat desperate and not in control, putting the death penalty in a negative light, with an uncertain future.”

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and many other human rights groups oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. HRW states that capital punishment violates people’s innate dignity, is “unique in its cruelty and finality and is “inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.”

When asked if he thought the world was closer to abolishing the death penalty, Brian Evans, acting director of Amnesty International’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign, seemed to remain hopeful, if hesitant.

“They’ll come around when they take a longer look at their death penalties,” Evans states, “but it’ll be a while.”

– Kaylie Cordingley

Sources: National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, The Huffington Post, Amnesty International, Amnesty International, The Guardian, Death Penalty Information Center
Photo: Amnesty International

As Western countries temporarily ease economic sanctions on Iran, foreign investors are eager to invest in the troublesome country. Under the six-month placeholder deal, the United States and the European Union have agreed to suspend sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports as well as sanctions on gold and precious metals. Additionally, the U.S. has suspended sanctions on Iran’s auto industry and associated services.

While the softening of sanctions on Iran are intended to build trust and provide an opportunity to reach final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, some Western businesses are racing to take advantage of any potential profits. For instance, a French Trade delegation of over 100 potential investors took a three-day trip to Iran. The delegation, sponsored by the employers’ association, Mouvement des Enterprises de France, was the largest European business delegation to Iran in over 30 years. France is merely following suite. Delegations from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and South Korea have also ventured to Iran. Austria sent 10 delegates in December 2013.

This rush of activity has gone against American advice on the Iran deal to its allies. U.S. President Barack Obama has warned U.S. allies that premature trade deals can only weaken their collective economic leverage in future negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear that while countries may have sent business people they can in no way “contravene the sanctions,” while describing the behavior as “not helpful” for negotiations.

Backing up Kerry’s claim, the U.S. has already penalized nearly three-dozen companies spanning eight different countries that have violated the terms of the sanctions with Iran. These penalties include restrictions on doing business in the U.S. and seizure of any property under American jurisdiction.

While Washington has taken a tough verbal stance on foreign businesses, American companies have seem nearly as eager to engage in Iranian business. An American-Iranian business council hosted American companies as early as April 2013 in order to prep them on doing business in Iran once sanctions end. European diplomats have accused the Obama Administration of mixed signaling by condoning the business prep meeting.

Nonetheless, the drive by foreign corporations to visit Iran has prompted administration critics in the U.S. to speak out against the deal. The naysayers feel the agreement offers too much relief and lessens Iranian incentive to negotiate a permanent nuclear agreement.

As business continue to show interest in Iran after sanctions, the Obama Administration will hear continued criticism at home for the placeholder deal it negotiated with its allies and Iran in November 2013. Only time will tell if the U.S. can successfully maintain an advantageous bargaining position as it faces criticism at home and pressure to loosen restrictions abroad. The outcome of the Iranian nuclear negotiations have enormous consequences and will determine the course of regional security in the Middle East for years to come.

Martin Levy

Sources: The New York Times, Reuters, The Washington Post
Photo: Globalization 101