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View Sameer Zuberi Profile
Lib. (QC)
Good afternoon, everyone.
I call this meeting to order.
This is the 26th meeting of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. Today we're doing this in a hybrid format, in conformity with the House order of June 23, 2022.
I have some comments for the witnesses and members.
Please wait until I recognize you before speaking. The witnesses will have five minutes each to give their introductory remarks, and then we're going to have a series of questions and answers. I will give you a signal once a minute is reached and then again at 30 seconds.
With respect to interpretation, those who are attending the meeting using the Zoom application,
just look on the bottom of your screen, on the globe. For those witnesses who are here, you can choose English, French or the original uninterpreted language.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted on September 23, 2022,
right now we're studying the rights and freedoms of women in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
As an individual, we have Kaveh Shahrooz, lawyer and senior fellow at Macdonald-Laurier Institute. We also have, from the Equality Fund, Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón, co-vice-president of global programs; and from Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Homa Hoodfar, professor of anthropology, via Zoom.
We are going to start with those in the room.
Mr. Shahrooz, please, you have five minutes.
Kaveh Shahrooz
View Kaveh Shahrooz Profile
Kaveh Shahrooz
2023-03-10 13:05
Thank you very much.
I want to begin by thanking the esteemed members of the subcommittee for providing me the opportunity to meet with you today, in the wake of International Women's Day, in this session about the rights and freedoms of women in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. I will focus my remarks on the issue of women in Iran.
As you're well aware, Iranians are in the throes of a national uprising against the theocratic regime that has ruled their country for four decades. Sparked by the killing of a young woman for improper hijab, the protests have become revolutionary in nature, calling for “death to the dictator” and “death to the Islamic Republic”. Most importantly, the protesters have been chanting a slogan that, in its very first word, proves that the rights of women are at the forefront of this uprising. “Woman, life, freedom” serves both as a revolutionary chant and as a manifesto of what the protesters want.
In response to this revolutionary moment, Iran's regime has resorted to the only play in its playbook, unleashing brutality, often deployed on a gendered basis, to silence critics.
After attacking peaceful protesters on the streets and beating them savagely, Iran's regime detained thousands and threatened them with execution. The Iranian Justice Collective, a group of activists that I am proud to be a part of, has been able to carefully document approximately 3,600 detentions. The actual number is likely many times that. The regime has, as reported by CNN and other outlets, regularly used sexual assault as a tool to intimidate detainees.
In recent weeks, this regime or a shadowy organization closely affiliated with it has been the likely culprit behind a horrific campaign of chemically poisoning thousands of schoolgirls. Again, the Iranian Justice Collective has carefully documented 630 chemical attacks at 388 schools. The message of such poisoning is not difficult to decipher. If you stand up to their misogyny—as so many brave schoolgirls have done in recent months—they will stop at nothing to destroy you. The chemical attacks are also a reminder that the Islamic regime in Iran—much like the Taliban, who have used this tactic repeatedly—views the education of girls as a serious threat to its power.
It's important to remember, of course, that the horrific misogyny that the world has seen from Iran's regime in recent months is not a new phenomenon. It's written into the very DNA of this theocracy. Reciting the history of this regime's misogynistic policies and crimes will take more time than we have today. I will simply point out that among the first actions of the Islamic Republic were to remove women from many professions, segregate many parts of public life along gender lines and impose the hijab on women—often at gunpoint or by throwing acid in the faces of women who did not comply.
In fact, perhaps the first to stand up to the Islamic Regime were Iran's women who, in massive International Women's Day marches in 1979, opposed the erosion of their rights. Those protests and many other acts of courageous defiance by women were met with violence.
Alas, that violence ultimately succeeded in turning Iran's women into second-class citizens, both de jure and de facto.
An Iranian woman is not permitted to travel without permission from her father or husband. In Iran, polygamy for men is permitted, as is the marriage of very young girls. According to IranWire—which is an investigative news site—Iran's National Organization for Civil Registration's 2021 annual report showed that in the previous eight years, over 13,000 marriages of girls under the age of 13 had been registered.
In Iran, a woman is not permitted to sing a solo or ride a bike in public. Women cannot enter stadiums to watch the national soccer team play. A daughter's share of inheritance is half that of her brother's. A woman's testimony in court is worth half that of a man's. When it comes to restitution for murder, a woman's life is literally valued at half that of a man in Iran's criminal code.
I could go on with a hundred other ways, large and small, that Iran's regime dehumanizes women on a daily basis. All of those facts point to one conclusion, about which we should not mince words. For over four decades, Iran has been a gender apartheid state.
The question, then, is this: What should Canada do?
I believe the most valuable thing our government can do is very simple, but from it will flow a host of other policies. Our government must recognize the obvious truth that I just stated a moment ago: that the Islamic Republic of Iran is an apartheid state and that we should treat it as such.
Even though the gender apartheid system in Iran is four decades old, successive Canadian governments have looked the other way for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it was for commercial reasons, but more often out of the well-entrenched—but in my opinion misguided—view that dialogue and engagement will always lead to improvements in the behaviour of rogue states.
I'm sorry, Mr. Chair. Does that mean my time is up?
View Sameer Zuberi Profile
Lib. (QC)
It means to go to concluding words.
Kaveh Shahrooz
View Kaveh Shahrooz Profile
Kaveh Shahrooz
2023-03-10 13:11
I urge you to recognize that, just as Canada led the way in convincing our allies around the world to cut ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa, we must lead other democracies in isolating Iran’s regime. This means listing the IRGC. This means telling our allies that diplomatic agreements with this regime, like the JCPOA, are a betrayal of Iran’s women.
We should open our doors to large numbers of Iranian activists, many of them women’s rights activists, who are currently languishing in Iran or in nearby countries like Turkey and Iraq. We should, in turn, close our doors to officials and affiliates of the regime who wish to bring their funds and families here.
In 1998, Nelson Mandela spoke to our House of Commons and expressed his gratitude to this country, saying, “thank you...for helping us end our oppression”. We deserved that gratitude then for having stood up against the racial apartheid in South Africa. We should earn similar gratitude again for standing up against gender apartheid in Iran.
Thank you very much.
View Sameer Zuberi Profile
Lib. (QC)
Thank you, Mr. Shahrooz.
Now we'll continue for five minutes with Ms. Gonzalez Manchón.
Please, go ahead.
Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón
View Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón Profile
Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón
2023-03-10 13:12
Hello, everyone.
As a fund created to resource women's rights organizations and human rights defenders, we hear from activists and their experiences every day. Here is but one recent example.
It says, “Dear sisters, my colleagues and I are speaking to the lawyers, and are working towards resolving the situation. We had campaigned for years to get legislation to stop trafficking of women in Iraq, and it was approved in 2012. Now, the extremists in power are using this same legislation against us, to stop us from sheltering women, and to attempt to humiliate us as criminals.”
Criminalization, attacks, harassment, cyber-bullying, imprisonment and violence against women's rights and LGBTQI defenders are, unfortunately, on the rise in many parts of the world. I congratulate the subcommittee on this important and timely study, and thank you for the opportunity to appear on the heels of International Women's Day.
I represent the Equality Fund, a Canadian-based women's fund that supports women's rights organizations and feminist funds in the global south and east, like the organization from Iraq whose message I just shared. We received a $300-million contribution from Global Affairs Canada in 2019. At present, Equality Fund resources are flowing to over 300 women's rights organizations and LGBTQI groups in about 85 countries.
In my brief time, I'd like to make two observations and leave the subcommittee with five recommendations.
First, I'd like to build on the testimony of other witnesses. Women's rights and LGBTQI activists in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are on the front lines pushing back against authoritarian regimes. They pay a huge price. We see this pattern of anti-gender ideologies and backlash against women's rights in many places, whether it's in the U.S. on reproductive rights or in the Philippines, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka.
Second, against this backdrop, I would like to lift up the need for networks, connections and collaborative work that was mentioned by other speakers who have testified here. Following the fall of Kabul in 2021, Equality Fund collaborated with allies to better support brave activists. In the case of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we coordinated to resource women's funds based in Ukraine and neighbouring countries to support women and non-binary people as they fled their homes.
Here's what we've learned: Long-term support for women's rights movements is absolutely key. Strong, well-supported movements enable effective responses when crises hit and regimes crack down. The protests we are seeing in Iran, for example, are possible because of decades of organizing and resistance by the movements. This didn't just happen overnight.
Investments overall in these efforts are incredibly underfunded. This is in sharp contrast to the money being mobilized to attack the rights of women and non-binary people. According to the Global Philanthropy Project, between 2008 and 2017, 11 American organizations associated with the anti-gender movement channelled at least a billion dollars to countries across the globe.
Finally, we have to listen to activists when they say that collective care and protection are inseparable. Defenders require urgent assistance when they are in immediate danger. In addition, investments in support structures, long-term health and community-based strategies, as defined by the activists themselves, are essential.
Here are our recommendations.
First, release the long-promised feminist foreign policy paper and ensure that there are the resources and support to ensure its successful implementation.
Second, with the feminist international assistance policy, Global Affairs Canada has taken steps to resource feminist movements. As the peace and security ambassador told this committee last year, more can be done.
Third, review the effectiveness of the “Voices at Risk” guidelines. As this subcommittee has heard, these commitments are intended to guide how Canadian diplomats support human rights defenders around the world. It is time to assess whether or not the guidelines meet this urgent moment or whether bolder measures are needed.
Fourth, increase the number of human rights defenders admitted under the newly established immigration stream. At the very minimum, Canada could expand this key program so that 250 is the number of defenders alone, not counting the people and family members who arrive with them.
Fifth, increased support for women human rights defenders once they arrive in Canada is urgently needed. The vast majority want to continue their advocacy in their home country but are hindered by the absence of resources to connect, strategize and continue their important work.
We also support the numerous recommendations presented to this committee on Afghanistan, including amending Canada's anti-terrorism legislation to enable Canadian organizations to support women's rights activists in Afghanistan and other countries with similar contexts. The exemptions presented yesterday are a step in the right direction, and we are looking forward to learning more.
Thank you for the invitation to appear before you today.
I welcome your questions.
View Sameer Zuberi Profile
Lib. (QC)
Thank you, Ms. Manchón.
We'll now go to Ms. Hoodfar via Zoom, please.
Go ahead.
Homa Hoodfar
View Homa Hoodfar Profile
Homa Hoodfar
2023-03-10 13:17
Thank you for inviting me to appear in front of this committee.
I would like to start by saying that I am a Canadian Iranian who spent my early years of education and life in Iran. After I left, I focused and devoted my studies, education and public engagement on looking at the situation and obstacles—ideological, cultural or legal obstacles—that women face and the impact of that on their lives in the MENA region.
Today I would like to draw attention to the situation in Afghanistan and in Iran very briefly.
I'm grateful that some other presenters actually covered some of the issues that I wanted to cover. I will continue by saying that, in Afghanistan, after women lost their rights and the most basic aspects of their lives, like going to school, walking in the neighbourhood, going to work, it has really unleashed misery on the nation.
An estimated three million girls, at least, are now out of school. However, as the Taliban are banning school after primary school and have now also extended that to the universities, this number has, of course, increased.
What has happened, in effect, is that the Taliban have taken the education of girls and women as hostage in order to leverage their conversation and negotiations with the west, and that's a very important aspect that often is ignored in a lot of discussions.
The problem is that, even when we reopen the schools, society will face another set of problems, as the Taliban are increasingly using the schools and educational system as a platform to spread their extreme ideology. Under this situation, the international community has to stop issuing sympathetic statements and enter into taking actions that make a difference on the ground and counteract some of the negative impact of what the Taliban are doing.
The reality is that the Taliban are a problem not only for Afghanistan, and I want to insist on this, especially observing what is in the region. If the ideology of the Taliban is not checked, it will spill over into the neighbouring countries, and finally it will also affect the west. As we saw, the training of extremists and calling them freedom fighters finally ended up in the tragedy of 9/11. Today our worlds are not so segregated that we are not affected by what is happening elsewhere.
We are calling on Canada to adopt a foreign policy that puts human rights at the centre and makes education, in particular, a centrepiece of that policy. Having a feminist foreign policy and a feminist international assistance policy that do not actually foster and protect the basic human rights of women is like expecting a bird to fly with one wing.
There are possibilities and ways that the impact of the Taliban's attack, especially on education, can be counteracted. There are people who have done research, which I am happy to share later, on some of the strategies. While other Afghan refugees have also taken steps to support them, we really need a larger-scale strategic analysis.
I also want to now go back and draw your attention to the situation in Iran, again on the education of girls there. As was mentioned, this gas attack on schoolgirls has had a large impact. A lot of civil society has actually asked us to condemn this internationally and has asked for independent research and investigation on that by entities such as UNICEF, WHO and UNESCO. This is because there is no trust in the investigation in Iran, given that the moral compass of the Iranian regime is very doubtful.
Thank you.
View Sameer Zuberi Profile
Lib. (QC)
Thank you, Ms. Hoodfar.
Now we're going to go to the series of questions and answers, starting with Mr. Viersen for six minutes, please.
View Arnold Viersen Profile
CPC (AB)
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here today.
Ms. Hoodfar, I'd like to start with you. You mentioned that basically we have to work simultaneously. You mentioned asking a bird to fly with one wing.
Could you clarify, once again, how we have to work hand in hand to defend human rights around the world?
Homa Hoodfar
View Homa Hoodfar Profile
Homa Hoodfar
2023-03-10 13:23
For instance, looking at the feminist international assistance, a lot of times it supports women at the local level in terms of economic independence, but we don't make priorities about their human rights. Even if women are skilled and can earn money but do not have human rights, then they can't really achieve their potential.
What I said about just flying with one wing is that we have to balance our support for human rights—basic human rights we are talking about—and support for economic development. I worry that sometimes economic development, because it's easier, because you can see the result maybe faster, gets priority. That's what I meant, that we need to really focus on human rights and economic development at the same time.
View Arnold Viersen Profile
CPC (AB)
Mr. Shahrooz, I'm wondering if you can outline a bit more around the poisonings that have been happening in Iran. Do you have a clear recommendation for what the Government of Canada can do on that?
Kaveh Shahrooz
View Kaveh Shahrooz Profile
Kaveh Shahrooz
2023-03-10 13:24
That's an excellent question. The foreign minister has already condemned it in unequivocal terms, which is great first step, but as Ms. Hoodfar was saying, I don't think we can trust the Iranian regime to investigate these chemical attacks when the regime is likely the perpetrator or a group very closely tied to the regime is the perpetrator.
It's really our role to push international agencies, the UN perhaps, to conduct an investigation. There already is a UN Human Rights Council independent investigation into the human rights situation in Iran. That's something we ought to be supporting.
As I said, this is one manifestation of a deeper misogynistic ideology in a four-decade-long gender apartheid system. I think we ought to abandon a mindset that has governed us for too long, saying that we can have a dialogue with this regime. A regime that poisons schoolgirls is not one that you can have negotiations with. We ought to abandon any illusion about negotiating with the regime that's in power in Iran and support Iran's revolution. That's really the only way in which heinous acts of this nature will ultimately end.
View Arnold Viersen Profile
CPC (AB)
Ms. Hoodfar, this study that we're undertaking also talks about Saudi Arabia. I'm not sure if you have any expertise in that area as well. One of the issues that comes to my attention regularly is around the participation in the realm of human trafficking that happens in Saudi Arabia. Many household staff are considered to be employees by western nations yet often are enslaved in Saudi Arabia.
Do you have any expertise, opinions or clarifications on that and what that looks like in Saudi Arabia?
Homa Hoodfar
View Homa Hoodfar Profile
Homa Hoodfar
2023-03-10 13:27
Unfortunately, I don't have much experience in that. I know that for women living under Muslim law, on the question of trafficking, especially in the Saudi Arabian gulf, it is under the name of domestic workers. It is actually very widespread. We frequently get complaints from women who have gone there under that name, and then they find themselves in this kind of situation.
I wish I could say more, but since it is not an area of my research, I'll stop there.
View Arnold Viersen Profile
CPC (AB)
Okay.
Mr. Shahrooz, do you have any comments or expertise in that as well?
Kaveh Shahrooz
View Kaveh Shahrooz Profile
Kaveh Shahrooz
2023-03-10 13:27
Uniquely on the issue of Saudi Arabia, I don't. I apologize.
Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón
View Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón Profile
Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón
2023-03-10 13:27
Can I add something?
View Arnold Viersen Profile
CPC (AB)
Go ahead, Beatriz.
Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón
View Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón Profile
Beatriz Gonzalez Manchón
2023-03-10 13:28
One organization that the Equality Fund is supporting is the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. They have really valuable research and publications on how these patterns of trafficking in women happen in many regions of the world, how that sometimes can be for the purposes of sexual exploitation or domestic work, and how that trafficking actually intersects with labour rights.
I would be very happy to send more information to this committee on some of their research on trafficking.
View Sameer Zuberi Profile
Lib. (QC)
View Arnold Viersen Profile
CPC (AB)
View Sameer Zuberi Profile
Lib. (QC)
We just about hit six minutes right now. Thank you, Mr. Viersen.
We're going to continue with the next round with Mr. Ehsassi for six minutes, please.
View Ali Ehsassi Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Ali Ehsassi Profile
2023-03-10 13:28
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Allow me to also thank all three of the witnesses for their excellent testimony.
Now, I will start off with Mr. Shahrooz. Your testimony was truly compelling.
The first question I have for you is about how this morning we all woke up to the news that China has now brokered a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Could you share with us what you think the implications of this agreement will be for human rights in particular in Iran?
Kaveh Shahrooz
View Kaveh Shahrooz Profile
Kaveh Shahrooz
2023-03-10 13:29
That's is a very good question, MP Ehsassi.
With the caveat that I've only seen very preliminary news reports and haven't had time to digest it very much yet, my instinct is that this is actually bad news for human rights in Iran for a variety of reasons, but primarily because it gives a further lifeline to the Islamic regime in Tehran. It removes a particular sort of threat. This regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia was a particular threat to the Islamic regime, so the Iranian regime will likely be empowered as a result of it.
Furthermore, Iran will be further empowered by the fact that China now seems to be fully in the camp of supporting Iran's regime. I think that anything that normalizes and stabilizes that regime further and gets it out of the moment of crisis that it's been in for the past few months is bad news for Iran's people and the human rights movement generally.
My recommendation to the subcommittee and to the government would be for us to not take our eye off the ball. Iran's regime remains an apartheid regime and we ought to continue to treat it as such, even if it creates alliances with those in its neighbourhood. We ought to remain committed to helping Iranian people and Iranian women in particular.
I urge you. Even if Iran gains allies in the region, Canada should remain steadfast in its support of Iranian people.
View Ali Ehsassi Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Ali Ehsassi Profile
2023-03-10 13:31
Thank you.
For my second question, Mr. Shahrooz, quite often I hear, here in Canada, that people labour under the illusion that the Iranian community in Canada is fragmented and that there are some who like the regime and some who don't.
Given your extensive activities in the Iranian Canadian community, what is your sense of the popularity of the regime amongst Iranian Canadians?
Also, I understand that there was a new poll of Iranians within Iran. How do Iranians within the country view this odious regime?
Kaveh Shahrooz
View Kaveh Shahrooz Profile
Kaveh Shahrooz
2023-03-10 13:31
I think you're asking a really critical question.
The reason I say that is that, regrettably, a narrative has taken hold in the west and in the western media that there is a real divide in the community and that some people support the regime while some people are opposed to it. The truth of the matter is that I struggle to find anyone in the community—and I'm very involved in the community, as are you, MP Ehsassi—who supports this regime.
Obviously, there are going to be people who have ties to that regime. Regrettably, they have found their way to Canada, so they may have sympathies for the regime or they may even, in fact, be representatives of the regime, here in secret. By and large, the Iranian people in the diaspora despise this regime. They want it gone.
There have been protests in recent months that have drawn tens of thousands of people here in Canada. In the town of Richmond Hill, we had a protest where 50,000 people came out. That was the police estimate. You don't get 50,000 Canadians coming out for very many things, but we had 50,000 people coming out to say that they reject the Islamic Republic.
Similarly, the poll that you cited is a good poll. It points to the fact that Iranian people inside the country in very large numbers—I forget the exact number, but it's something around 80% or so, I think—want this regime gone. This regime really has no base of support inside or outside the country.
View Ali Ehsassi Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Ali Ehsassi Profile
2023-03-10 13:33
Thank you very much for that, Mr. Shahrooz. I completely agree with you.
Now could I go to Dr. Hoodfar?
Thank you so much, Dr. Hoodfar, for being with us today.
Dr. Hoodfar, you restricted your comments to Iran and Afghanistan and how difficult it has been on women, how systematic these impediments have been for women. I am wondering if you could also comment on the regrettable brain drain that both these countries are suffering. How big a phenomenon is that? What can the world do to make sure that the human resources that are leaving these two countries are put to good use?
Homa Hoodfar
View Homa Hoodfar Profile
Homa Hoodfar
2023-03-10 13:34
In fact, it is very regrettable, especially in the context of Afghanistan. In the context of Iran, a large number have left, but they have kept in touch. There are also quite a few people inside the country, and that has helped. Many Iranians hope that if the regime changes, they could go back and be at the service of the country, even if they don't necessarily want to completely move back to Iran.
In the case of Afghanistan, the situation is a little bit more dire. The fact is that the whole takeover by the Taliban was a surprise. Many of the elite have left, and those who are left in the country have not yet.... They are still in shock. One of the major issues is to bring all the people, all the experts, the politicians who are outside, and bring them together to form an alliance, have a summit, have a program and really work like a nation outside the boundaries of the country.
My worry has been that there are not enough steps taken to bring people together, have those summits, make larger and smaller groups that are connected and work.... It's the same with education. We really need to establish an education system for the country outside the border of that country if we want to save Afghanistan from the ideology of the Taliban, which will spill over to neighbouring and other countries.
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