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On the Iran deal: Sanctions have long hurt women and we should lift them

A framework announced last week to curb Iran‘s nuclear program is the closest thing to a deal the international community has arrived at after two years of negotiations. Subject to a final agreement in June, if Iran keeps its nuclear facilities under strict production limits, the United States and others will lift some of the sanctions that have strangled the country’s economy for decades. 

Not surprisingly, the Republicans in charge of Congress aren’t too happy. Neither are many Democrats and both are attempting to block the President’s ability to lift sanctions. GOP 2016ers have vowed to undo the deal if elected. And if you’re wondering what they would like to do instead, the New York Times and the Washington Post have published pieces making it explicitly clear: bomb Iran. (Why inciting mass murder and violating international law is considered within the realm of reasonable discourse when talking about brown countries fails me.)

Some may wonder what place a nuclear anti-proliferation deal has on a blog like this. In comparison to a history of belligerent war-mongering, it seems almost understandable that progressives, feminists, and the American public has largely signed off on the use of sanctions — seeing them as a “diplomatic tool” or an alternative to war against an authoritarian state.

But this “tool” is hardly diplomatic. Iranian and Iranian-American feminists have long argued that US-led sanctions have been nothing short of collective punishment against a vulnerable population, a “war by other means.” As US-based feminists, failing to advocate for the lifting of our government’s sanctions leaves us complicit in the violence those sanctions inflict on Iranian women.

The violence of sanctions is nothing new. From 1990 until 2003, under the crippling financial and trade sanctions placed on Iraq by a US-led coalition, “the inability of Iraqi people to access banned items necessary for their day-to-day survival led to over half a million Iraqi civilian deaths.

Though Western policymakers may refer to their sanctions today as “targeted,” no one denies that economic sanctions are blunt instruments that harm civilian populations far more than the state. And Iranian women bear the brunt of our sanctions because, as a group, they are often most economically vulnerable. As the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective explains:

Women have a harder time finding jobs, are among the first to get laid off, and have fewer workplace protections. As those primarily responsible for running their households, women face increased loads of stress trying to feed their families, obtain needed medication, and buy necessary goods amidst skyrocketing levels of inflation. A forty-five-year old housewife in Tehran reports, “In the last few months, I have bought very little protein such as meat and poultry and have also refrained from buying any clothes for the children.” At the micro-level of household economies, women bear the larger burden for managing their families’ survival. In Iran, as in all societies, increased militarism and violence at the global and national levels exacerbates inequalities between men and women. As societies become more militarized, so do the very citizens living within them; as fear, anxiety, and stress rise in the lives of ordinary people, so do patriarchal and violent responses to conflict and hardship in intimate life.

As in other countries, poverty results in risky survival strategies. Child labor and sex work have expanded as informal sectors in Iran.

The role of sanctions in creating shortages of life-saving medical supplies in Iran is irrefutable. Women’s rights activists have gathered testimonials showing the disappearance of medicines for illnesses such as asthma, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Some are forced to delay treatment; poorer communities completely forego them. Women suffer from extremely common — and extremely avoidable — illnesses like yeast infections, urinary tract infections, and other vaginal infections. Some are forced to pay exorbitant prices on the black market for birth control or IVF treatment with no guarantee of safety. Other women experience brutally painful pregnancies, with no way to stop postpartum bleeding.

Beyond economic impacts, civil society in Iran, including the women’s movement, has become isolated from international counterparts thanks to the sanctions (which are also used by the Iranian state to justify extraordinary repression). An Iranian activist explains: “The international community’s sole focus on the nuclear issue has resulted in the adoption of policies that inflict great damage on the Iranian people, civil society and women.” Western militarization has triggered repressive state policies and diminished space for female activists, who historically played a crucial role in promoting progress in Iran.

And while some may ultimately grasp at the success of the divestment and sanctions movement against apartheid South Africa to justify sanctions against Iran, as the Raha Collective again explains, the crucial difference is that sanctions against South Africa only came after a divestment campaign led by South African activists. In contrast: “No member of any Iran-based opposition group—from leaders of the “green” movement, to activists in the women’s and student movement, to labor organizers—have called for or supported the US/UN/EU sanctions.”

Au contraire, leaders of these groups have vocally opposed sanctions.

We, as feminists, need to be listening.

Though the Obama administration’s movement this past month toward lifting sanctions is something, crucial work remains. To quell war-mongering policymakers and pundits, the administration has been quick to point out it has not relieved, suspended, or terminated any sanctions, and that they will stay on the table or be phased out gradually. Organized public demands to lift sanctions may provide the desperately needed counter-balance to support the administration.

It is easy for US feminists to discuss violence against women in Iran when it’s inflicted by the Iranian state and involves lashings, or acid attacks, or stonings. It is much harder to recognize the ways in which our own state hurts and harms every single Iranian civilian. And while for those of us in the States, opposing US economic and military violence should be our primary responsibility, it does not mean ignoring the democratic aspirations of fellow activists and movements in Iran. Rather, opposing our state’s sponsored violence is actually a step in listening to them.

Header image credit: Raha Iranian Feminist Collective

Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

Read more about Mahroh

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