A UN investigator on Tuesday criticised Iran for “egregious, gender-based discrimination”, including so-called honour killings, child marriage and weak legal protection for the country’s 42 million women.
In his annual address to the UN’s human rights body in Geneva, UN expert Javaid Rehman said some gains in women’s education and citizenship rights in Iran were “overshadowed” by a lopsided legal system that favoured men.
His comments, which were rejected by Iranian officials, came amid tension between Iran and western powers over Tehran's nuclear programme and the treatment of dual nationals, including British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
“Egregious, gender-based discrimination persists in law, practice and societal attitudes, disempowering women and girls for participating and contributing in society,” said Mr Rehman, the UN’s rapporteur on Iran.
He urged Iran’s rulers to scrap laws that “exonerate or mitigate” the so-called honour killings of women and to halt the “harassment, arrest and imprisonment” of women’s rights campaigners.
“Many remain arbitrarily imprisoned under national security laws for defending women's rights,” Mr Rehman said.
"I urge the government to immediately release all women and men arbitrarily detained for standing up for women's rights, as well as to immediately introduce fundamental reforms to ensure gender equality under the law and to end discrimination against women in society."
He also condemned a system of family law that grants men an “incontestable right to divorce” their wives, while women only have “limited grounds” on which they can seek to end their marriages.
Quoting Iranian government figures, Mr Rehman said more than 16,000 girls aged between 10 and 14 had wed in Iran between March and September last year, and that the minimum age for marriage should be raised.
Under Iranian law, girls as young as 13 can marry, but that can be lowered with approval from parents or a court.
“This cannot continue," Mr Rehman said. "The government must raise the marriage age in line with its commitments” under international accords.
The UN and Human Rights Watch have praised the drafting of an anti-violence law put before Iran’s Parliament but also said the bill did too little to protect women’s rights.
Iran’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Esmaeil Baghaei Hamaneh, rejected the UN expert’s report, saying Iranian women were benefiting from longer, healthier lives and better job opportunities.
“Women are not second class citizens,” Mr Hamaneh said.
He said Iran was the victim of a political smear campaign.