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The Semiotics of Women's Human Rights in Iran

120 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2007  

Susan Tiefenbrun

Thomas Jefferson School of Law


The status of women's human rights in Iran today is a complex issue mired in contradiction and paradox, not unlike the Iranian society itself. The Iranian language reflects this paradox because words reportedly have double meanings that produce vagueness and intentional ambiguity resulting in misunderstandings for some and advantages for others engaged in the fine art of hiding what one really means to say.

This linguistic deception is not unusual especially for Iranian women who must behave one way publicly and another way privately, even though society in the Islamist State has been forced to adopt a universalist moral code that militates against relativist ethics.

Human rights abuses are prevalent in Iran today, and women suffer most from this deplorable condition. The following serious human rights abuses exist in Iran and detrimentally impact women: summary executions, disappearances, widespread use of torture and other degrading treatment including rape, severe punishments including stoning to death and public flogging, harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrests and detention, prolonged and incommunicado detention, impunity of government officials accused of misconduct in judicial proceedings; the influence of conservative government clerics' in the judiciary preventing citizens from due process or fair trials; governmental restriction of the freedom of religion; flagrant discrimination against religious minorities; governmental control over the selection of candidates for elections; governmental restriction of the work of human rights groups in Iran; domestic and public violence against women; the increase of women children runaways, prostitution and sex trafficking; increased poverty in Iran where 29% of the families below the poverty line are single mothers.

Women's human rights and the role of women in Iranian society are tied up in a thick web of historical, political, cultural, economic, social and legal factors all of which work together in an intricate contextual system like a structural puzzle whose parts or elements can be identified and analyzed. Each of these elements is itself a sign system with complex underlying mechanisms. Each sign system plays a significant role in the development and continuation of human rights abuses of women in Iran. Classical structural analysis provides insights into surface and deep meanings. Semiotic analysis, one that studies signs of women's human rights, will reveal hidden, deeper structures that may be unknown even to the women themselves.

Semiotics is the science of signs. Legal Semiotics is the application of semiotic theory to legal or literary discourse by researchers engaged in hermeneutics and the interpretation of complex fields like art, music, literature, film, or the law. Reading, writing, interpretation of documents and cases, negotiation, interviewing, and juror selection are merely a few of the lawyerly tasks involving the fundamental elements of semiotics - an exchange between two or more speakers through the medium of coded language. The study of coded language depends on interpretation and contexts. This semiotic study will examine various types of coded sign systems that, when decoded and interpreted contextually, reveal hidden realities about women's human rights in Iran. The analysis will attempt to determine how and the extent to which basic human rights are being denied to women in Iran today and whether there is hope for more justice and gender equality in Iran in the future.

Part I of this study will examine the historic and political contexts of women's human rights in Iran.

Part II will look at the sign system of wearing women's Islamic garb known as the hejab or veil in order to uncover the meaning of the many different messages this act conveys. We will discuss the significance of the French headscarf case and the Turkish headscarf case decided finally in the European Court of Human Rights. That court based its almost unanimous decision denying the right to wear a headscarf in public schools and universities on pure semiotics.

Part III will investigate cultural manifestations of women's human rights abuses in Iran through a study of the memoirs and films of four Iranian women. We will look at the best selling memoir of Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Teheran, written by an Iranian woman who is a literature professor. The second memoir is Iran Awakening, written by Shirin Ebadi, a former Iranian female judge, who is currently a lawyer and a women's rights activist working within the Iranian system to change it. The powerful documentary film, Divorce Iranian Style, sheds light on the institution of marriage in Iran and the deficiencies of its family laws and legal system, especially for women seeking a divorce. We will also look at the contrapuntal view of two Iranian women, one modern and the other forced to be traditional, as represented in the very successful film, Two Women, directed by the Iranian feminist filmmaker, Tahmineh Milani. The juxtaposition of these two women represents the contradictions and paradoxes in Iranian society.

Part IV will investigate the Iranian family laws as a sign system that reflects and conditions the status of women's rights today in Iran. The article will also discuss the inadequacies of the Iranian legal system that is caught up in a difficult relationship with Islam and the differing views of Koranic interpretation, some of which negatively impact women.

Part V will examine some of the international human rights laws and instruments that protect gender equality.

Finally, this study will take a look at the future of women's rights in Iran.

Keywords: semiotics, women's rights, gender equality, international human rights, Islam, Iran

Suggested Citation

Tiefenbrun, Susan, The Semiotics of Women's Human Rights in Iran. Thomas Jefferson School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 975512; Connecticut Journal of International Law, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2007. Available at SSRN:

Susan Tiefenbrun (Contact Author)

Thomas Jefferson School of Law ( email )

1155 Island Ave
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
619-961-4318 (Phone)

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