“The Islamic Republic of Iran was built upon bricks of patriarchal misogyny.”

Nazanin Boniadi, an Iranian-born human rights activist, actress, and 2023 Sydney Peace Laureate, wrote this striking take on the realities that Iranian women face on the anniversary of Mahsa Jina Amini’s death this year. What she wrote cannot be understated — the Islamic Republic of Iran has been waging a war on women and girls since its inception. 

One of the very first acts of the revolution’s leader when he took power in 1979, she recalls, was to reverse women’s rights in marriage, child custody, and divorce. This included lowering the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to nine. Girls this age are still being made to marry in Iran to this day. 

Iranian women are forced to wear the veil and face up to 10 years in prison if they do not comply. They are forbidden from dancing in public, riding a bicycle, attending matches in sport stadiums, and becoming judges. Widows only inherit one-eighth of their husbands’ estates. Married women are unable to obtain a passport or travel outside Iran without their husbands’ written permission. They are among the very few women in the world with fewer rights than their grandmothers.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, women and girls are not allowed to get an education, banned from working outside the home, prohibited from accessing public baths, parks, and gyms, and moving freely around the country

None of this is new. But now, a prominent group of Afghan and Iranian women are backing a campaign urging the world to call this what it is and recognize it as a crime under international law: gender apartheid. 

Here’s what you need to know.

What is apartheid?

The word apartheid comes from the Afrikaans word for “apartness” or “to separate” and was first used to describe the treatment of Black people in South Africa under white minority rule from 1948 to the early 1990s.

In 1973, the United Nations adopted the Apartheid Convention — the first binding international treaty to declare apartheid and racial segregation a crime under international law.

What is gender apartheid?

Gender apartheid is the economic and social discrimination against individuals based on their gender or sex. It is a system enforced by using either physical or legal practices to relegate individuals to subordinate positions because of their gender.

Although it has a name, it is currently not included in the 1973 Apartheid Convention, which only includes racial definitions. 

“It is paramount to understand that gender apartheid currently only has power as a descriptive term,” said Gissou Nia, one of the human rights lawyers backing the campaign. “Under international law, the crime of apartheid only applies to racial hierarchies, not hierarchies based on gender.”

As merely a descriptive term, it has little power in the world of the international criminal court.

What is the End Gender Apartheid campaign?

The campaign, launched on International Women’s Day in 2023, reflects a belief that the current laws covering discrimination against women do not capture the systematic nature of the policies imposed in Afghanistan and Iran that erode their human rights. 

Pioneered by a prominent group of Afghan and Iranian women, the campaign believes that the definition of apartheid under international law should be interpreted to include gender hierarchies. 

The campaign seeks to expand the set of moral, political, and legal tools available to mobilize international action against systems of gender apartheid, ultimately bringing it to an end.

But isn’t gender persecution already a crime against humanity?

In international law, gender persecution is a crime against humanity. However, it is a crime that is rarely prosecuted. 

In its almost 21 years of existence, the International Criminal Court (that’s the body that prosecutes those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide — including the crime of gender persecution), has only ever attempted two prosecutions involving the charge of gender persecution — and only one has ever been taken to trial.

According to the campaign, recognizing gender apartheid as a crime in and of itself would strengthen tools available for ending apartheid regimes. If we are to substitute racial language for gender language, apartheid definitions are factually accurate descriptions of particularly severe forms of gender‑based discrimination. This will help convey the gravity of the harms carried out in gender apartheid regimes and catalyze action to stop these harms.

Will this actually help women and girls experiencing acute gender-based violence?

If gender apartheid becomes a legally recognized term, pathways for prosecuting the leaders who are enacting these atrocities open up.

It would also set a historic precedent that gender-based violence is not tolerated by the international community.

Apartheid is not only a crime, but it is also subject to universal jurisdiction, imposing an obligation on states to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators of apartheid. Including gender in its definition would provide a much-needed framework for gender-based justice.

How can you help?

It’s simple: awareness, amplification, and action.

Global Citizen Explains

Demand Equity

Iranian and Afghan Women Are Calling for Gender Apartheid to Be a Crime. Here's What to Know.

By Tess Lowery