U.N. Rights Chief Defends Wearing Headscarf in Iran
GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said Friday she wore a headscarf during an anti-racism conference in Tehran this week because it was the law of the country.
But she said she had made formal protests over the effective barring of a Jewish human rights group and an organization representing the Bahai faith from entering the country for the gathering.
Robinson, a former president of Ireland, told a news conference she had also urged protesting women from Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attending the conference that they should also wear the scarf.
The vast majority, additionally urged to don the Islamic garment by women from Iranian NGOs and aware that it was a criminal offense not to do so or even to criticize the law that makes the scarf obligatory, conformed, she added.
"I wore the scarf as required by Iranian law because as High Commissioner it would be entirely inappropriate to be in breach of the law of the country I was visiting," said Robinson, who has come in for criticism over the affair.
"I never wear hats and scarves, so it is not something I enjoy doing. It is not a matter of respect for a custom, it is the law of the land, and one that is strictly applied."
Robinson said the conservative press in Iran had played up the issue of the women who were refusing to wear a scarf to press a campaign against reformers which has led to the arrest of many prominent journalists and closure of newspapers.
"I hope this won't lead to further difficulties," the High Commissioner added.
"It was put to me by Iranian women that in Iran women can vote, that there are many in parliament and some in the cabinet, that they are allowed to drive cars, that 60 per cent of university students are women, and that the scarf is an important part of their culture," she added.
WORLD CONFERENCE IN DURBAN
The gathering was the Asian regional preparatory meeting for a U.N. world conference against racism to be held in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31-Sept. 7 this year.
Robinson said the failure of the Iranian authorities to issue visas in time to representatives of the Paris-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and of the Bahai International Community, both recognized by the U.N., had dismayed her.
She said she had made clear in Tehran that she fully and unequivocally supported participation of all U.N.-accredited NGOs in the preparatory process and in the Durban conference.
Robinson said she had discussed the overall situation on human rights in the country with President Mohammed Khatami and other top officials.
The High Commissioner said she felt her visit "underlined the very tense situation in Iran between the conservatives and those who wanted to see reform and progressive change.
"I am now more aware of the extent of the pressures and serious violations of human rights that have taken place in recent times," Robinson added.
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