( – The Iranian regime on Friday joins the United Nation’s top gender equality body for a four-year term, the outcome of a controversial secret ballot election last spring in which at least a dozen liberal democracies voted for Iran.

The election of Iran onto the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), “the world’s leading intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women,” came despite appeals from Iranian women’s rights advocates and others.

On Friday, the Islamic Republic of Iran joins the U.N. Women’s Rights Commission,” commented Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based NGO U.N. Watch.

“Our Western countries are silent because of the Iran nuclear deal they are about to sign in Vienna,” he said. “We refuse to be silent. We refuse to throw the oppressed women of Iran under the bus.”

The treatment of women in Iran is deeply controversial. Women can be flogged or imprisoned for breaking mandatory Islamic dress regulations, need a husband’s permission to work, are banned from attending many sports events, are disproportionately affected by harsh penalties for adultery, and a woman’s testimony in a court of law holds half the weight of a man’s.

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A U.N. rights official reported last year that Iran still allows men to marry girls as young as 13 – or even younger, with permission of her father and a court. He said more than 16,000 girls aged 10-14 had been married in one six-month period of 2020 alone.

In the World Economic Forum’s latest “Global Gender Gap” report, Iran is seated in 150th place out of 156 countries assessed. The annual report examines how women fare in four areas – political empowerment, economic participation and opportunity, education, and health and survival.

Other countries ranked near the bottom of the gender gap report but are also members of the CSW include Afghanistan, Morocco, Nigeria, and India. Two others, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, are about to end four-year terms on the commission.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called Iran’s election onto the CSW “a slap in the face to millions of Iranian women.”

At the U.N. Human Rights Council last week Neuer, speaking on behalf of the NGO Ingenieurs du Monde, challenged U.N. member-states on the decision.

“Were you not aware that the mullahs force women to cover their hair, with many arrested and attacked daily under a misogynistic hijab law? Were you not aware that they require a woman to receive permission from her father to get married?” he asked. “Were you not aware that the legal age for a girl to marry in Iran is 13, with a new law providing incentives to actually increase early marriage?

“The women of Iran want to know, why is the U.N. installing their oppressor as a global guardian of gender equality,” Neuer said, adding that electing Iran onto the CSW was “like making an arsonist into the town fire chief.”

The 45 seats on the CSW are filled in an election by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), a body of 54 member-states that coordinates U.N. socio-economic affairs.

In line with the U.N.’s principle of “equitable geographical distribution,” 13 seats are earmarked for Africa, 11 for Asia, nine for Latin America and the Caribbean; eight from the “Western Europe and others” group, and four from Eastern Europe.

Secret ballot

When ECOSOC last April met to fill vacancies on the CSW, five seats in Asia were to be filled, and the group submitted five candidates, meaning the “election” involved no actual competition.

Generally, such “closed slates” are waved through without a vote, a process the U.N. calls election “by acclamation.”

On that occasion, however, the United States called for a recorded vote, and rights activists were stunned when Iran received 43 votes from the 53 ECOSOC members that cast ballots.

The ballot was secret, but by a process of elimination it appeared that at least 12 liberal democracies voted in favor of Iran’s candidacy.

Of 54 members of ECOSOC, 22 could be described as free democracies – Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Portugal, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United States.

On the reasonable assumption that the 10 countries that withheld their votes for Iran’s candidacy were democracies, that means the 12 democracies did vote in favor.

Attempts at the time to find out how the countries voted were largely unsuccessful, since most U.N. member-states maintain that the secret ballot must remain that way.  Canada was an exception, stating publicly that it did not vote in favor of Iran.

The fact that the U.S. called for a recorded vote to signal its objection indicates that it almost certainly would not have supported Iran’s bid, although the State Department declined to say so directly.

At a U.N. Security Council meeting earlier this month focused on women’s rights Iranian deputy representative Zahra Ershadi suggested that U.S. sanctions were to blame for difficulties in advancing programs to empower women.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran since its establishment has always considered the promotion of the cultural, social, economic and political status of women and girls as a key element in its policymaking, legislation and national planning,” she said.

“Despite the United States’ illegal and inhuman sanctions which have negatively affected the financing and executing of programs planned by government, civil society and private sectors aiming at women’s advancement and empowerment, Iran has remarkable achievements in this area.”

Twice in the past when Iran was up for a seat on the CSW – in 2010 and 2014 – the Obama administration did not call for a recorded vote, and in both cases, Iran got the seat “by acclamation.”

Iran’s new four-year CSW term formally begins immediately after the commission ends its 66th annual session in New York on Friday.