Sexism in Divorce Court: A Comparative Understanding of the Case of Sakineh Ashtiani in Iran and Child Custody Statistics in California and the USA

Discrimination and sexism is rampant in divorce courts and child custody matters in the USA. A comparison with the discrimination and sexism found in Iran’s divorce and family law courts allows us to understand the flip side of our nation’s anti-father child custody court system.

In Iran’s sexist and corrupt legal system, when a person is convicted of adultery, the punishment is stoning until death.  To convict a woman of adultery in Iran, a man must make the allegation and bear witness against her.  To convict a man of adultery in Iran, two women must testify against him, because in Iran’s sexist legal system, a woman’s testimony is considered half as trustworthy as a man’s. A man’s word is all that is required, therefore, to charge and convict a woman of adultery – and essentially, to kill her by the legal punishment of stoning.

This is the exact fate of Sakineh Ashtiani, who was charged with adultery and sentenced to death by stoning. She awaits execution in a torturous Iranian prison today. To ensure that she receives no support in her battle for her life, the oppressive Iranian government has deported her criminal defense attorney, and has imprisioned the German journalist and civil rights activists who were covering her case. Several civil rights and humanitarian non-profit organizations, including Avaaz.org, are heading grassroots efforts to stop the stoning of Sakineh. You can sign the petition at their website, and you can call the Iranian embassy in Washington D.C. to voice your opinions on this human rights matter. To call the embassy of Iran in Washington D.C., dial 212-687-2020 and hit “0”. Tell the operator why you’re calling, and he’ll transfer you to a voicemail where you can leave a message. It is likely more safe to not leave your name on the voicemail, but it’d be useful to identify the state from which you are calling.

Beyond the life and policy at stake here, this divorce law matter holds a certain relevance to our American legal system. In Iran, when a couple divorces, the father is automatically awarded sole legal custody of the children. In the USA, in contested custody cases, according to statistics published by the federal government and the State of California, mothers are awarded primary custody of the children the overwhelming majority of the time, fathers get primary custody a slim minority of the time, and when shared custody does happen parents split custody in a time-share structure that strongly weighs in favor of mothers. A true 50-50 split in child custody is the proverbial white rhinoceros of US divorce courts. California, for all its sensitivity to gender issues and progressive politics, is on par with this gendered custody paradigm.

The problem of sexism in our understanding of parenthood is beyond a simple legal problem. In our culture, to “mother” a child has the connotation of “coddling” or “nurturing” a child; whereas to “father” a child means to “procreate”, “spawn” or “sire” a child. The mainstream cultural vision of the typical breadwinner is male in our culture, and the mainstream cultural vision of a homemaker is female in our culture. We too suffer from a sexist family law system here in the United States – in fact, here in California as well.

Part of my work is to challenge and subvert these sexist stereotypes, to ensure that gender equity and justice is very much a part of the legal system in divorce court. But what we cannot control at all is people’s perceptions. I urge you to do just that kind of work – the very real work of analyzing your own way of thinking and acting, especially in times of great conflict.

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