Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

April 16,  2007  



Unmarried need global human rights monitor

By Thomas F. Coleman

While unmarried Americans may complain about unfair treatment as employees, tenants, consumers, and taxpayers, their gripes pale in comparison to the human rights abuses faced by unmarried adults in other parts of the world.

Human rights abuses based on marital status? 

That's right, as in invasion of privacy, forced marriages, arrests for holding hands, lashes for kissing, and imprisonment for cohabitation.  Many unmarried women are even killed by relatives to restore "family honor" when they are suspected of violating religious or social norms imposed on those who are single.

In Malaysia, one regional government recently announced plans to hire Islamic spies to snoop on the activities of unmarried citizens to make sure they were not holding hands or showing affection.

Unchaperoned meetings between unmarried couples is a crime under Malaysia's Islamic law.  Violators can be imprisoned for up to two months.

Amnesty International reports that scores of women in Turkey have been married without their consent.  Forced marriage violates a woman's right to choose her partner, a right protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and specified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Romance between unmarried men and women is a crime in Iran.  Those caught by the police, perhaps just dancing or kissing at a private party, are arrested. 

Three years ago, Iran sent a message to its population that unmarried sexual conduct would not be tolerated.  Atefeh Rajabi, a 16 year old girl, was hanged in the public square of her village, after she was convicted of having sex with unmarried men. 

A religious judge who put the rope around her neck later received letters of congratulations from the town's governor, commending him for his "firm approach."

Najam Haider, a Professor in Islamic Studies in the Theology Department at Georgetown University, recalls instances when unmarried men have also been punished for having premarital sex, although not with the death penalty.

Many countries in the Mediterranean and Muslim worlds tolerate or allow “honor” killings of unmarried girls and women by their male relatives, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.  These killings are done to "restore family honor" after these women have engaged in "inappropriate" sexual behavior or have been perceived to have done so.

A United Nations report has noted honor killings occurring with some frequency in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Yemen, and other Mediterranean and Gulf countries. 

In societies where they occur, honor killings are often regarded as a private matter for the affected family alone.  The courts rarely become involved, and when they do, the sentence is usually no longer than one year in jail.

The United States itself bears some responsibility for perpetuating or condoning the human rights violations of single people.  Two problem areas involve foreign aid and asylum policies.

The United States has required that $1 billion of the funds allocated for overseas AIDS prevention programs must be limited to teaching "abstinence until marriage."  As a result, Human Rights Watch found that young people in Uganda were being denied information about condoms and safer sex because of prohibitions in American funded sex education programs abroad.

About 10 years ago, a U.S. immigration court ruled that the existence of honor killings would not constitute a reason for granting asylum to a would-be victim.

The case involved a Jordanian woman who had engaged in premarital sex.  She fled to the United States for fear of being murdered by members of her family. The court record indicates that her father asked her brothers to kill her, and she claimed asylum for that reason.

The immigration judge denied her request.  In August 1999, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld the judge's ruling.  However, after intervention by members of Congress, she was finally granted asylum in May 2002.

Unmarried people need better human rights monitoring.  No human rights agency currently has a program targeting human rights abuses based on "marital status."

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have done a commendable job focusing on the rights of women as well as gays and lesbians.  But evidence shows that unmarried men and women, regardless of sexual orientation, need an agency to champion their international human rights too.

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© Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.