30/07/2012 10:17 BST | Updated 28/09/2012 06:12 BST

Sanctions: A 'Necessary Evil' Iranian Women Don't Buy

If we care about women's rights and don't want our government to get away with hypocritical claims that they do too, isn't it time we make sure their opinions are heeded?

On the world stage the British government likes to present itself as a champion of women's rights, with our ministers frequently vocal about outrages carried out against women in places like Afghanistan and Libya.

Only in May this year, the British government announced a new initiative that would help prevent sexualised violence in war.

Around the world, however, there are countless women whose experiences of British, European and United States' governments are very different from the image of defender of women's rights that the leaders of these countries seem so keen to project.

Women in Afghanistan are frustrated that their demands to be included at peace talks with the Taliban have consistently fallen on deaf ears. Women who want restrictions of the sales of arms which they believe contribute to the escalation of sexualised violence in conflicts around the world were also disappointed when month-long talks failed to reach a United Nations arms trade treaty, let alone one that acknowledged their concerns.

Part of the problem is that we get few opportunities to hear from those people around the world who, because they are at the receiving end of our government's policies, are in a position to challenge the rhetoric.

A new report by the International Civil Society Action Network sets out in blistering detail the impact that sanctions imposed by the US and the EU are having on Iranian women. It also highlights growing scepticism about Western governments' claims to be supportive of women's rights worldwide:

"The US and EU have been strong proponents of the global women, peace and security agenda with the development of priorities and action plans to ensure women's empowerment. But sanctions undermine and contravene these policies," the report says.

The "contradictory" nature of US and EU rhetoric and its policies and actions increase the Iranian public's suspicion about them, and gives credence to charges of hypocrisy, it goes on.

From increased unemployment, to girls being taken out of school so that they can work and increasing numbers of young girls being married off at a young age by families who can no longer afford to feed them, it's clear that as the EU's oil embargo begins to bite, women are feeling the effect in almost every aspect of their lives.

No strangers to sanctions, Iranian women see a similar pattern emerging as took place in Iraq during 13 years of sanctions that devastated the country following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. There are fears too that conservative forces in the Iranian government will be able to exploit the situation to ensure women are further squeezed out of public life.

Many of these are the same people who took to the streets in the Green Revolution whose demands for democracy were brutally put down by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government: the same people whose demands for democracy our government cheered on.

But sanctions aimed at halting Iran's nuclear programme and talk of a preemptive strike by Israel only succeed in creating conditions in which the authorities can impose a "state of emergency" and use it to justify a further crack down on dissent.

What's more, with food and fuel prices spiralling and medicines scarce, the majority of Iranians expend so much of their energy on daily survival that participation in civil society is on the decline.

The Iranian women who contributed to the report again point to Iraq as proof that sanctions are not an effective means of preventing conflict.

This view is backed up by former British diplomat Carne Ross who, while working at the United Nations, was responsible for maintaining the UN Security Council's support for sanctions against Iraq - a job he at first relished, despite becoming aware that the justification for those sanctions was "flimsy".

Considered an expert despite never having set foot in the country, Ross describes in his book The Leaderless Revolution how, when writing speeches for ambassadors to the Security Council, he made use of information that supported the British narrative while sifting out facts and judgements that contradicted "our" version of events.

When confronted with the harm it was causing ordinary people, it was Ross's job to say that the government was doing all that it could to ease the suffering of sanctions and to maintain the line that any harm they caused was a necessary cost to avoid nuclear conflict.

It was only later that he was convinced by the accounts of Iranian citizens that the sanctions were causing "undoubted human suffering in Iraq of a quite appalling scale".

The women who speak in the report aren't the stereotypical suffering - and voiceless - woman who so often inspires the 'rescuing' nations. Instead they are part of a women's movement that is still thriving despite the odds. It's vital that their voices are not filtered out.

Iranian women, the report says, want an end to the sanctions: "They reject the official narratives that often pose the problems in the terms of good and evil, just and unjust, and call on all sides - including their own government - to engage in constructive dialogue rather than the rhetoric of war and threats instead engage in constructive dialogue."

If we care about women's rights and don't want our government to get away with hypocritical claims that they do too, isn't it time we make sure their opinions are heeded?