- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

From combined dispatches

TEHRAN Iran's reformist-controled Majlis, or parliament, has adopted a proposal expanding women's rights regarding divorce less than two months after winning a protracted battle with conservatives over a more limited reform.

The bill would grant women for the first time the right to initiate divorce proceedings without permission from their husbands and be awarded alimony by the courts, lawmakers said yesterday. The legislation also lets women demand housing and health allowances.

It would also set legal conditions for men to file for divorce, which until now has been available to them on demand.

"Adoption of this text will prevent men with loose morals from asking for divorce without a convincing reason," said Fatemeh Haghighat-Jou, a pro-reform lawmaker from Tehran.

The bill must still be approved by the Guardian Council, a religious watchdog body that accepts or rejects new legislation. It opposed the previous divorce reform, forcing adjudication by the Expediency Council, another watchdog body on which representatives of the pro-reform government and parliament are outnumbered by conservative jurists.

In its ruling of July 6, the Expediency Council granted women the right to divorce in contested cases only when the husband had failed to deal with a drink or drug habit that disrupted family life. The courts already grant some women a divorce refused by the husband in cases involving insanity, impotence, or inability to provide financially for the family, but usually only after long and costly lawsuits.

Forseeing a new clash with the Guardians over the bill adopted Monday, Mrs. Haghighat-Jou insisted it was social pressure, not the relaxation of laws, that is driving up Iran's divorce rate.

"We will not succeed in stemming the divorce rate by simply limiting the legal options," she told the conservative daily Javan.

"The bill is the beginning of the realization of part of a reform promise to improve women's rights and change the male-dominated laws that have harmed Iranian women throughout history," said lawmaker Elaheh Koolaee.

Mrs. Koolaee, a Tehran University professor and women's rights advocate, said Iran's 12 female lawmakers seek "comprehensive changes" in women's rights.

Under Iran's Islamic laws, a woman needs her husband's permission to work or travel abroad. A man's court testimony is considered twice as important as a woman's, while men only are allowed to have more than one spouse up to four at a time.

Women have enjoyed greater freedoms since the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, who appointed a woman as vice president. Other women have been appointed to top government posts, but not Cabinet positions.

The Majlis has also succeeded in lifting a ban on unmarried women studying abroad.

But even some reformists expressed doubts about the new divorce bill. Its timing lays reformers open to the charge of pandering to women voters before municipal, legislative and presidential elections over the next three years, said the pro-reform daily Hambasteghi in an editorial.

Also this week, national Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi declared that an outlawed opposition group was no threat to national security even though 33 of its members were jailed last month on such grounds.

Mr. Yunesi insisted Monday that he did not want to "interfere in the affairs of the judiciary, which is an independent institution," the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

But he acknowledged that the Iran Freedom Movement (IFM), which was ordered disbanded by a revolutionary tribunal on July 27 for seeking to overthrow the Islamic regime, does not espouse violence.

"Iran's security is too big an issue to be threatened by a group like the IFM," the minister said.

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