Sunday, May 31, 2009

TEHRAN | Dressed in blue jeans and a purple tunic with an obligatory head scarf barely covering her hair, Maryam Mirza described her recent arrest in the growing campaign for equal rights for women in Iran.

“I was one of 33 women arrested for protesting in front of our Revolutionary Court,” she said over a lunch of chicken kebabs and nonalcoholic beer at a Tehran hotel. “Policemen and soldiers arrived at the scene and ordered us to leave, but we refused. In response, they screamed at us and called us ‘prostitutes.’ Then the beating started. Some of the women were beaten badly and needed medical attention. They placed 18 women on one small minibus and took us to the prison for prostitutes and drug addicts. They forced us to clean the toilets there.”

A few hours later, she said, police told the women they were free to go but instead took them to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

“They blindfolded me and sat me with my face against the wall,” she said. “They tried to interrogate me, but I refused to answer any questions.” She said she was released without charge after four days of interrogation.

Ms. Mirza, 28, is an active member of the “One Million Signatures Campaign” - a movement that for the past three yearshas been demanding changes to laws that discriminate against women in matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance, testimony and compensation for bodily injury or death.

The issue of women’s rights is likely to figure in Iran’s June 12 presidential elections.

Many women are supporting Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the chief challenger to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr. Mousavi, an architect and former prime minister who frequently campaigns with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a former university chancellor, is backed by Mohammed Khatami, Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005. His tenure is often referred to as the “Tehran Spring” owing to his attempts to reform the system and relax strict Islamic rules affecting women and young people.

Mr. Khatami, who attracted a large number of female voters and appointed Iran’s first female vice president, said on numerous occasions that according to Islam, there are no differences between men and women. However, shortly after Mr. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, more religious police showed up on the streets to harass women considered insufficiently Islamic in dress, and discriminatory laws were more harshly implemented.

“They think that they have the mission to take us to their beloved imaginary paradise,” Shahab Mobasheri, 36, a Mousavi supporter, said about ruling fundamentalists. “They think that we are sheep and in need of a guide that tells us which way we have to go without reasoning.”

Roya Masoudzadeh, another young Mousavi backer, told the Associated Press that what draws her most to Mr. Mousavi is his wife. “Rahnavard is a symbol of women’s rights. She is inspiring women to stand up and demand their rights from Iran’s male-dominated ruling system. We are thirsty for freedom, and she is encouraging us to do things we are in need of.”

There is no assurance rights for women will dramatically improve under a different president, Iranian rights activists say. Restrictions, particularly on dress, are a pillar of the Islamic Revolution and supporters of the incumbent president strongly back these laws.

“My mother wears chador [a shapeless black cloak], my sister wears chador, my wife will wear a chador as well,” said Mohammed, 23, a language teacher in the central city of Yazd who asked that only his first name be used. “Ahmadinejad is a guarantor of morality in this country. I hope he will be re-elected.”

Iranian women have experienced both gains and losses in status since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Women have kept the right to vote, which was granted to them in 1963 by the now-deceased Shah, their literacy rates now exceed 80 percent and about 65 percent of university students are female. Women perform a variety of jobs - from being doctors to driving taxis - and do not face the rigid sex segregation found in some neighboring Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

However, Iranian women must still cover their hair and bodies, even if many subvert the purpose of the law by wearing tight tunics, bright colors and flimsy scarves. An Iranian woman still needs her father’s permission to get married and her husband’s permission to divorce, unless there is a prenuptial agreement augmenting the wife’s rights. A woman’s life and health is worth only half of that of a man in cases of compensation for death or bodily injury.

Before the revolution, women could wear Western dress in public, and the minimum age of marriage was 18. A post-1979 law initially lowered the permissible age of marriage for girls to 9; it has since been amended to age 13 owing to campaigning by activists such as Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The One Million Signatures Campaign - which has attracted several hundred thousand signatures on Internet petitions-seeks an end to polygamy and so-called “temporary” marriage, permitted under Shi’ite Muslim law but seen by many Iranians as thinly veiled prostitution. The movement also wants an increase in the age of criminal responsibility to 18; the right for women married to foreigners to pass on Iranian citizenship to their children; and reform of laws that reduced punishment for so-called “honor killings,” in which male family members justify slayings by asserting immoral behavior by female relatives.

Activists say about 40 women have been sentenced for participation in the signature campaign and that three are currently in prison. They include Alieh Eghdamdoust, serving a three-year term for participating in peaceful activities to promote women’s rights, and Jelveh Javaheri, detained since May 1. Hadi Ghaemi, spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said Ms. Javaheri has not been charged with anything and no reason for her arrest was given.

Iran Human Rights Voice, another foreign-based advocacy group, said a third woman, Ronak Safarzadeh, is in Sanandaj prison serving a 4 1/2-year term.

There is no doubt that women in Iran have lost many of their rights since 1979, says Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, an activist with the Iran Human Rights Group.

“The Iranian Constitution has put in practice gender apartheid. If a woman doesn’t follow the authorities’ hijab [dress] codes, they could be arrested and even punished by lashing. So, the constitution justifies violence against women,” he said.

Women have increased their presence and impact in all spheres of life since the revolution, but remain subjected to legal gender inequality, Mr. Ghaemi said.

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