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In Iran, some women pursue rights despite risk

Nahid Keshavarz says two weeks in an Iranian jail didn't deter her from helping try to collect one million signatures for a petition urging more women's rights and, if anything, prison showed the cause was worth fighting for.
/ Source: Reuters

Nahid Keshavarz says two weeks in an Iranian jail didn't deter her from helping try to collect one million signatures for a petition urging more women's rights and, if anything, prison showed the cause was worth fighting for.

Keshavarz is one of dozens of women who campaigners say have been detained since 2006 when the drive was launched. Most were released within a few days or weeks.

"No one wants to go to prison. But if we have to pay a price then we will, like women have all over the world," said the 34-year-old, who was held on security-related charges after collecting signatures in Tehran.

"It has become a daily part of my life," said Keshavarz, whose pink headscarf conforms to laws in the Islamic Republic requiring women to cover their heads in public. She collects names on buses, while out shopping and at parties.

She was arrested in April as she gathered signatures in the capital's Laleh Park. Of 25 women in her section of the prison, some were accused of killing their husbands, she said in Farsi with a friend interpreting.

"They married too early, lived in dire conditions, they had violent relationships, none of them had prior criminal records."

Graphic art for a cause
She was speaking at a sale of paintings by other women which was sponsored by activists to raise funds to help women jailed on various charges. One of the pictures showed a woman with her throat slit. A bloody dagger was the focus of another and a third showed handcuffed arms raised, with fists clenched.

Western diplomats and rights groups see the detention of women activists as part of a wider crackdown on dissent, which they say may be in response to Western pressure over Iran's nuclear work.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said this month the West used negative propaganda about women's rights in Iran as a tool to put political pressure on the country, whose nuclear program Washington suspects aims to develop bombs. Tehran says it is intended only to generate electricity.

Iranian authorities have also clamped down on "immoral behavior," including women flouting the strict Islamic dress code, since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005 with his pledge to revive revolutionary values.

The activists say their campaign is not focused on what they wear, even if outsiders see conservative dress codes as a symbolic and visible barrier to equality.

Defense of sharia law
The women, backed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, are concerned about what they regard as institutionalized discrimination that makes them "second-class citizens" when it comes to divorce, inheritance, child custody and other fields.

Iranian officials reject these allegations, saying the country follows Islamic sharia law.

Clerics argue that women are better protected in Iran than in the West, where they are often treated as sex objects.

"Women in Western countries are ... used as products," said Ayatollah Mahdi Hadavi, a senior cleric based in the Iranian seminary city of Qom. "Socially, they are not treated well."

He said women in Iran were free to express their opinions, even if he and others did not agree with some of their views.

But the activists question that freedom. Another member of the "Million Signatures Campaign," who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said about 40 people had been temporarily detained in connection with the drive.

"We are under increased pressure," she said. "You have a lot of resistance to women's rights."

One of those held was Jelveh Javaheri, who was in Tehran's Evin jail for a month accused of spreading propaganda against the Islamic system, before being released on bail in early January, with fellow rights campaigner Maryam Hosseinkhah.

Javaheri's husband, Kaveh Mozafari, is proud of her: "I'm glad she believes (in her cause) so much that she goes to jail for it," he said.

A U.S.-based rights group said in December the charges against the two women were politically motivated.

"There seems to be no end in sight to the Iranian government's persecution of women's rights activists," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch based in New York.

Out in the open
Although women are legally entitled to hold most jobs, Iran remains dominated by men. In recent years women have started to work in the police and fire departments and there are female members of parliament, but they cannot run for president or become judges.

The activists say it is difficult for women to get a divorce. They criticize inheritance laws as unjust, also the fact a woman's court testimony is worth half that of a man's.

Campaigners point to some positive changes in society, saying most university students these days are women. However, they also say a proposal now before parliament would make it easier for a man to take a second wife.

"Women's status has changed considerably for the better," said activist Sara Loghmani. "The law is the problem."

She and others declined to say how many signatures they had collected so far -- but they insist the message is being spread despite minimal coverage in the domestic media.

"The campaign has brought the issue out in the open," campaigner Sussan Tahmasebi said. "You have grandmothers, mothers and daughters working on this side by side."

But many people are still not aware of the petition.

"I've never heard about it. What is it?" said 23-year-old university student Yasaman, who only gave her first name.

Keshavarz is undeterred: "For me, prison demonstrated the righteousness of our cause," she said. "No, it hasn't stopped me, it hasn't frightened me."