Women challenge Iran’s iron ceiling

by: Hamida Ghafour

Saturday 20 December 2008

The National (UAE): Esha Momeni, an American postgraduate student of Iranian origin, travelled to her homeland in October to research the women’s rights movement for a master’s thesis.

Instead, Ms Momeni, 28, a dual citizen, was arrested by the Iranian authorities and thrown into jail in Tehran on charges of “acting against national security”.

Only after her father put up the family home in Tehran as US$200,000 (Dh720,000) collateral was she released on bail, but instead of returning to California, she remains virtually under house arrest because the authorities refuse to return her passport.

“She has some anxiety problems because she told us how she was kept in solitary confinement when I last spoke to her two weeks ago,” said her friend, Roja Bandari, 28, an Iranian doctorate student, who lives in the United States.

“Esha’s family in Tehran have been ordered by intelligence officials not to speak to the media. It is an emotional game, we don’t know what the mentality is of the officials and we don’t know what will happen to her.”

Her arrest is part of an escalating campaign of harassment and intimidation against women’s rights campaigners in the Islamic republic who are becoming bolder in calling for change to a Sharia system they say discriminates against women.

Last week, authorities stopped Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer, from leaving the country to collect an award from Human Rights International in Rome. Mrs Sotoudeh said her passport was confiscated.

She has worked on behalf of several women who have been arrested because of their affiliation with the Million Signatures Campaign, a grassroots organisation active in 15 provinces that is collecting signatures for a petition that calls for reformation of discriminatory laws.

Ms Momeni was interviewing its members for her thesis at California State University.

“Our actions are not against the law, we are not opposed to the government, it is civil action so the authorities try to stop us to make us afraid and make others afraid to continue,” said Parvin Ardalan, 41, a leading member of the campaign speaking from Tehran. She is appealing a six-month jail sentence after being convicted of “spreading propaganda against the Islamic system” in September and is forbidden from travelling outside Iran.

The Million Signatures Campaign, which will not reveal how many signatures it has collected since it was launched in Aug 2006, is probably the most high-profile organisation working to change the legal status of women. It was launched by a group of lawyers, journalists and social workers following violent street protests.

So far, 45 members have been arrested.

In September, reformers won a rare victory when a bill that would allow men to take a second wife without consent from the first was shelved.

However, there are still many other laws on the books the campaign is seeking to change. Girls are considered criminally responsible from the age of nine and can be executed for their crimes, but the age of criminal responsibility for boys is 15. A woman’s life is worth half that of a man and she will receive half the compensation if injured in an accident.

“Inheritance is another problem,” said Ms Ardalan, a book editor. “My father is dead and my brother got more money than me, my sister and mother. But if a woman is one of eight children, how can she tolerate it? She will not be able to live.”

Campaign supporters said their demands are not contradictory to Islam because ayatollahs, the highest authority in Shiite Islam, in the past have offered new and progressive interpretations of Sharia law to keep up with contemporary times.

The Iranian women’s movement is also one of the most well-organised social movements in the country, according to a report by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

This is partly because during the government of the previous president, Mohammad Khatami, a reformer, 600 non-governmental organisations were set up to encourage respect for women’s rights.

Iran also has a young population – half are under the age of 25 – and female students now outnumber men in universities. For many, it is during these years that they become aware of small inequalities.

“I remember in high school in Tehran there was freedom and I felt like a boy,” said Ms Bandari, an engineering student who now lives in California. “But when I went to university I noticed women were not congregating in the general areas for example. You’d get out of class and went immediately to the cafeteria. It was an unspoken rule. When I asked one of our male instructors why this was happening he just laughed.”

A well-educated female population challenging men for jobs has prompted some parliamentarians to demand a bill that would impose quota limits on female students in areas where they outnumber men.

“You have educated women who are naturally responding and reacting to the fact that they are not treated equally,” said Andrew Anderson, the deputy director of Front Line, a Dublin-based human rights organisation which is defending the cases of 100 female activists in Iran, including Ms Momeni.

“The strategy of the authorities seems to be to tie them up in the legal system. They get suspended sentences, they are kept in the legal system. There is brutality but they are also taking an approach designed to appear less brutal. The majority of human rights defenders are denied movement.”

Critics said the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his hardline supporters have set back the cause of women and point to the programme for social safety launched last year where police vans are dispatched to strategic locations so they can monitor and arrest women wearing clothing considered un-Islamic.

There is growing speculation that Mr Khatami will stand for office in the next election and continue to push for reform. Earlier this week he told an auditorium of university students in the capital that he was still considering it.


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