Iran Moves to Roll Back Rights Won by Women
New York Times
The hard-liners who won Iran's parliamentary elections last February have focused on women's rights in their efforts to reverse some of the reforms carried out under the moderate president, Mohammad Khatami.
After the legislative session began in June, the 290-member Parliament, including all 12 of the women, abruptly rejected proposals to expand the inheritance right of Iranian women and to adopt the United Nations convention that bans discrimination against women. They also backed away from previous efforts to make "gender equality" a goal of the country's next four-year development plan.
Instead, the new Parliament has called for placing more restrictions on women's attire and on their social freedoms.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, women have been forced to cover their heads and wear long, loose coats in public. But many had defied the restrictions since Mr. Khatami's election in 1997 and started wearing tighter and more colorful coats and showing more hair.
In recent months, though, newspapers have reported that scores of women have been arrested in Tehran, the capital, and around the country because they were wearing what the authorities considered to be un-Islamic dress.
Members of Parliament have called for segregating men and women at universities and for other limits on women's activities. Hard-liners have held protests to call for a crackdown on freedoms for women and have contended that women ridicule religious sanctities by violating the dress code.
The previous Parliament, dominated by reformists, embraced more legal rights for women and - despite opposition by hard-liners - expanded women's right to divorce and child custody.
Eshrat Shaegh, a conservative woman who has a seminary education and who is one of the women elected to Parliament in the sweep by hard-liners, wrote a letter to Mr. Khatami in July that called for an end to the mixing of unmarried young men and women in public places.
"How do you intend to resolve problems by allowing half-nude women to mingle and party with men who dress like women?" she asked in her letter, referring to women who in the hard-liners' view show too much hair and men who wear colorful clothes.
Abolhassan Davoudi, director of the office that deals with Iranian cinema, was arrested this week and had a heart attack while in custody. He was accused of allowing women who were not properly covered to attend a meeting at his offices. But some political analysts here believe that the hard-liners will ultimately not succeed.
"It is very obvious that the new Parliament would like to impose a strict model of covering for women, but they will not succeed," said Ahmad Zeidabadi, a political scientist and journalist in Tehran. "The more they put pressure, the more they get a reaction because people simply do not think such restrictions can solve their more basic needs."
Imposing restrictions on women's dress has been a barometer - showing how far the authorities are willing to go to allow social freedom and give more rights to women.
Nearly two-thirds of Iran's population is under 30, and more than 60 percent of university students are women. Women have become more vocal, and they demand equal rights. They want jobs and more legal rights within the family structure.
"The general trend in this country is moving towards reforms," said Haleh Anvari a political analyst in Tehran. "These restrictions are like putting a little stone in front of a huge storm that is going for reform," she added, referring to efforts made by the new Parliament.
Women who have been pressing for expanded rights, however, were infuriated when in August a 16-year-old girl, Atefeh Rajabi, was hanged for adultery in the northern city of Neka while the man with whom she was accused of having a sexual relationship received 100 lashes. Amnesty International said the young woman was not thought to be mentally competent.
Women also reacted when Fatimeh Aliya, a hard-line member of Parliament, suggested that polygamy was a way to improve the lot of poor women. Iranian law allows men to marry up to four permanent wives and an unlimited number of temporary wives. But polygamy is despised by most people here, and those who engage in polygamy usually practice it secretly.
"Polygamy eventually serves the interests of women," Ms. Aliya was quoted as saying in newspaper reports. "No woman can emotionally accept another woman in her life, but if she puts herself in the shoes of a woman who needs support then she can accept the idea."
A former member of Parliament, reacting to her comment, suggested that perhaps Ms. Aliya's husband should be encouraged to lead the way.
Most of the women in the hard-line camp who serve in Parliament are members of a women's group called the Zeinab Society. Ms. Aliya said the group received its financing from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the feminist magazine Zanan reported.
Unlike women in the previous Parliament, who became known for their outspokenness and bravery, the new hard-line members have sought to keep a low profile. They have not accepted positions on the presiding board, and they drew a curtain around themselves in Parliament's dining area so that they would not be seen by their male colleagues.
"Giving women noneconomic and nonpolitical positions in Parliament
commissions illustrates the ideal society the conservatives favor,"
Zanan wrote in an editorial last month. "They prefer that women
remain in these sections."