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Women Online In Iran Brave Heavy Web Surveillance

Friday, April 9, 2010

Iranian female journalists are veterans of government closure of their print publications and early Internet ventures. Now they are prevailing against the region's most advanced censoring and monitoring software.

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Iranian female journalists are veterans of government closure of their print publications and early Internet ventures. Now they are prevailing against the region's most advanced censoring and monitoring software.
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Women protest for democracy in Tehran, Iran.(WOMENSENEWS)--Iranian women have pushed the battle for equal rights online even as security forces aggressively monitor the Internet and shut down pro-democracy Web sites that fall out of step with the regime.

"Every print magazine for women we had was closed," Parvin Ardalan said in a recent phone interview from Sweden. "So we created a new world for ourselves in cyberspace."

Ardalan is a founding member and editor of Change for Equality, launched in 2006 as the online presence for the One Million Signatures Campaign, a women-led grassroots movement calling for an end to discriminatory Iranian laws.

Change for Equality is now an authoritative women's rights news source, as well as a platform for activism. In 2008, for instance, it was instrumental in challenging a bill to liberalize polygamy laws.

In March the site posted a video address inviting women's rights activists worldwide to show solidarity with Iran's women's rights and pro-democracy movement. Some of the responding electronic signatures and support statements now sit at the top of one of the movement's Web pages.

"We use social media as a news tool," said Ardalan. "Women in Iran are calling for freedom and equality. We want to show the world that we are not alone."

Change for Equality routinely survives efforts to shut down or stymie its online operations. The Iran-based version of the site has been blocked 23 times since its launch, including on March 16, a few days after Ardalan received an award in Paris from Reporters Without Borders.

The Iranian government permanently revoked the operating license of Zanan, the country's leading women's rights monthly magazine, two years ago.

Ardalan, who began working on the Internet in the mid-1990s, started two Web sites for women: the Iranian Feminist Tribune and Zanast. Both were shut down.

Experience Guided Online Presence

The experience guided Ardalan's work as a founding member and editor of the One Million Signatures Campaign's multifaceted online presence. The site has versions operating abroad and locally.

The drawback to Web publication, says Ardalan, is that not everyone is an online news consumer.

But there are 70,000 active blogs in Iran, according to a 2009 study by the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University. Iran has a very young and literate population with only a small gap between male and female literacy. Sixty percent of college graduates are women, although this doesn't guarantee entry into the work force.

Ardalan has received several sentences for her activities in Iran and plans to live in exile in Sweden for the time being.

The Paris-based media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders gave Ardalan its first "Netizen Prize" on March 12. The award--whose name represents an elision of "Net" and "citizen"--recognizes the efforts of a blogger, journalist or cyber-dissident to promote freedom of expression.

Ardalan accepted it on behalf of about 20 women, including herself, who launched Change for Equality in 2006 and have evaded censorship by operating multiple sites affiliated with the One Million Signatures Campaign.

Ardalan dedicated the award to all her colleagues in prison. More than 50 of the movement's activists have been summoned, arrested and jailed since the site's launch.

The arrest of Sousan M. Mohammadkhani Ghiasvand on March 11 marks the most recent detention of a female blogger. Ghiasvand writes about gender issues in her home province of Kurdistan. Shirin Alam Holi and Zeinab Jalilian, two Kurdish women's rights activists, are currently on death row, according to Human Rights Watch.

Global Record for Jailed Journalists

Iran, which holds this year's global record for jailed journalists, had at least 35 behind bars at the start of April, down from 52 in March thanks to short term-furloughs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York-based monitor of press freedom worldwide. Five are known to be women.

"Putting women in detention because they are calling for equality will only cause them to become even more active and inspire them to the same," Mohamed Abdel Dayem, program coordinator for the Middle East at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Women's eNews.

Iran is the only country in this region to domestically manufacture sophisticated monitoring software and hardware to track online publications and filter out content the government considers a threat to national security, Dayem said.

Google, the California-based Internet technologies corporation, supported the Reporters Without Borders' award. Iran blocked the company's popular e-mail service, Gmail, as part of a broader cyber censorship crackdown in February.

On March 14, Teheran's Prosecutor Office announced the arrest of 30 people in connection to a U.S. cyber conspiracy. Most of the detainees, according to Human Rights Watch, were human rights activists, including advocates for women's rights and rights for regional minorities.

Ardalan says that foreign media attention carries risks for journalists on the ground. But international support--in the form of electronic signature campaigns or Web-hosting services--also helps content providers such as Gender Equality sidestep censorship and raise the profile of female activists and journalists.

"Social networking increases our security too by publishing our news," she said. "When they arrest somebody that it is unknown it is easy to jail them without a show from supporters."

Siemens and Nokia Singled Out

In March, Nobel-laureate and women's rights activist Shirin Ebadi singled out German engineering giant Siemens and Finnish telecoms company Nokia for supplying Iran with the dangerous know-how.

"They send the Iranian state software and technology that it can use to monitor mobile telephone calls and text messages," she told France Culture Radio.

The European Parliament judged the companies "instrumental in the persecution and arrest of Iranian dissidents" in a February resolution that criticized Nokia Siemens Networks for equipping the Iranian government with censorship and surveillance tools. The companies have denied the charges.

At least 5,000 men and women have been arrested since Iran's contested election last summer, according to Iran's Equality Now Web site, including many members of the One Million Signatures Campaign.

The government's crackdown on information since the rise of the pro-democracy movement has been so severe that international watchdog organizations struggle to keep track of who has been arrested and why, especially since few international reporters are allowed inside the country and local sources are under constant pressure from security forces.

"It's a revolving door," Farez Sanai, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York, told Women's eNews. "It is very common for individuals to be picked up, put in detention, not know what the charges are and then be released several days or weeks later."

Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews' Arabic editor.