Female officer in brown veil strikes a protester.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Hundreds of women gathered in downtown Tehran to protest institutionalized sex discrimination in Iran Monday, voicing a peaceful message that drew a violent rebuke from baton-wielding police.

About 100 male and female police officers beat demonstrators to disperse the crowd, wounding one in the face and the head, and detaining 20 more, according to The Associated Press. Other publications reported the number of arrests as high as 70.

The protest–and the alleged beatings of some of the activists–drew scant media coverage in the West, where U.S. efforts to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons are claiming major attention.

“For the time being, it’s all about nuclear issues,” said Najmeh Bozorgmehr, a Tehran correspondent for London’s Financial Times who is currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “They don’t talk about women’s rights any more.”

Genevieve Lynch, vice president of The Pluralism Fund, a San Francisco-based coalition of donors to Iran and Pakistan, says the debate over whether Iran should have enriched uranium has drowned out discussion of women’s rights in Iran and allowed authorities there to crack down on women’s rights activists–and women in general–without fear of international reprisal.

“With the international focus completely on the nuclear issue, it’s really allowed the conservative leaders of Iran to pretty systematically dismantle the space we’ve created for civil society, especially for women,” Lynch said.

Earlier this month Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the United States would enter into talks with Iran to discuss a package of incentives designed to convince the country to abandon its nuclear program. Iranian officials have indicated interest but have not said whether they will meet the precondition to the talks.

More Freedoms Than Saudi Arabia

Iranian women have more freedoms than women in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states; they can work, drive, vote and run for most political offices.

 Iranian protester stares down a police officer.

But the state is cracking down on the country’s dress code, which requires women to cover their hair and wear long, loose-fitting clothing in public to hide the shape of their bodies. Segregation laws on buses and in some public areas–such as parks, sidewalks and elevators–are tightening, and women’s advocacy groups and publications have come under closer scrutiny, said Jila Kazerounian, executive director of the Women’s Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran, a small membership advocacy group in Boston.

Women’s rights advocates in Iran face complex political turf. They can be accused of being aligned with Western values if they push for their rights. Conciliatory gestures by the U.S. toward Iran, meanwhile, could undermine the political leverage they do have at home.

“As soon as Western governments, including the United States, start appeasing and engaging the mullahs, they take that as a go-ahead and a green light to increase the internal suppression,” Kazerounian said. “What comes next is women are one of the first targets.”

Ramesh Sepehrrad, president of the National Committee of Women for a Democratic Iran, a small membership-funded organization in Washington, D.C., agreed, saying formal U.S. engagement with Iran will only legitimize the regime’s oppression of women.

Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., dedicated to building inter-faith and inter-ethnic understanding, disagreed, saying she sees no effect of U.S. incentives to negotiate on the women’s rights movement. “The negotiation simply is not about women,” she said.

Climate Fraught With Tension

In a fraught foreign policy climate, some advocates wish that U.S. policy would be more nuanced when it comes to women’s rights and pro-democracy initiatives.

Secretary of State Rice, in a 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo, made a strong call for women’s equality. “There are those who say that democracy is for men alone,” Rice said at the time. “In fact, the opposite is true: Half a democracy is not a democracy.”

But such comments may as well go left unsaid because they are generally viewed with suspicion in Iran, Bozorgmehr said.

“There is always this skepticism that when they talk about democracy and other issues, they don’t really mean that,” she said. “I don’t think Iranians see sincerity in U.S. comments about Iran.”

Last week, the State Department downgraded Iran to the lowest category–from Tier 2 to Tier 3–on the question of the country’s efforts to stop human trafficking, citing the public hanging of a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim for acts “incompatible with chastity.” Characterized by some as a bold move at a time of delicate nuclear diplomacy, others saw the downgrade as a political label reserved for nations like Iran, Syria and North Korea, already low on the U.S. government’s list of allies.

The Bush administration has requested $75 million to promote political change in Iran, some of which would go to women’s rights groups, said State Department spokesperson Amanda Rogers-Harper. She declined to reveal the names of any potential beneficiaries for security reasons. The House Appropriations Committee approved $56 million of that request; a floor vote is expected later this summer.

Protest Timed to Anniversary

Monday’s rally marked the one-year anniversary of a Tehran demonstration of hundreds of women six days before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a religious conservative, was voted into office. That protest was the first of its kind since the 1979 revolution that ousted the constitutional monarchy and recreated Iran as an Islamic state. There were uncorroborated reports that some women were clubbed and detained during that rally, according to press reports.

Women’s rights activists staged another major demonstration on March 8 of this year to commemorate International Women’s Day. Iranian police and plainclothes agents dumped garbage on the heads of participants and beat them to disperse the crowd, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In all three protests, women pressed for greater equality. Islamic law favors men in such areas as divorce, child custody, polygamy, employment rights, the age of adulthood and court proceedings, where a woman’s testimony is viewed as half as valuable as a man’s. Women cannot work or travel outside the country without the permission of a male guardian.

Challenging these policies has become more complicated as tensions have increased between Iran and the West, said Shireen Hunter, a specialist in Islam and human rights and a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a dilemma,” said Hunter. Women’s rights activists, she said, feel they have to speak out on human rights, but don’t want their statements to be used as justification to harm Iran.

In some ways, however, the West’s focus on nuclear issues has been a boon for women, said Hunter. With the United States and Europe putting diplomatic pressure on Iran, Ahmadinejad must reach out to women to shore up his political base, Hunter said.

This, she said, motivated him to issue a recent ruling allowing women to attend soccer games. The decision was later overturned by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei but nonetheless indicated a willingness to make small concessions to women for political reasons, Hunter said.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Women’s Forum against Fundamentalism in Iran:

The National Committee of Women for a Democratic Iran:

Human Rights Watch: Iran: