Soheila Vahdati

(WOMENSENEWS)–In case you missed it, here’s how a Reuters story started out on the day Pennsylvania Democrats were nominating deciding who they want as a presidential candidate.

"Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton warned Tehran on Tuesday that if she were president, the United States could ‘totally obliterate’ Iran in retaliation for a nuclear strike against Israel."

While many American women may be measuring the next U.S. president for his or her policies on health care, gender pay equity and a struggling economy, women in Iran are looking for foreign policy approaches. More immediately, we’re also wary of what the remaining days of President Bush’s time in office might bring.

The possibility of U.S. military action against Iran has been rising this month along with the saber rattling between Israel and Iran.

Some analysts have speculated that Israel might attack Iran to stop its nuclear activities, which the West fears are a front for weapons development. Iran has responded by saying it will obliterate Israel if it comes under attack.

Amid this, female activists in Iran hope that war can be avoided, fearing the Iranian women’s movement would be among the first casualties.

This would be a major loss because the women’s movement is making progressive gains.

Last year, for instance, the fundamentalist daily newspaper Kayhan called upon lawmakers to disarm the movement by reforming the Islamic law in favor of women’s rights.

In this fashion, the women’s movement is chipping away at fundamentalism. And it is best that we continue doing it that way, within the context of peace. If bombs start falling we won’t have that chance. Nationalism and fundamentalism will rise to meet the external aggression and dissidents of every variety will be stifled.

Troubling Rhetoric

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli rhetoric along with the country’s nuclear program are of obvious concern to Israel, especially in the past few weeks as the war rhetoric has risen. Although Iranian officials have repeatedly claimed the nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, the United States and Israel are not yet convinced.

Following an April 16 meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, President Bush said it is "naive" to think Iran would not be able to transfer nuclear enrichment into a weapons program.

That same day, prominent Israeli newspaper Haaretz opened its editorial by reiterating: "Iran under the Islamic revolutionary government represents a serious security problem for Israel." And to underscore the extent to which the U.S. military stands behind Israel in this matter it concluded: "Bush may not be the world’s police officer, but in the absence of any other cop on the horizon, he can be expected to make good on his promise to prevent Iran from acquiring the ability to destroy Israel."

Meanwhile, at a joint congressional hearing, congressional members bluntly expressed their frustration at the lack of an effective U.S. policy toward Iran. "Having a policy of hope is horse dung," is how Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, expressed it.

Diverting the Fifth Column

In the face of U.S.-Israel opposition the Iranian government is reacting by not only strengthening its military forces but also eliminating any potential "fifth column" recruits, including anybody who dares voice their criticism of the state.

The government strictly controls the media and has closed down magazines that it deems are unsupportive of the government or hold the slightest critical views and commentaries. Zanan, a monthly magazine and the only women’s independent publication in the country, became the latest victim of the government crackdown on media in January.

The state’s strict policies never allow the public to openly voice their opinions about negotiating peace with Israel. A few years ago, I had an interview with an Israeli peace activist, Ada Aharoni, about the joint efforts of some Israeli and Palestinian women for building peace. After the piece was published online, I received e-mails from women in Iran who wished they could join efforts to make Israel and Palestinians negotiate a peaceful solution, but no one was willing to be interviewed.

Yet, female activists have been among the most vocal critics of the Islamic regime, demanding an end to the systemic gender discrimination by the state-imposed Islamic laws. Consequently, they are the first to be oppressed.

Activist Attacked Every 4 Days

Scores of female activists face charges of acting "against national security" and for the first time they face sentences of flogging in addition to prison terms, though the sentences are mostly suspended. Women’s groups are tracking these cases online. During the past three months, on average, one female activist has been summoned, tried, sentenced or threatened every four days.

According to one prominent women’s rights activist, who does not want her name to be revealed, the fundamentalists have all activists and vocal dissidents, at most a few hundred, under surveillance.

"We know that we can work when there is peace," she says. "But if there is any serious military threat, the regime will round us up and execute us immediately in order to make sure nobody thinks of a replacement for the current regime."

Iran has made it clear that any military action against the country would lead to a full-scale war. As in any war, nationalism and patriotism will come to support the state, which in this case is in the hands of the fundamentalists. Furthermore, Iran plans to actively recruit its fundamentalist supporters from all over the world to target U.S. interests.

Such a scenario is the worst nightmare of Iranian women’s rights activists. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, women have successfully brought severe theoretical and practical challenges to the Islamic fundamentalism. Women have defied barriers set by the Islamic regime and found their way into nearly all aspects of social life. The headscarf has been no barrier for women to enjoy education and employment and now they are showing their presence in the fields of music and sports.

Women are continuously pushing for reforms to the state-imposed Islamic laws. The child custody law, for example, has been reformed to increase the mother’s share of child custody. The inheritance law was reformed to lessen discrimination against women. Last year, when the lawmakers were drafting the Islamic polygamy bill, women brought sharp criticism to it. Before it could reach the parliament the Supreme Leader–Iran’s highest-ranking religious and political authority–announced his opposition to the bill in a meeting with the 12 female members of the 281-seat parliament.

The Stop Stoning Forever campaign–initiated by women in August 2006 after activists learned of a case where a man and a woman had been stoned and another woman was sentenced–caused some of the prominent grand ayatollahs to distance themselves from the practice of stoning, a legal form of punishment for adultery prescribed under Iran’s Islamic Penal Code. When the campaign drew public attention to stoning, some prominent religious figures, including Ayatollah Montazeri and Ayatollah Mousavi Bojnordi, issued decrees allowing the state to bend the Islamic law and put an end to stoning.

Dr. Soheila Vahdati is an Iranian American human rights activist who has written many articles about women’s human rights and gender issues in Iranian journals. She is a coordinator of the Stop Stoning Forever campaign and is based in California.

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Irani Women Protest in Shadow of Nuclear Face-Off