Nayereh Tohidi

(WOMENSENEWS)–In Iran, the government of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently proposed a bill and, in Orwellian fashion, named it the “Family Protection Law.”

If passed it would have threatened the stability, equilibrium, and mental health of families by reinforcing and facilitating polygamy, temporary marriage, and men’s privileged position with regard to divorce.

The good news: A diverse coalition of women’s rights activists and even some moderate clerics and politicians persuaded a judicial commission to drop some of the most contested articles and Majles, the Parliament, passed an amended version on Sept. 9. This version makes second marriage contingent upon the first wife’s consent and does not attach any tax on the amount of dowry to be paid to wife in case of divorce.

The bad news: The amended family law and many other laws pertaining to personal status are still very male biased. Temporary marriage (muta), for example, remains a prerogative for married and unmarried men without even requiring its registration. Activists campaigning to change that those laws are still under attack, with five women recently sentenced to prison terms of between six months and four years.

A major sign of the negative climate is a wave of smear campaigns recently waged against those activists, chief among them Shirin Ebadi, the leading human rights lawyer. Similar campaigns in the 1990s were harbingers of homicides.

A series of articles published in early August by the official Islamic Republic News Agency made dangerous allegations against Ebadi, her family, and the Center for the Defense of Human Rights that she founded and chairs.

The articles charged Ebadi, a Women’s eNews 21 Leader, with supporting sexual license, promiscuity, and prostitution. They called her a Zionist agent and alleged that the international Zionist Lobby was behind her winning the 2003 Nobel Prize.

The articles also claimed that Ebadi’s daughter has converted to the Bahai faith, a dangerous accusation because Iran does not recognize Bahaism as a religion and its followers have faced severe discrimination and persecution.

Trumped-Up Charges

Several human rights groups, including the Nobel Women Initiative (founded by six female Nobel Peace Prize winners) have compared the accusations to trumped-up charges brought up by the same media against dissident intellectuals in the 1990s that led to several mysterious assassinations now known as “the serial killings.”

Women’s status in Iran is paradoxical and complex. Many rural women and those living in small towns suffer from old restrictions and practices such as domestic violence and “honor killing.”

As for urban women: While economic necessity compels many to work outside the home, their employment opportunities are limited and often face discrimination and harassment. According to official records, in the course of the past year alone, more than 20,000 women have been attacked by “moral squads” and put under temporary police arrest for breaking Islamic dress code.

At the same time, Iranian women have made remarkable strides. Literacy rates among younger generations have risen above 90 percent, and a drastic decline in the fertility rate (now less than two children per woman) and improvements in health and life expectancy have paralleled strides in higher education and income generation. Women are now more than 60 percent of university students and are active in many non-traditional occupations such as medicine, law, engineering and architecture.

Women played a significant role in the reform movement of the late 1990s by massive participation in presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. But since then, women’s participating in formal politics has waned along with the reform movement.

Laws Lagging Behind New Realities

Women’s legal rights within marriage and the family–so-called personal status–have remained backward and at odds with their proven capacities. While women in Iran have produced best-selling novels and internationally award-winning films, barbaric practices such as stoning to death for adultery are still legal.

Two years ago, in August 2006, 200 women (and also some men) began a grassroots effort known as the “One Million Signatures Campaign” to change discriminatory laws. It was modelled after a similar 1992 campaign by Moroccan women, which produced progressive changes in the family law in that country. In Iran, the plan was to present one million signatures to the Majles and press legislators to enact equal-rights legislation. But continuous attacks and arrest of those collecting signatures have slowed the process and caused organizers to extend the two-year target.

Despite intimidation and arrests, this campaign has grown into a network of thousands of activists in more than 30 cities. It has also mobilized support among Iranians abroad and gained increasing recognition and solidarity among transnational networks of feminists and women’s rights activists.

Appealing to Anxieties

To thwart such efforts from fuelling a counter cultural movement in the Iranian population–70 percent of whom are now younger than 30–the radical Islamists are appealing to traditionalists’ anxieties about changing sexual mores and gender views. One recent article published in August in the state-run newspaper Keyhan called for “courageous and gutsy revolutionaries who can do the job” (i.e., continue to carry out attacks on the women’s rights activists).

U.S. policy toward Iran and the continuous threat of military attack have further complicated the situation. In 2003 the allocation of $75 million in U.S. aid to Iranian civil rights organizations spurred the government to repress all voices of dissent. Any civil society organizations or individuals doing effective work toward democracy and human-women’s rights were accused of being agents in a U.S. plan for regime change.

While the hard-liners and radical Islamists cast peaceful and transparent campaigns as national security threats, that charge is better applied to them. Their belligerent foreign policies have brought sanctions and economic hardship and created the danger of military attacks on Iran.

And while they blast off allegations of sexual license and prostitution against women seeking equal rights and egalitarian family relations they promote polygamy and temporary marriage, both frowned upon by the majority of Iranians. Many Sunni and even many Shii Muslims view temporary marriage as little more than legalized prostitution.

Iranian women’s rights activists are contributing to a slow, persistent process of building a civil society grounded on egalitarian and democratic values that would nourish national security and peace with justice. Their efforts are not tied to any national security interest. They are part of a universal quest by civilized people for a peaceful and humane society.

Nayereh Tohidi is chair and professor of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, California State University, Northridge and a Research Associate at the Center for Near Eastern Studies, UCLA.

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