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Iran's rising conservatives roll back women's rights

Under Ahmadinejad, fear of a U.S. attack has been used as a pretext to intensify crackdowns.

April 29, 2007|Scheherezade Faramarzi | Associated Press

BEIRUT — Iranian police shoved and kicked them, loaded them into a curtained minibus and drove them away. Hours later, at the gates of Evin prison, they were blindfolded and forced to wear all-enveloping chadors, then were interrogated through the night.

All 31 were women -- activists accused of receiving foreign funds to stir up dissent in Iran. But their real crime, says Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, was gathering peacefully outside Tehran's Revolutionary Court in support of five fellow activists on trial for demanding changes in laws that discriminate against women.

During her 15 days in prison, "I tried to convince them that asking for our rights had nothing to do with the enemy," Abbasgholizadeh told the Associated Press by telephone from Tehran. "But they insisted that foreign governments were exploiting our cause."

The March 4 arrests highlight how women's rights, which were making some advances under the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, are being rolled back by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who succeeded him in August 2005.

Activists say that while world attention has focused on the West's standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, the abuses of women's rights have intensified, using fear of a U.S. attack as a pretext.

Over the last 10 months, security forces have "become more and more aggressive even as women's actions have become more peaceful and tame," said Jila Baniyaghoub, an activist who also has spent time in jail.

"By tightening the noose on us, they are trying to warn us that they will not tolerate even the mildest criticism," she said.

Iranian authorities are reluctant to answer specific questions about the treatment of women. Several officials and lawmakers approached by the AP to talk about the issue refused to be interviewed.

But Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei recently pointed a finger at women activists when he claimed that "the enemy's new strategy is to finance and organize various groups under the cover of women's or student movements."

The aim, he told a state news agency, is to depict the government as incompetent and to turn people against it.

Abbasgholizadeh is a 48-year-old mother of two daughters, a matronly divorcee with a fringe of chestnut hair peeking from under her shawl. Her story highlights her change of fortune since the days when Khatami was president and reformists were gaining influence in Iran.

Then she had Khatami's ear through the Center for Women's Participation, a government office set up to promote women's rights, and wrote a report for the president on the state of women in Iran.

One of Ahmadinejad's first actions was to replace the office with one called "the Center for Women and Family Affairs" -- a renaming that seems to reflect his conviction that a woman's place is primarily in the home.

Under Ahmadinejad, Web access has been curbed, almost all liberal newspapers have been shut, and activists say they are under closer surveillance and often summoned for questioning.

Women say they have borne the brunt of the onslaught.

Abbasgholizadeh and other reformists have waged a lengthy battle against laws that permit death by stoning for women accused of adultery, the practice of polygamy, employment laws that favor men, and family laws that deny divorcees full custody of their children and entitle them to half the inheritance a man can receive.

But far from backing down, Ahmadinejad's government has turned its crackdown to colleges.

It is drafting a law to limit women students to half the places in college instead of the 65% they now occupy. It is also restricting women's entry to medical schools, arguing that they put a strain on limited -- and sexually segregated -- dormitory and transportation facilities.

Women working for the government must leave by 6 p.m. to get home to their families.

And once again, with the arrival of summer, authorities are cracking down on women for not covering up enough. Police say more than 200 women have been arrested this year and released only after promising to dress more conservatively.

On April 2, five activists were arrested in a Tehran park for collecting signatures calling for changes to laws that discriminate against women. Two of them, Fariba Davoudi Mohajer and Sussan Tahmasebi, are under sentences of six months and a year respectively, and are free pending court appeals. Another, Azadeh Forghani, received a suspended two-year sentence.

Under Iranian law, suspended sentences can be implemented if a judge determines that a defendant has broken any law during the next five years.

On June 12 last year, police broke up a Tehran gathering of more than 5,000 women demanding reforms. Seventy people were arrested and five organizers were charged.

Last Tuesday, the Revolutionary Court imposed prison terms on three of the women from that rally. Nusheen Ahmadi Khorasani, Shahla Entesari and Parvin Ardalan were ordered to serve six months in prison, with 2 1/2 years suspended.

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