Equal Rights Protest Is First in Iran Since 1979

From Associated Press

Hundreds of Iranian women marked International Women's Day on Saturday with a demonstration demanding equal social and political rights, a first in this conservative, male-dominated country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The women, wearing the head scarves and long garments required by law, rallied in a central park in Tehran, the capital. They were accompanied by a small group of men.

Watching the protest was a large contingent of police, including about 400 women who in January became the first females to undergo police training since 1979.

"Half of the votes cast in favor of lawmakers were by women. How can you fail to recognize and support the rights of your wives, mothers and sisters? Why aren't women given top managerial or ministerial posts?" activist Zohreh Arzani asked the gathering.

Some women held up signs denouncing violence by men and a war on Iraq.

Women have been strong supporters of Iran's reform movement, which seeks to change the Islamic government's tight social and political restrictions.

Although the reformist-dominated parliament has lifted a ban on unmarried women studying abroad, other bills supporting women's rights have been rejected by the nation's hard-line Guardian Council, which must approve all legislation before it becomes law.

Under the strict form of Islamic law used in Iran, a woman needs her husband's permission to work or travel abroad. A man's court testimony is considered twice as important as a woman's. Men can keep four spouses at once, a right not granted to women.

And though Iranian men can divorce almost at will, a woman seeking a divorce must go through a long legal battle and often relinquish rights in return.

"How can we celebrate this day when our women are not entitled to choose their husbands, are not allowed to demand divorce and get just half the blood money a man gets?" protest organizer Noushin Ahmadi said, referring to the practice of giving the family of a female murder victim about half the average compensation paid to a male victim's relatives.

Despite being restricted from the highest political posts, Iranian women -- 31.1 million of the nation's 66 million people -- enjoy greater freedoms and political rights than women in many Arab states, including the right to vote and hold public office.

President Mohammad Khatami, elected in 1997, appointed a woman as one of his vice presidents.

Other women have been appointed to top government posts but not Cabinet positions.

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