Iran's rising conservatives roll back women's rights

Associated Press

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.

It was their trial that brought Abbasgholizadeh's group out in protest and landed them in Evin prison. All were soon released except Abbasgholizadeh and her lawyer, Shadi Sadr.

Abbasgholizadeh said discrimination extended even into her prison cell: Male prisoners got to smoke and drink tea as much as they liked, but women were limited to two cigarettes and two cups of tea a day. Men could exercise in sunshine; women got their 15 minutes outdoors at sunset.

She was never physically abused, she said, but had to endure what she called "white tortures" -- no bed or mattress in her 6-foot-by-9-foot cell, just blankets; a fluorescent light that was never turned off; a tiny barred window near the ceiling that admitted a thin ray of light. And always, a deathly silence.

She had to visit the bathroom blindfolded. Denied TV or radio, she was given only a Koran to read, and she couldn't call home until a day or two before her release on March 19.

Still, she said it was better than the previous time she was in Evin, for about a month in 2005 for attending a foreign-organized conference. Then her cell was too small to stand up in, she recalled.

This time, she said, she endured five interrogations, always by the same Intelligence Ministry man who has handled her case for years.

An educated man, he sat before her in a small soundproof room and always asked the same questions: How many trips had she made, and why? Who paid for them? How much money had she received from overseas? What did she spend it on? Who attended her women's rights workshops?

Abbasgholizadeh said she had nothing to hide: She confirmed making trips abroad and said her organization received money from a Dutch foundation, described how it was spent, and said her workshops were held in small towns and villages with six to 12 participants at a time.

She said experience had taught her to give brief answers; "No need to tell your whole life story."

After days of solitude and silence, Abbasgholizadeh heard a friendly voice: Her lawyer, calling out from Cell No. 24.

"Mahboubeh, are you here? Are you OK?" Sadr asked.

"Yes, I am well," Abbasgholizadeh replied through the metal windowless door of Cell No. 12.

It was the first time they had spoken since their arrest.

Immediately, a female warden stormed into her cell, telling her she was disturbing other inmates.

Abbasgholizadeh said she exploded at the guard. "I can't talk, I can't walk, I can't look," she shouted. "Why don't you tell me not to breathe too?"

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Legal imbalance

Iran's penal code is strongly influenced by interpretations of Islam that favor men over women. Some examples:

* Girls are considered adults at age 9, can be tried as an adult in a criminal court and are liable to receive the death penalty for murder. Boys become adults at 15.

* If a man and a woman are injured in an accident, the man gets double the punitive damages.

* Although the legal age of marriage for a girl is 13, a father can make her marry earlier with court permission.

* Mothers may not act as the financial guardians of their children or make decisions regarding their children's residence, foreign travel or medical care. Women need permission from a father or husband to travel.

* Men have uncontested rights to divorce their wives and may practice polygamy. Polygamy is believed to be rare in urban areas but more prevalent among the poor and rural.

* Women receive half the inheritance of men.

* If a man dies childless, the totality of the inheritance goes to his parents, not his wife.

* Women can be stoned to death for adultery. Nine women are in jail sentenced to death by stoning. The sentence has been carried out once since 1998.

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Source: Associated Press

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