Iranian Regime Erases Progress on Women's Rights; Fundamentalists Enforce Traditional Sex Roles under Harsh Penalties

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

Iranian Regime Erases Progress on Women's Rights; Fundamentalists Enforce Traditional Sex Roles under Harsh Penalties


Byline: Xin Li, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Despite Interna tional Women's Day celebrations today, women in Iran still struggle for basic rights.

The country's conservative authorities forbid women from simple activities such as watching the World Cup qualifying soccer game live in a stadium.

More prominent are restrictions on their legal and civil rights.

Women in Iran can inherit only half as much of their parents' wealth as their brothers.

Their husbands can marry more than one woman, and automatically get custody of children after a divorce. Women can be jailed or hanged for defying the dress code, and they can be stoned to death for adultery.

Since the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, the fundamentalist governments dominated by clerics have stressed the traditional role of women and restricted their civil rights and participation in political activities.

"The changes of women's conditions are very minor, only about surface things. But the limitations on basic rights and the legislation infrastructure haven't been changed at all," said Mahnaz Afkhami, president of Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington.

Iranian women are better-educated and more politically sophisticated than many of their Muslim neighbors. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization reports that the literacy rate of Iranian women is 70 percent, compared with an average 46.2 percent in the Middle East.

A large number of Iranian women hold professional jobs in journalism, medicine or law, or become human-rights activists. Up to 70 percent of university students in Iran are female, said Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Squelched opportunities

Women's active engagement in society, however, has been met with increasing oppression from the regime.

In June, Iran's Guardian Council, a conservative constitutional watchdog, barred all 81 female presidential candidates on the basis of their sex. Women are beaten or jailed for wearing clothes or makeup regarded as insufficiently modest, the State Department said in a 2004 human-rights report.

Islamic countries have various interpretations of religious law, resulting in different levels of sex disparities, but the authority of Islamic law cannot be changed easily. Eleven countries have Islam as a source of legislation, and 21 others have religious clauses in their laws, said Mohamed Mattar, a law professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Much has changed within the Islamic framework, Mr. Mattar said. "There might be some gender inequalities by international-rights standard, but it's up to interpretation. You can interpret it in a way to protect women's rights."

The marriageable age for Iranian women can be a barometer of progress toward equal rights.

The pro-Western Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, instituted the Family Protection Law in 1967 that raised the marriageable age of women to 18.

Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979, ending more than 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. He canceled the law, announced that women no longer could be judges, and segregated beaches and sports by sex. The marriageable age was reduced to 9.

In 1997, massive support from women made Mohammed Khatami, a moderate clergyman and reformist, president, said Azar Nafisi, a writer and literary scholar at Johns Hopkins University.

Reforms that were carried out included raising the marriageable age of girls to 13 and referring divorces to the court system. But Mr. Khatami was unable to challenge the religious power, and his reforms fell short of the expectations of many Iranians and encountered a setback with the presidential election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year. …

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