Prague, 14 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Technically, all that's preventing Iranian women from running in the country's presidential elections is the interpretation of a single word.
"Rejal," which comes from Arabic, means "personalities." Iran's constitution says the president should be elected from among "religious and political personalities."
Many argue that "rejal" also includes women. But Iran's Guardian Council, which has the authority to interpret the constitution, says the word refers exclusively to men.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi told Radio Farda that the interpretation deprives women of one of their rights.
"Unfortunately, according to the Guardian Council's interpretation, the world 'rejal' is only limited to men; therefore, women are deprived (of the right) of being elected," Ebadi said. "This is one of the major problems of Iran's presidential elections: half of Iran's population is deprived of a social right."
During the campaign leading up to the country's 17 June vote, 89 women defied a ban and registered to run for president. But all were rejected on the basis of gender, including a conservative member of parliament and the daughter of a prominent cleric.
Women's groups and activists reacted by staging a protest on 2 June. The protesters said that "when women, half of the country's population, cannot be elected as president, they should not be expected to participate in the elections vastly either."
Fariba Davoudi-Mohajer, a journalist, was among the protesters in Tehran.
"After women registered, Mr. Jahromi, a Guardian Council deputy, said in an interview that since women lack the necessary understanding and discernment, we cannot get them involved in important state affairs," Davoudi-Mohajer said. "The question that came to our mind was: how come women were good when they were sending their children to the fronts; women are good enough to vote for these gentlemen; but when it comes to being elected, they lack understanding and competency? When they don't recognize our identity, we don't recognize them either."
An Iranian website devoted to women's issues (www.womeniniran.org) recently published a list of female presidents around the world. It says: "This list includes women who as president have served their people in many countries. Why should Iran be an exception?"
Women played a major role in the election of President Mohammad Khatami, who had promised more rights for women. During the current presidential campaign, most candidates have expressed support for women's rights. But there is concern that the promises of more rights and equal opportunities will be forgotten soon after the polls.
Several prominent women, including Shirin Ebadi and Simin Behabahani, whom many consider Iran's greatest living poet, have said they will not vote.
Davoudi-Mohajer, who has also decided to stay away from the polls, says many women activists have decided not to endorse any of the candidates.
Women know that any president -- regardless of gender -- can do little to change their status in a country whose laws discriminate against women.
"We came to the conclusion that we will not have a stance toward any of the candidates," Davoudi-Mohajer said. "We have announced our demands for years through the press, media and websites. Because of that you can see that all of them have an adviser on women's issues, they have appointed women as their spokespeople, and that's because of the social pressure created by the women's movement. It has forced them to become sensitive regarding women's demands."
Women's demands are not limited to their right of being allowed to run in the country's presidential elections.
Women know that any president -- regardless of gender -- can do little to change their status in a country whose laws discriminate against women. Women need the permission of their father or husband to travel. A woman's testimony in court is considered to be half the value of a man's. Women's divorce rights are not equal to those of men.
So activists are calling for a change in the country's constitution, which they say does not ensure equal rights for women.
"For example, Article 19 of the constitution says that all people of Iran are equal regarding their color, ethnicity, and language," Davoudi-Mohajer said. "But it doesn't say that the people of Iran are equal regarding their gender. In fact, we can come to a logical conclusion that in Iran's constitution, women and men are not equal. We think that the reform of the constitution can bring structural changes."
On 12 June, up to 1,000 women and men staged a protest in front of Tehran's university. They chanted slogans in favor of women's rights and called for the country's laws to be changed to conform to international human rights agreements.
Women's rights advocates have said they will continue their peaceful protests until their demands are met.
(This is the first of a three-part series on Iran's June 17 presidential elections. Radio Farda correspondent Nazi Azima contributed to this report)See also:
Iran: Bombings May Be Connected With Minorities, Election
See "Iran Votes 2005" for full coverage of Iran's 17 June presidential election.