As a college student some 20 years ago, Gisoo briefly fell in love -- and got married. Yet there was no honeymoon. Shortly after the wedding, her husband made her quit studying and stay home. Ever since, he has made virtually every important decision in her life. Her husband even moved the family out of her native Tehran without consulting Gisoo. Now, she would like nothing more than a divorce -- but the price would be high.
According to Iranian law, if a woman initiates a divorce, she loses her right to a share of the family's property. She would also lose access to her kids, because fathers get custody of all children over the age of 7. In short, Gisoo would be left virtually homeless -- with no money, no kids, and no decent job, given her interrupted studies.
Now, women's activists from across Iran are rallying to defend women like Gisoo, who are the victims of daily abuses of their human rights. But in perhaps a sign of the challenge that their drive, the One Million Signatures Campaign, represents to Tehran's clerical regime, authorities have cracked down hard on the grassroots movement, detaining scores of its activists in recent weeks and months and accusing them of endangering national security.Campaign To End Discrimination
Members of the signature campaign, which started in August 2006, say they want to change what they call inequitable laws -- such as polygamy, unequal legal compensation for men and women, and different ages of criminal responsibility for boys and girls (15 for boys, 9 for girls). Their goal is to present a petition with 1 million signatures urging parliament to change such laws.
Jelveh Javaheri, a 30-year-old Internet journalist, recently became the fourth activist of the movement to be arrested and jailed since October. On December 1, the Revolutionary Court in Tehran charged her with inciting public opinion, propaganda against the state, and the publication of false information on websites. She's being held at Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
Another member of the campaign, Maryam Hosseinkhah, was sent to Evin in November on similar charges and is awaiting trial, while Delaram Ali was sentenced earlier in the month to a prison term and flogging. The authorities requested the equivalent of $105,000 in bail for Hosseinkhah's release -- a sum her family says it cannot afford.
Since its start, criminal cases have now been slapped on a total of some 40 campaign members.
And yet, the movement insists it is nonpolitical. Speaking to RFE/RL from Tehran, Khadija Moqaddam, a member, says the group merely seeks to promote equal rights for women. "It's a campaign that started a year and a half ago to change discriminatory laws against women," Moqaddam says. "Its activities include talking to people directly to broaden their general knowledge about the issue. We also are trying to collect 1 million signatures and pass them on to the parliament, and ask the parliament to change the discriminatory laws."
The campaigners say Iranian women are treated like "half-persons" under Islamic laws that first surfaced some 1,400 years ago. Still, campaigners say they are aware their counterparts in other Islamic societies, such as Saudi Arabia, probably face even worse discrimination.
Demonstrations by women's activists have been broken up quickly by police (kosoof.com)
Although women in Iran are required to follow an Islamic dress code, they have the right to work and vote, and participate in the country's political life. With some dress restrictions, Iranian women are able to take part in domestic and international sports competitions. And, unlike places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran does not bar women from driving cars by themselves.
However, women's rights activist Raha Askarizadeh says there are still many laws that restrict rights and freedom. "Iranian women have no right to divorce," Askarizadeh told RFE/RL from Tehran. "If they marry a foreigner, they lose their Iranian citizenship. Their right to inheritance is smaller than their brothers'. When her husband dies, the wife gets only one-eighth of his property."
Although Iranian officials have not officially criticized the campaign, its members came under pressure from authorities almost immediately after the movement was set up. At least 33 women -- with Javaheri and Hussienkhah among them -- were arrested in March for taking part in a peaceful protest. The women were eventually released.
In August, a court in Tehran sentenced two young female members of the campaign, Nasim Sarabandi and Fatemeh Dehdashti, to suspended prison terms. They were also found guilty of acting against the state by "spreading propaganda."
In October, Ronak Safarzadeh was reportedly arrested at her home in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province and is being held in a detention center at the local office of the Intelligence and Security Ministry. Shortly afterwards, in early November, the same office arrested another women's rights activist, 21-year-old Hana Abdi.
Both women are being held without formal charges and they have reportedly been denied access to a defense lawyer. Their families claim they have no information about Safarzadeh or Abdi's whereabouts.
The arrests have attracted international criticism and condemnation. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has called for an immediate release of the arrested women. And the European Parliament has strongly condemned the "dramatic increase in the repression of women" in Iran.
But Iranian women activists say they are concerned that the recent arrests are just the beginning of a wider crackdown on women, and that they will be followed with more arrests and convictions.
"With 10 or even 100 such arrests, Iranian authorities cannot silence those who fight for the most basic social rights," women's rights leader Khadija Muqadam told RFE/RL from Tehran. "That's because there are millions of women and men in Iran who share the same values as the arrested members of the One Million Signatures Campaign."