An Iranian parliamentary committee has approved in the first reading a controversial draft law that allows men to take a second wife, a bill that women's rights activists have dubbed the "Antifamily Bill."
The fierce debate on the bill highlights rising social tensions in Iran, where the hard-line government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is increasingly targeting women's rights activists.
The bill, officially known as the Bill to Protect the Family, has been on the table in parliament for years, the subject of seemingly endless revision and debate. The controversial clause that gives men the right to have another spouse without the first wife's approval was actually laid aside by the previous parliament because of strong opposition from women's rights activists.
But this time, it was passed quietly by the Legal and Judicial Committee and only became public news after "Etemad," an independent newspaper, reported it. The government reportedly insisted on adding the marriage clause to the bill.
Reaction has been swift and broad. Not only women's rights activists, but some religious leaders have also have criticized the bill, questioning the wisdom of purporting to interpret Islamic law and morals.
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of parliament and activist, tells Radio Farda that the bill hurts rather than helps Iranian families. "This bill, unfortunately, doesn't give any answer to the present needs of society and families," she says. "Also, it is silent about the [problem of] temporary marriages, which is in a deplorable situation."
For his part, Musa Ghorbani, a member of the Legal and Judicial Committee, has said no one should dare oppose the bill, as it is in accordance with Shari'a law, has government support, and was approved in its first reading by the Majlis, or parliament.
Until now, Iranian law has banned men from taking a second wife without the approval of the first wife. The new bill gives married men the right to marry another woman without any need to solicit the first wife's permission.
Dealing with such issues is only one part of the ongoing struggle of Iranian women's rights activists. In recent years, scores of women activists have been prosecuted and at least three of them, including Hana Abdi and Ronak Safazadeh of the One Million Signatures Campaign, remain in prison.
The two women, from the ethnic-Kurdish city of Sanandaj in western Iran, are accused of having contacts with a militant Kurdish rebel group, allied with Turkey's notorious Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Their lawyers and human rights groups reject that accusation, which carries the threat of heavy sentences. They believe such accusations are leveled at women activists to discourage them from participating in collective, nonviolent action.
A third member of the signature campaign, Mahboobeh Karami, is also being held in prison without any specific charge. Her lawyer says that she was arrested while protesting a police officer's beating of a peaceful demonstrator.
Women Activists Increasingly Targeted
Last week, in an unprecedented case, an attorney became herself the accused. Nasrin Sotudeh, a prominent female lawyer and activist, was summoned to the revolutionary court along with her client, Mansooreh Shojaee. They were accused of "undermining national security through suspicious contacts with the Iranian diaspora." Their alleged crime involves an attempt to attend an event last March in Dubai marking International Women's Day.
Shrin Ebadi, the human rights lawyer and Nobel Prize winner, has expressed dismay over how Sotudeh -- who used to spend hours each day in front of Tehran's infamous Evin prison, waiting to visit clients, haggle with interrogators, and defend clients in court -- has suddenly found herself in a revolutionary court, charged with a first-degree offense.
Sotudeh says that she is completely confused about the affair, which she believes is illegal. She says that no reason for her arrest has been given, and that she and her client "are accused of having relations with foreigners and Iranians who live outside the country. Basically, in our set of laws, there is no such crime. I am Ms. Shojaee's attorney and I have professional immunity by law; but the prosecutor of the revolutionary court summoned me as an accused person. This makes the defense of all women's rights activists, including my client, much more difficult."
Human rights organizations in Iran say the women's movement has come under enormous pressure in recent years and that civil campaigns such as the One Million Signatures Campaign, which aims to achiever greater gender equality, have become prime government targets.
To support the defense of women's rights in Iran, some nongovernmental organizations and Iranian studies societies outside the country have nominated the "Iranian Women's Right Movement" collectively to receive the 2008 UN Human Rights Prize, a prestigious award that is given out every five years on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It will be awarded this year in December, and past winners include Martin Luther King and Amnesty International.
Roya Kashefi of the Society of Iranian Researchers, a nongovernmental activist group based in Paris, says that the women's movement in Iran deserves to receive such a coveted prize. "It is the 60th anniversary of the international human rights charter, 40 years since this award was established and granted for the first time on December 10, 1968," Kashefi notes. "And we are also at the threshold of 30th anniversary of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Ironically, among the first group of recipients of the UN Human Rights Prize in 1968 was a female Iranian lawyer, Mehranguiz Manutchehrian.
Radio Farda's Parnaz Azima contributed to this report