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Iran: Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws Marks First Year

Iranian women at an Internet cafe in Tehran (file photo) (AFP) August 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A campaign by Iranian women's rights advocates to gather 1 million signatures to protest discriminatory laws marked its first anniversary this week.

Organizers of the "One Million Signatures" campaign hope to pressure lawmakers and demonstrate that many Iranians are unhappy with gender discrimination in Islamic law as it is applied in Iran.

They hope to change mindsets and achieve equality before the law despite government pressure.

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran's leading modern poets, was among the first people to join the campaign. She thinks believes campaigners have been successful so far in bringing women's rights issues to the attention of Iranian society and the international community.

"We have been able to contact a big number of people [and] we have talked to many women and gained their support," Behbahani says. "I think this is a major achievement. We had to do something to get decision-makers and the world to hear our demands. I believe that Iranian women should exercise their rights as soon as possible."

The campaign targets laws that organizers say treat women like second-class citizens and deny them equal rights in divorce, inheritance, child custody, and other areas.

It includes 400-500 volunteers who have been collecting signatures online and in person in public places like parks and beauty salons.

Organizers told RFE/RL that they are opting not to say how many signatures they have gathered since the campaign began a year ago.

The campaign followed a peaceful protest in Tehran in June 2006 against discriminatory laws, during which some 70 people were arrested.

Quiet Pressure

Since then, government pressure on women's rights advocates and campaign members has continued. A number of campaigners have been threatened, summoned to court, charged with security crimes, and sentenced to prison in recent months. The campaign's website has been also blocked several times.

But campaign participants remain determined to push their fight against gender discrimination in Iranian law.

Poet Behbahani says rights activists know that they need to withstand pressure in order to succeed in their effort.

"So far, five of the people who were gathering signatures have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to several days, and they've been under pressure," she says. "Some are facing suspended prison sentences. This is not important for the campaign members -- we will do our best and continue our work, and I hope we will succeed."

Activists campaigning for gender equality in Iran have been accused of seeking a "velvet revolution" and receiving money from the United States and other countries.

State pressure on women's rights activists comes amid a broader crackdown on students, intellectuals, and workers.

Concerns In Tehran

Nayereh Tohidi, professor of women's studies and chair of the Women's Studies Department at California State University, Northridge, tells RFE/RL that one of the reasons for the increasing pressure on the women's movement is the Iranian government's view of security.

Tohidi says international and U.S. pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program and its role in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to concern among Iranian leaders, who have taken a tougher line on dissent.

"Women are collecting signatures in public places," Tohidi says. "This is the most peaceful and transparent way to express civic demands. Being afraid of this shows the weakness and lack of self-confidence of that establishment."

Tohidi says that what she describes as a close relationship between the current Iranian government and hard-line clerics is contributing to the pressure on women's rights activists.

Marking the first anniversary of the "One Million Signatures" campaign on August 27, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi said she has asked the United Nations to investigate the situation of women in Iran. She said about 50 people have been detained in the past year for involvement in women's rights protests.

Iranian officials deny accusations of discrimination and say women in Iran enjoy equal rights.

Activists counter that Iran is a male-dominated society where -- because of the laws -- women face difficulties in getting divorces and a woman's testimony in court is worth half that of a man.

More Than Names

Campaigners have given themselves two years to reach their goal of 1 million signatures.

But Tohidi thinks there is more to the campaign than collecting names.

"It's not important how many signatures they gather," Tohidi says. "It's symbolic -- what is important is that [campaign members] have learned to talk to people face to face, to teach people and to learn from them. They learn about people's attitudes regarding these issues -- what do they think? [Or] whether [women's issues] are among their priorities. So the main purpose of this movement is to raise awareness and promote equality ideas. It is in fact about building civil society."

Campaigners have said that after the signature drive, the next phase of their drive would focus on proposing news laws.

(Radio Farda's Tara Atefi contributed to this report from Washington)

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