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Iran: The Kar Case, Part 2 -- Rights Advocate Details State Of Women's Issues

The international writers group PEN has issued an urgent call to human rights groups to support Iranian lawyer and women's rights advocate Mehrangiz Kar, who is on trial on charges of working against Iran's national security. PEN says it is seriously concerned for the health of Kar, who is ill with cancer and is reported to be forbidden to leave the country to seek treatment. In part 1 of a two-part feature, RFE/RL correspondent Azam Gorgin provided us with the background to the Kar case. In this second part, RFE/RL's Persian Service speaks with Kar on the state of women's rights in the country today.

Prague, 22 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Our Persian Service correspondent Ahmad Rafat telephoned Mehranguiz Kar this month in Tehran to ask her to evaluate the state of women's rights in Iran.

The issue of greater social freedoms was central to the 1997 campaign of President Mohammad Khatami, who gained massive support from moderates, young people and women.

Our correspondent asked Kar to what extent women's rights have improved since Khatami's election. Kar said that she has been disappointed that the past four years have not seen greater progress.

"Though I emphatically believe in the President, and from the beginning I quite liked him and felt that he is of undeniable high moral standing, I am sorry to say that I have not seen a fundamental change in the position of women in any way-- family or workplace."

Kar said that Khatami has had to confront strong resistance from Islamic hard-liners and that women's rights have become secondary to other social issues.

"Of course, you can always say that he (Khatami) has been confronted by elements of forceful resistance, and that he has been so overwhelmed by problems on all other fronts. [What was] most important in Iran after Second Khordad (Khatami's May 1997 election) -- most essential and fundamental -- was to confront political suppression and oppression as a basic daily struggle. Women's issues were forgotten or became secondary to all other issues."

The women's rights advocate also noted that, although Khatami has made an important appointment of a woman to advise him on women's issues, he has stopped short of naming any women ministers.

"Mr. Khatami, in some of his speeches, talked several times of women's political value and the necessity of their presence in society. In his cabinet, he named a woman as his deputy -- the first after the revolution -- [that is, he] named a woman to a position as a consultant on women's issues, but not as a minister. Hence we still don't have a woman minister -- even though, according to many of our theologians, a woman's working as minister is not contrary to religion or law."

Kar said that appointing women to more top positions would help to ease inequalities which continue to plague Iranian women in the workplace.

"Women are constantly confronted with many obstacles, one of which is the emphasis on segregation. Women try very hard not to participate in many meetings with men, fearing they might be regarded with suspicion, which could be detrimental to their positions." At home, women also face serious legal inequalities should their marriage end in divorce. Kar says that among the most feared of these are laws which give fathers far greater custody rights over children than mothers have.

"Women in Iran are in the position of being mothers with no rights to make important decisions about their children -- such as permitting a child to leave the country, or having a say in a child's inheritance. Mothers have [limited] custody of a child in Iran -- boys up to age three and girls up to age seven. After the age [limit], if a father so decides, the child will be taken from the mother and custody given to the father."

But Kar said she is not deterred in the struggle for greater social rights in Iran, which she sees as one with ancient roots. "There is now a struggle in Iran -- we are not living in ideal, comfortable times. This struggle is very important. In Iran, dictatorship is very old, ancient. During many centuries, we have known, faced and dealt with dictatorship. And, of course, for bringing light into the tunnels of dictatorship, prices have been paid and will be paid."

Kar insists that it is necessary to persevere in the fight -- although the price she is paying in the struggle is clearly a very high one.