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Women Call For Gender Equality Ahead Of Iran's Presidential Vote

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has said that women in Iran enjoy the highest level of freedom.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has said that women in Iran enjoy the highest level of freedom.
Former lawmaker and journalist Azam Taleghani is one of two women to have announced plans to run in Iran's presidential election in June.

In the unlikely event Taleghani were to become president, she would encounter obstacles not often associated with a head of state.

To attend state functions abroad, for example, she would need her husband's permission to leave the country.

If she were to testify before a court, her testimony would be worth half that of a man, and she would still not have equal divorce or
inheritance rights.

Iranian presidential candidate Azam Taleghani
This is because, despite her status as the holder of the country's highest office, Taleghani would still be a woman, making her subject to the same forms of legal discrimination faced by all women in the Islamic republic.

The disparity between the sexes has led Taleghani and a number of other women's rights advocates and prominent figures such as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi to call on presidential candidates to put equality for women on their agendas.

They have created a new coalition that includes secular members, national religious activists, former lawmakers, journalists, student activists, and others.

Joining the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and changing Iran's Constitution in order to include gender equality "without any conditions" are their main demands.

'Relatively Open Atmosphere'

Women's rights activists see the "relatively open atmosphere" in the run-up to the June 12 election as a good opportunity to renew their demands for equal rights.

Marzieh Mortazi Langarudi, one of the members of the new coalition, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that activists hope to increase awareness of the forms of discrimination women face in Iran.

They have learned that they should set their demands in a way that can be measured.
"It makes the candidates committed and brings their attention to women's demands," Langarudi says. "At the same time, it increases the demands in the society and in a way it helps the [democratization process]."

Activists fighting against legal discrimination in Iran have come under growing state pressure in the past four years and a number of them have been summoned to court, harassed, and detained. Several have even been jailed.

A leading women's magazine was closed down last year for "offering a dark picture of the Islamic republic" and for "compromising the psyche and the mental health" of its readers.

Activists says there have also been attempts by the government to keep women at home and limit their role in society, despite the fact that women account for more than 60 percent of students attending university.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has said that women in Iran enjoy the highest level of freedom.

In a comment made in 2005 during his election campaign, Ahmadinejad said that women's adherence to strict rules on dress and appearance, including that their hair be hidden, should not be an issue. Yet following his election, the crackdown on dress intensified, resulting in many women being detained and harassed for not respecting the full Islamic hijab.

Ways That Can Be Measured

Bahareh Hedayat, a women's rights campaigner and member of Iran's largest pro-reform student group, tells RFE/RL that Ahmadinejad's presidency has demonstrated that women cannot rely on election promises alone.

"It actually served as a good experience among women's rights activists and also among others who are fighting for their rights," Hedayat says. "They have learned that they should set their demands in a way that can be measured."

Bahareh Hedayat
Hedayat said women's rights activists are calling on presidential candidates to announce concrete plans for giving women equal rights. She said they have not endorsed any of the candidates.

Hedayat and other women's rights advocates want several articles of Iran's Constitution to be amended, with the principle of unconditional gender equality to be included in them. Among the changes sought is an addition to Article 21 stating that "the government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria."

Some critics believe that such changes under the current Islamic establishment are not realistic. The president has limited power and the real power is in the hands of bodies controlled by the conservatives.

But activists believe a serious commitment to women's rights by the country's future government could lead to positive changes.

Powerful Guardians Council

During a press conference last week in which the activists laid out their demands, presidential candidate Taleghani said that some officials see women as "slaves and second-class citizens."

Taleghani, the daughter of a prominent ayatollah, has previously attempted to run for president, but in the end was disqualified by the powerful Guardians Council that must approve each election candidate.

In 2005, all 89 women who registered to run for president were rejected, including a conservative member of parliament. The Guardians Councils effectively said that women cannot run for the presidency, citing a passage in Iran's Constitution that says the president should be elected from among "religious and political rejal."

Rejal is an Arabic word that means "personalities." While many say "rejal" includes women, the Guardians Council has said in the past that the word refers only to men.

However, this year a spokesman from that same oversight body said that there are no "legal restraints" preventing women from seeking presidential office.

Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Khadkhodayi was quoted as saying on April 11 that the council "has never disqualified candidates only because they have been men or women," and that disqualifications resulted only from potential candidates failing to have the necessary qualifications.

Some welcomed the comment, while others remain skeptical.

"The question is, why in the past 30 years has no woman been deemed qualified by the Guardians Council to run as a candidate
in a presidential election?" asks women's rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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