Worldview Commentary No. 279 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

“Iran: Women Struggling for Rights”

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Today, in Stockholm, Sweden, the Olof Palme Prize will be awarded to Iranian women’s rights activist Parvin Ardalan. Granted annually to outstanding defenders of justice and equality, the Palme Prize for 2007 goes to Ms. Ardalan because she has “succeeded in making the demand for equal rights for men and women a central part of the struggle for democracy in Iran.”

Coming two days before International Women’s Day on March 8, the Prize is well-timed. It is also well-deserved: Ms. Ardalan was a founding member of Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign, which gathers signatures on a petition for equal rights for women, in matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

Like many other Iranian women’s rights activists, Ms. Ardalan has faced legal persecution. A journalist and author, she has seen several women’s publications for which she writes closed down by Iranian authorities.

After organizing a demonstration in 2006, she was convicted last year of acting against national security. She was sentenced to six months in prison, plus 30 months suspended for five years. She is currently free pending her appeal.

During her trial last March, a peaceful protest was held outside the courtroom. Along with 30 other women, she was again arrested. She was charged this time with “gathering and colluding with the intent to harm national security, disturbing public order and disobeying police orders.” The charges against her remain pending.

There is only one problem with the Palme Prize ceremony: Ms. Ardalan is not there. After boarding a plane en route to Stockholm last Sunday, she was removed by Iranian authorities. Her passport was confiscated for 72 hours – just long enough to miss the award ceremony.

Ms. Ardalan’s plight is not the worst one facing Iranian women’s rights activists. Journalist Maryam Hosseinkhah was jailed last November for a month and a half, for her advocacy in support of the Million Signatures Campaign, until she was freed on bail.

Last year journalist Jelveh Javahari published articles demanding respect for rights supposedly guaranteed to women by the Iranian Constitution. In December she was arrested on charges of “disturbing public opinion,” “publishing false information” and “publicity against the Iranian Republic.” She was jailed for a month, until she, too, was able to post bail.

Iranian Kurdish women’s rights activists Ronak Safarzadeh and Hana Abdi have been even less fortunate. Arrested last October and November for working on the Million Signatures Campaign, they remain in prison even now, without charge or trial.

Why the crackdown on women’s rights activists? The conservative Mullahs who currently control most State institutions in Iran disagree, of course, with the activists’ support for equal rights for women. In their view, Islamic law – the Sharia – requires that women be treated differently by, for example, making a woman’s testimony in court worth only half that of a man.

Western women’s rights advocates, the Mullahs argue, are hypocritical. Western women, they say, are treated as sex objects and exploited for commercial marketing.

The Iranian women’s rights movement responds that in a country where girls under age 13 can be required to marry older men, and where women cannot be judges or other high officials, women lack equal rights.

Many Muslims disagree over the correct interpretation of Islamic law. The problem in Iran is that the conservatives in power are trying to close down this debate. Debate itself is made a crime. Not only journalists, but entire publications are targeted: As of October the authorities had suspended 42 publications and cancelled 24 publishing licenses since 2005.

Efforts to silence the women’s rights movement are, in turn, part of a broader struggle over democracy in Iran. In parliamentary elections set for next week, conservative clerics have disqualified 70% of the candidates. Even the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini protests the scale of disqualifications.

Presidential elections will come next year. Conservatives are apprehensive. Even with world oil prices at record heights, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad manages to burden his people with food shortages, high unemployment and ever higher inflation.

If moderates win the elections, there will be pressure to reopen shuttered publications, such as the moderate monthly magazine Zanan – “women” in Persian – which was closed in January after 16 years of publication. Prosecutors may feel pressure to drop the hyped-up charges against women like Parvin Ardalan, and to release the women still in prison for peacefully campaigning for equal rights.

Who knows? Even Iran’s discriminatory laws might be reformed. Consider the call by former Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Abadi, the Iranian women’s rights lawyer, who served as a judge until the Mullahs barred women from the judiciary. Iran, she says proudly, is a “nation bursting with female ability. … but one hobbled by legalized prejudice and social bigotry. Now more than ever the women of Iran deserve our support.”

Amen.


Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.