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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 March 2007, 08:24 GMT
Iranian women struggle for equality
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

My husband would beat the child and throw him aside
In the days before International Women's Day, 33 women were arrested in Tehran for peacefully protesting outside a court building. Thirty of them were subsequently released, but warned not to mark the day with protests.

Those detained include many of the big names of Iran's women's movement, who are calling for an end to discriminatory laws against women.

It is not hard to find women who have been caused great suffering by the law as it stands.

"This is my son just after he was born," say Forugh, looking through old photo albums in the tiny apartment where she lives alone.

Ali Reza is now seven and Forugh has not been able to see him for many months. When she separated from her husband the judge gave him custody of their child.

"From the moment he came home my husband used to start shouting until he left again," she remembers. "So many times it ended in a physical beating".

She says Ali Reza would come to her defence: "'Don't do anything to my mum,' he'd say. But he would beat the child and throw him aside".

Painful separation

The judge said Forugh could see Ali Reza for up to 12 hours a week, but they had to meet in a police station. It frightened the child so much she gave up.

Album of pictures of Forugh's son
Forugh lost her son, Ali Reza, and gets no support from the father
Now Forugh's ex-husband does not let them meet and even prevents them talking on the phone.

Forugh is worried about the damage it has done to Ali Reza.

"One time he came to see me after some months and I asked him: 'Do you feel bad that I separated from your father and you are far away from me?' He said: 'No. I could see how much daddy was bothering you'".

Forugh breaks down in tears.

Her story illustrates how the laws in Iran are weighted against women: the father automatically gets custody of a boy over two years of age or a girl over seven.

Forugh lost her child and got no financial support from her ex husband.

Fighting for justice

There are those trying to change things.

Parisa is approaching total strangers on the street and talking to them about the legal status of women.

She is collecting signatures for a petition asking for the repeal of Iranian religious laws that discriminate against women.

The campaign has struck a chord with many Iranian women like Mahnoush who are fed up with being second class citizens.

The judges do not consider the value and dignity of women. It's disgusting.

Mahnoush has just signed the petition and explains why: "I am protesting that in any instance I am considered only half a man... maybe I am more effective than a man so why should my rights be half his".

Her friend Shima has also signed because she says she has seen lots of women suffer, even her own mother when she divorced.

"The right to divorce is really ridiculous. I have seen women go and say their spouse is a drug addict and the judge says stay with him, at least he can support you. The judges do not consider the value and dignity of women. It's disgusting."

Surrounded by fear

Parisa is nervous being filmed collecting signatures.

She thinks plain clothes police are filming us from a parked car nearby even though she only arranged the meeting point at the last minute.

Some of her colleagues have been arrested while campaigning.

Parisa believes the authorities see them as a threat.

Parisa (right) collects signatures of petition
Collecting signatures continues despite fears of police harassment

"Officials don't want to listen to the women's movement because they think it's something that's come from the west," she explains.

She says the interesting thing is the rich, westernised women are less supportive of the campaign to change discriminatory laws than the poor and more conservative women.

Parisa thinks it is because less well off women cannot afford good lawyers when they run into trouble.

1,000,000 signatures

The one million signature campaign to change the law began with a peaceful protest last June in one of Iran's biggest squares.

Women activists sat on the grass and sang feminist songs.

Within minutes the police beat them and started firing tear gas and mace spray.

More than 70 people were arrested. Among them 20-two-year old student Delaram Ali who is now on trial.

"I am charged with acting against national security, disturbing public order and doing propaganda against the system, and having connections to illegal opposition groups," explains Delaram.

Officials don't want to listen to the women's movement

She says she spent three days in solitary confinement in Evin Jail after the police injured her hand in the protest last June.

Delaram is being defended by Iran's best known woman lawyer, Shireen Ebadi who won the Nobel peace prize for her human rights work.

Mrs Ebadi says Iranian law allows peaceful protests, that it is the police not the demonstrators who should be prosecuted for their violent action.

"We filed a complaint against the police. Unfortunately although 10 months has passed no representative of the police has come to reply to the complaint in spite of being asked to attend many times," she explains.

Mobile phone footage of a protest being held by women

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