Page last updated at 15:08 GMT, Friday, 5 September 2008 16:08 UK

Iranian women battle the system

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Tehran

Parvin Ardalan, women's rights activist (Photo:
Parvin Ardalan was blocked from travelling abroad to receive an award

Four more women in Iran have been sentenced to jail - six months behind bars - for campaigning for women's rights.

They were accused of "spreading propaganda" against the Islamic system here - specifically for taking part in the Million Signatures Campaign for equal rights for women.

One of those sentenced, Parvin Ardalan, was awarded the Olof Palme Prize this year - on her way to collect the honour, her passport was seized at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Teheran, and she was unable to travel.

She had to accept the award by video-link.

An estimated 50 women have been detained since the signatures campaign began.


Women in Iran have severely restricted freedom of choice, and no equality with men.

A married woman should obtain her husband's approval before taking a job outside their home.

A man may have up to four wives. A woman may not have up to four husbands.

There is little protection against so-called 'honour killings' for women who are raped; a husband - or a father - who kills the rape victim may face only a short jail sentence.

"This is inhuman," a law professor at Teheran University, Rosa Gharachorloo, told me

God forbid that the Majlis should add another problem to the existing problems of women

Ayatollah Yusef Sanai

Most of the people I have spoken to here agree: they believe rape victims should be comforted, not killed.

Women must observe the Islamic Dress Code - whether they are religiously observant or not. So all women must dress 'modestly' - showing as little hair as possible, and their arms, their legs and their feet must be covered.

Women can be stopped and inspected by Gasht-e-Ershad, police Guidance Patrols.

They are often seen outside main metro stations in Teheran, checking women for hair or dress infringements.

They can also go to parks, to ensure that couples sitting or walking together are married, engaged or related.

Significant victory

Feminists in Iran celebrated a significant victory for their cause at the end of August.

In the Majlis - the Iranian parliament - legislation that might have encouraged polygamy was sent back to committee for more discussion.

Article 23 of the Family Support Bill would have allowed men to marry a second wife without the permission of the first.

Women in the park in Tehrn (Photo Hugh Sykes)
Patrols check women are keeping to strict dress codes

Although polygamy is legal in Iran, it is not widely practised and, Rosa Gharaachorloo told me, not generally accepted in Iranian culture.

So, opposition to the bill was on principle, not because it is a widespread phenomenon.

The same is the case with honour killings - they are not common here, but women's rights campaigners believe rape victims should nevertheless be protected by law.

The polygamy article may have been shelved indefinitely - the campaign against it revealed an improbable alliance of opponents.

As well as feminists, the speaker of the Majlis expressed his reservations.

And Ayatollah Yusef Sanai, a leading source of what is known as "emulation" of the Prophet and his teachings, wrote on his website that a second marriage without the permission of the first wife is "harram, a sin, a religious offence... contrary to the concept of justice prescribed by the Koran".

He went on: "I pray that such a decision that is oppressive to women will not be made into law... God forbid that the Majlis should add another problem to the existing problems of women."

Women's rights campaigners welcomed that strong and unexpected acknowledgment of their complaints.

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