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In Iran, women’s rights activists score victory on marriage legislation

Saturday 13 September 2008

Parliament shelves a bill that the activists say would have curtailed the rights of women. But four of their leaders are sentenced to prison for contributing to banned websites.


Los Angeles Times:

Female activists in Iran scored a rare but significant victory this week when parliament decided to shelve legislation that they said would have reduced the rights of women in marriage. But on Tuesday, a court sentenced four of their leaders to prison.

The four women were sentenced to six months for contributing to banned women’s websites, Shirin Ebadi, their lawyer, told news outlets. They were identified as Mariam Hossein-khah, Nahid Keshavarz, Jelveh Javaheri and Parvin Ardalan. Last week, Zeinab Bayzeydi, a women’s rights activist in western Iran, was sentenced to four years in prison. All five were involved in an international campaign, "One Million Signatures," to amass petitions demanding women’s rights in the Islamic Republic.

The legislation set aside Monday, titled The Family Protection Bill, was proposed by conservative lawmakers in July. It included changes to the family law that critics said were anything but protective of families.

The bill would have allowed husbands to get religiously sanctioned "temporary" marriages or take additional wives without the consent of their first spouses. In addition, divorced women would have to pay taxes on alimony.

Iranian women’s rights activists, nonprofit organizations and celebrities mustered their energy to fight the measure by pressuring lawmakers.

Though little discussed in official news media, the proposed changes became the talk of the country. Temporary marriages, called sigheh in Persian, are religiously sanctioned unions that can last as long as a lifetime or be as short as 30 minutes. They traditionally have been popular with male travelers or seminary students who find themselves far from their wives for long periods. But critics say sigheh in some cases allows men to skirt laws against prostitution.

Under Iranian law, a man can engage in polygamy if his wife or wives give consent. But polygamy is not popular in mainstream Iranian society and frowned upon except in certain rural or tribal areas.

On Aug. 31, about 100 women from all walks of society went to the parliament to discuss the danger embodied in the proposed articles. Among them were Ebadi, recipient of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize; Simin Behbahani, a poet; Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, a film director; Laleh Seddigh, a race car driver; and Elahe Koulaee, a former lawmaker.

They were backed by rights organizations, including Amnesty International, which issued a report calling on Iranian authorities to stop harassing activists trying to fight the bill.

But the measure also drew opposition from some unlikely quarters, including Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the conservative cleric who heads Iran’s judiciary. His office originally proposed new marriage legislation, but he had sharply criticized the version presented to lawmakers.

With little fanfare Monday, the parliament, or Majlis, opted to indefinitely postpone floor discussion of the bill.

"Parliament Retreats," read a front-page headline Tuesday in the reformist newspaper Etemaad Melli.

Officially, the bill has been sent to a committee for further revisions, Iranian officials said, though some warned that its draconian provisions could be resurrected.

"It’s a victory, but it’s a temporary victory," said Farnaz Saifi, an Iranian women’s rights activist studying in the Netherlands. "These movements and protests have to continue."

Turan Valimorad, an expert on women’s issues, said lawmakers have agreed to consult with rights activists before reformulating any changes.

"We hope we can come to an agreement to legalize temporary marriage only in exceptional cases, not as a right for every man to engage in," she said. "Until then, we will try to postpone approval of the bill as long as we can."

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