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Silencing the Women's Rights Movement in Iran

Islamist women initially supported the roll-back of rights.38 Zahra Rahnavard, an Islamist married to Mir Hossein Mousavi (prime minister at the time and later a presidential candidate in the 2009 election), made the veil an issue of modesty and part of women's responsibility to purge Iran of "imperialist culture."" 39 Within months of the revolution, Islamist women founded the Women's Society of the Islamic Revolution (WSIR), which sought to create a culturally authentic gender identity for women in Iran.40 The WSIR workshops addressed women's role in a "true" Islamic society, which "entailed criticism of the past and present."41 Despite the organization's significant ties to the regime, in 1981, supporters of the ruling clerics criticized the policy of forced Islamization and veiling, and several branches of the WSIR were attacked by mobs and looted.42

Islamist women, a few of whom served as Majlis representatives, proposed laws intended to alleviate some of the unequal treatment of women. Changes were made to employment, child-custody and marriage/divorce laws. After 1984, a woman could file for divorce under limited conditions provided they had been agreed to in the marriage contract." 43 One permissible condition was the husband taking a second wife without his wife's consent. In 1989, the Majlis passed the Divorce Reform Bill, which left a man's unilateral divorce rights unchanged, but required a court's permission before the divorce could be registered.44

Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran from 1997 through 2005, supported the Center for Women's Participation in the Office of the Presidency which campaigned for women's rights.45 His administration also encouraged non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promoted the rights of women and children. The number of women-focused NGOs rose from 67 to 480 during Khatami's tenure.46

Female Majlis representatives and their supporters successfully introduced several liberalizing laws. For example, the legal age of marriage for girls was raised from nine to fifteen, although the Council of Guardians later decreed that thirteen was the legal age." 47 The hejab rules were relaxed. However, many other legislative proposals were rejected,48 and activists faced attacks from the branches of the regime still dominated by radical conservatives. The parallel intelligence apparatus arrested, beat and imprisoned members of the women's rights movement.49

[38] "Islamist" is a broad term that very generally refers to "a popular reform movement advocating the reordering of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam." Islamist (2010), in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, retrieved August 3, 2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/islamist.
[39] Rahnavard was born into a religious family in 1945. She graduated from Tehran's School of Fine Arts and later received a PhD in Political Science from Azad University. A member of the opposition before the revolution, she founded Muslim Women and Islamic Republic Women's Society between 1979 and 1980. She was also the Editor in Chief of Rah-i Zaynab (Path of Zaynab), the post revolutionary reincarnation of Ettela'at Banovan (Women's Ettela'at) until 1988. In 1996, she joined Mohammad Khatami and the reformist movement. In 1998, she was appointed head of Al-Zahra all female university, a position she held until 2006. See Nezhat Amirabadian, Nukhustin Banuyih Avval-i Iran [The Primary First Lady of Iran], Ham Mihan, May 5, 2009, available at http://www.hammihannews.com/news/2727.
[40] Afary, supra note 3, at 314.
[41] Paidar, supra note 5, at 240.
[42] Afary, supra note 3, at 314.
[43] Afary, supra note 3, at 312-313.
[44] Paidar, supra note 5, at 291, 293. The other permissible conditions included insanity, impotence, infertility, absence from home without reason, imprisonment, inability to provide support, hardship, violence by the husband, irreconcilability and immoral employment.
[45] Afary, supra note 3, at 329.
[46] Amnesty International, Iran: Women's Rights Defenders Defy Repression 2, (2008), available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/report/women-act-against-repression-and-intimidation-iran-20080228.
[47] Barrisiyih Huquqiyih Sin-i Izdivaj va Rushd-i Dukhtaran [Legal Analysis of Age of Marriage and Growth of Girls], Iran Press, June 21, 2008, available at http://www.iranpress.ir/iranwomen/Template1/News.aspx?NID=2744.
[48] Afary, supra note 3, at 329-330.
[49] See, e.g., IHRDC Witness Statement of Fariba Davoodi Mohajer available at http://iranhrdc.org/httpdocs/English/pdfs/WitnessStatements/FDMWS.pdf. See also, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Covert Terror: Iran's Parallel Intelligence Apparatus (2009) available at http://iranhrdc.org/httpdocs/English/reports.htm.

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Sexual Violence, Gender Rights, Death Penalty, Political Killings, Executions, Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Punishment, Personal Liberty, Arbitrary Detention, Travel Restrictions, Due Process, Right to an Attorney, Illegal Search and Seizure, Free Speech, Right to Protest, Protests, Free Association, Child Rights, Political Freedom, Equality Before the Law, Discrimination