Women’s Rights Activists Detained in Iran

February 2010

Iranian police have detained three women’s rights activists collecting signatures in the mountains north of Tehran on behalf of the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality.

The trio was seized January 30 while collecting signatures in support of changing laws they say deny women in Iran equal rights in matters such as divorce, inheritance and child custody.

Without naming the three, Sussan Tahmasebi—a leading member of the campaign—told Reuters one of those held was accused of spreading propaganda against the state; the charge is a common one used against women’s rights activists. Tahmasebi said the second detainee was released January 31, while the third was likely to be released by February 1.

Agence France Presse (AFP), quoting the Sarmayeh newspaper, identified one of the women arrested as Nafiseh Azad.

Campaign activists claim 47 of its members have been detained since the effort was launched in 2006, but most of them were freed after a few days or weeks.

“Obviously there are people who don’t want laws that are discriminatory against women to change,” Tahmasebi told Reuters, later suggesting that the recent arrests may be a message from the authorities ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.

The Iran Times asked Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HWR), why she thought the regime was clamping down so hard on the One Million Signatures Campaign. “The issue is two fold,” Whitson said. “This is an issue that a wealth of Iranians are involved with as their sisters, mothers and wives are subjected to these discriminatory laws. The government feels very threatened by a campaign that the people themselves are directing that has broad popular support.

“The second issue is that if these women are successful in their campaign to make their desires known to the government, the government will feel threatened that other groups may also make similar attempts, so they want to nip it in the bud.”

Farida Deif, a Middle East and North Africa Researcher in the Women’s Rights Division at HRW told the Iran Times, “What has been concerning to us over the past year is the intensification against women’s rights activists in Iran. The One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality has been such a successful, peaceful, grassroots movement—a model movement in the Middle East. It is astonishing that the Iranian government has responded with harassment, travel bans and prosecution to silence this group. Our hope would be that the government would try to better understand the grievances of these thousands of women instead of silencing them. But instead, this is a testament that the Iranian government is unwilling to hear any type of reform.”

Despite the arrests, Tahmasebi said the campaign—which last month was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Award for their efforts on behalf of women’s rights—had been successful in many of its efforts. She noted a recent decision by the Majlis to allow women to inherit land from their husbands or fathers as a “huge accomplishment.” She also praised a judiciary directive last year under which women who suffer injury or death in a car accident will be entitled to the same insurance company compensation as men.

Under Iran’s Islamic laws, compensation for the loss of a woman’s life, “blood money,” is half that paid for a man. This rule, which applies to physical injury as well, had also governed payments from insurance companies even though both sexes paid equal premiums.

In addition, Majlis deputies in September amended the controversial Family Protection Bill that would have made it easier for men to have multiple wives.

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