Iranian Women Rally to Demand Equal Rights

Hundreds of Iranian women marked International Women's Day on Saturday with a demonstration demanding equal social and political rights to men, a first in this conservative male-dominated country since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The women, wearing the headscarves and long coats required by law, and a small group of men held a rally in a central Tehran park. Watching them was a large contingent of police -- including some 400 women who in January became the first females to undergo training to be officers since 1979.

"Half of the votes cast in favor of lawmakers were by women. How can you fail to recognize and support the rights of your wives, mothers and sisters? Why aren't women given top managerial or ministerial posts?" activist Zohreh Arzani asked the gathering

In the crowd, some women held up signs against violence by men -- and against a war on Iraq.

Women have been strong supporters of Iran's reform movement seeking to change the Islamic government's tight social and political restrictions. While the reformist-dominated parliament lifted a ban on unmarried women studying abroad, other bills supporting women's rights have been rejected by the hard-line Guardian Council, which must approve all legislation before it becomes law.

Under the strict form of Islamic law used in Iran, a woman needs her husband's permission to work or travel abroad. A man's court testimony is considered twice as important as a woman's. Men can keep four spouses at once, a right not granted to women.

And while Iranian men can divorce almost at will, a woman seeking a divorce must go through a long legal battle and often relinquish rights in return for divorce.

"How can we celebrate this day when our women are not entitled to choose their husbands, are not allowed to demand divorce and get just half the blood money a man gets?" protest organizer Noushin Ahmadi said, referring to the practice of giving the family of a female murder victim about half the average compensation paid to a male victim's relatives.

Speakers said the rally, organized by the non-governmental Women's Cultural Center, aimed to "protest discrimination against women."

In her speech, Arzani deplored Iran's failure to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

"Why has even the reformist-dominated parliament failed to debate and approve the convention?" Arzani asked amid the shrill whistles of girls at the rally.

Iran's senior clerics in Qom, the country's main center of Islamic learning, have rejected the convention as un-Islamic.

Despite being restricted from the nation's highest political posts, Iranian women -- 31.1 million of the nation's 66 million population -- enjoy greater freedoms and political rights than women in most neighboring Gulf Arab states, including the right to vote and hold public office.

Those freedoms came into practice with the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, who appointed a woman as vice president. Other women have been appointed to top government posts, but not Cabinet positions.

Prominent female writer Shirin Ebadi said Iranian women wanted the "full rights of life" before top government posts.

Speakers at Saturday's rally warned that self-immolation by women was on the rise due to discrimination against women, particularly in rural areas. No official figures are available on self-immolation.