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Iran's New Activists Seek Life for Women Beyond the Veil

In their daily lives, many Mideast women are testing cultural and religious barriers. A series looks at three cases.

By Lamis AndoniSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 1995


IN early March, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani told students at Tehran University that it was important to acknowledge the role of Western culture in advancing women. But, he added, ''the West had gone too far on moral issues.''

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The statement, coming 16 years after an Islamic revolution and six years after the passing of spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was seen as a signal to the new generation that Western values concerning women should not be exclusively associated with promiscuity. Like many of Iran's leaders, Mr. Rafsanjani appears to be responding to a growing number of women activists demanding a fresh interpretation of Islamic law.

Iran remains one of the strictest Islamic-ruled countries in the Mideast, with conservative male clerics preaching that women who fail to cover their hair and body are unchaste.

Since the 1979 revolution, the hijab, or head scarf, and conservative dress have been imposed on women, based on a reading of a Koran verse that states a woman should reveal her beauty only to her husband.

Posters plastered in stores, government offices, and most public places in Iran demonstrate how a virtuous woman should be completely covered. But except for government offices and universities, it is rare that the military police arrest a woman for showing part of her hair or wearing a colored scarf. And many Islamic thinkers argue that the Koran verse does not stipulate the covering of women from head to toe.

For some leading female activists such as Mahboubeh Abbas Ghalizadeh, the issue of whether to cover a woman's head and body is not a priority. ''We are dealing with an Islamic society,'' she says. ''And there are more crucial issues that could ensure women's rights, and participation in those are by far more important than discussing the hijab.''

Ms. Ghalizadeh belongs to a new generation of women who say they are not challenging the tenets of Islam, but Iran's interpretation of Islamic laws that they view as inaccurate and biased. They challenge a society where segregation of the sexes is required, and some professional and educational fields are denied to women.

''We believe in seeking long-term and profound changes,'' she says. ''Our main goal is to raise questions about interpretations of Sharia, Islamic holy law, concerning women and to campaign to alter the existing laws.''

Ghalizadeh studied Islamic philosophy and law for 10 years at the university level. Two years ago, she launched Farzaneh, a women's quarterly with a circulation of 10,000, to articulate an Islamic approach to gender issues.

Farzaneh, meaning ''a wise woman'' in Farsi, the Iranian language, is part of an emerging movement. The quarterly, along with the more widely circulated weekly ''Zenan,'' are tools activists use to widen women's participation in society. The publications and more than 50 women's nongovernmental organizations are trying to change the status of women in Iran. These women's groups claim they are bringing about legislation more favorable to women.

Make way for women

Two years ago, Rafsanjani created a government Women's Bureau, appointing a man as president and a woman as vice president. Its goal is to promote women's roles in accordance with Islam, but it has supported many demands of the activists.

Some dismiss the Bureau as powerless. But in several cases, Vice President Shahla Habibi and her staff of female experts have lobbied successfully to make changes in the system.

So far, an amendment to existing laws was passed lifting restrictions on female enrollment in certain university programs, such as law, engineering, and medicine.

Ms. Habibi tells how the Bureau successfully lobbied to change Iran's divorce law. Under Islamic law, a man may divorce his wife without her consent and even without her knowledge. Child support payments and alimony are not required. He is required to give his wife half of the wealth acquired during the years of their marriage, but this rule is not rigidly enforced.