Iran cracks down on women's rights activists

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Women’s groups here have abandoned plans to demonstrate for equal rights on International Women’s Day today, after more than 30 of their colleagues were jailed for protesting on Sunday.
But even after that decision, rumors spread by e-mail and cell phone text messages Wednesday night that an ad hoc protest might take place anyway, in front of parliament.
Fifteen of the women were released by late Wednesday, and the remainder told family members they were on a hunger strike inside Tehran’s Evin Prison.
The women were detained outside the Revolutionary Court, where cases had begun against five women who were charged with “acting against national security” after a June street rally calling for equal legal rights for women in Iran.
The cases and arrests are part of a mixed picture of social freedoms and human rights in Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While the arrests Sunday have shaken activists, Iranians note at the same time little enforcement of Islamic dress codes long expected under conservative rule.
The mixed signals sent by the government highlight the measured – and targeted – way its conservative agenda manifests itself on the street.
Activists charge that the pretext for the arrests is the government's suspicion that the women were receiving some of the $85 million earmarked by the US to undermine the government by funding antiregime and pro-democracy groups. Activists say they haven't received any of those funds.

"I am so sorry, [but] I am not surprised [by the arrests]," says Elahe Koulaiei, a former member of parliament's national security committee. "I think [the arrests are] not acceptable in the context of our revolution and Islamic thought, [which require] a very kind relationship between rulers and the ruled."

But she adds,"These [authorities] are very pessimistic about the intentions of foreigners, and assign this kind of [protest] to external factors."

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Wednesday, 620 leading members from several Iranian political parties and trade unions wrote an open letter to Iran's judiciary chief voicing "disappointment" over the arrests.

"Today is no longer a day for someone to be jailed for thinking and expressing their views," said parliament deputy Soheli Jelodarzadeh, speaking at a women's conference.

The human rights organization co-founded by Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, earlier called the arrests "illegal."

In the event last June, for which the women are standing trial, police broke up the protest with truncheons and arrested 70 women, all of whom have since been released. Other charges against the five include making "propaganda against the Islamic system," and taking part in an "illegal" demonstration.

Demonstrators Sunday carried signs pointing to articles in the Iranian Constitution that guarantee the right to peaceful protest. Activists said the arrests were made to preempt another gathering they had planned for Thursday.

"They are afraid of the women's movement, because there are some links between them and journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and they cooperate with [foreign] NGOs," says Isa Saharkhiz, a former editor and reformist.

The cash set aside by the US Congress to fund broadcasting into Iran and groups working against the Islamic Republic has complicated local efforts at political and social change – once the clarion call of Iran's reform movement.

The money "was the worst thing for all of the movements – women, students, and NGOs – they catch everyone, and say they are spies," says Mr. Saharkhiz. "We know that most of that money went to royalist groups and the Mujahideen-e Khalq," Iranian opposition that has several thousand militants under US guard in Iraq.

Women's groups voted late Tuesday to cancel the event on International Women's Day. Worldwide, hundreds of political rallies, business conferences, theater performances, and other events are planned for Thursday to honor women's advancement and to promote gender equality.

"We had planned to protest before the majlis [parliament]," says Fatemeh Farhanghah, an activist who was at the Sunday event, but was not arrested. "Because the police have gone to a more violent approach, we decided not to."

Esfan, a young man skiing at Dizin, north of Tehran, where restrictions have always been more relaxed, says government pressure is often sporadic. "It comes and it goes. They push hard, and then people will complain, and they don't want people to complain, so they back off.... They [maintain control] in other ways."

In a statement protesting the arrests, the main reformist party Musharekat also issued a warning: "If such a peaceful protest is cracked down on by security forces and restrictions are being imposed, in the near future this issue can transform into an uncontrollable social crisis."

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