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.''
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.
Habibi says because of her Bureau's efforts, the parliament passed a law that gives women the right to demand wages from her husband for housework performed during her marriage. ''According to the Koran, a woman is not obliged to do housework and serve her husband if she does not want to,'' Habibi says. ''If he divorces her for no real good reason, he should pay her wages for housework she did while they were married.''
Barring escape routes
But many patriarchal-minded judges make it difficult for women to win these wages, Iranian lawyer Mahargiz Garr points out. So activists are introducing a new amendment. ''We want a clear definition on exactly when a woman is entitled to her pay for housework, so that husbands do not escape their obligations,'' Ms. Garr says.
The Bureau also succeeded in getting the government to hire female court advisers for women participating in legal proceedings. They have the ranks of judges, but they cannot yet preside over legal hearings. To ensure that the male judges do not dismiss the advisers' opinions, the Bureau insisted that the advisers be accorded judicial rank -- another breakthrough, since Islamic law does not allow for women to judge cases.
For women activists, the ban on female judges is a symbol of deliberate discrimination against them. ''The fact that women cannot be judges in courts impedes their participation in the political process,'' says a woman activist who requested her name not be used. ''The ban means that women do not have the final decision in all aspects of politics and personal life.''
Public debate over divorce laws have found their way into newspapers and even some of the talk shows of the state's three television stations.
Articles in Farzaneh and Zenan question the intellectual assumptions behind the restrictions on women. In its first issue, Farzaneh published a lengthy article arguing that preventing women from political leadership positions is contrary to the Koran, which praises the Queen of Sheeba. She was a pre-Islamic ruler in Arabia.
Zenan, taking a more feminist approach, challenges the imposition of the hijab, and has called on women to wear bright colors. A long feature says that colors are signs of life and activity, and that women are not lifeless creatures.
Women are also benefiting from the Islamic revolutionary policy of expanding education and fighting illiteracy. The government's success in providing education for wider sectors of society has contradicted earlier Islamic restrictions on women in the workplace.
Over the last year, officials have stated plans to increase employment for women to absorb the growing number of female university graduates.
And the religious and political leadership is beginning to respond to the women's groups. The supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Akbar Khamenei and Ayatollah Yazdi, head of the judiciary, have publicly supported women's rights to work and to their rights to share half the accumulated wealth in divorce cases. Health minister al-Riza Mirani even urged women to become more organized to combat male prejudice.
But perhaps more significant is that a number of clerics and jurists, including in Qom -- the religious capital of Iran -- are supporting women activists by providing them religious principles for challenging the conservative clerics' definition of women's rights and roles.
''These [scholars] say it is okay for women to be appointed in the government, even as judges, but they do not dare to speak out, because it will be a direct challenge to the clerical establishment,'' says one female activist.
* The two previous articles in this three-part series appeared on March 24 and 27.