Iran Today: Part Two, Beyond the Veil

02/07/06 12:00AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) As Iraqis struggle to create a new government, the role of Islamic law and how it affects women is a key topic of debate.

It's a debate that's been taking place in neighboring Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, pitting traditional beliefs against contemporary views.

Recently, VPR's Steve Zind traveled to Iran to explore how the tensions between tradition and modernity play out.

Today, in our series "Iran Today" he examines the debate over the status of the nation's women.

(Busy street sounds)

(Zind) This is one of Tehran's busiest streets, Jomhuri ye Eslami - which, translated, means the Islamic Republic - a reminder that in Iran religion and government are one and the same.

The complexities and the contradictions of women's lives in Iran are in plain view here.

(Voices of women passing)

(Zind) One woman hurries by trailing smoke from a burning herb intended to ward off the evil eye.

Another one passes talking on a cell phone.

A group of women enveloped from head to toe in billowing black chadors move in a dark mass down the crowded sidewalk.

Right behind them are women wearing body- hugging manteaus. Their hair spills out from under their scarves. The cuffs of their pants are rolled up to expose their ankles.

These women are not what the government has in mind when it says "a woman modestly dressed is like a pearl in its shell."

In Iran the westerner's attention is drawn time and again to the women. They're the symbols of the paradoxes of this country.

(Milani) "Let me just give you a few examples."

(Zind) Farzaneh Milani is director of women and gender studies at the University of Virginia.

(Milani) "Women can drive cars in Iran and they do in large numbers but they cannot drive bicycles. Women are forcibly segregated in the back of busses, but they can sit right next to men in overcrowded taxis. Iranian women have entered the world stage as Nobel peace laureates, as best selling authors, as prize winning directors, as medical doctors, academicians. But to leave their country of residence, they need the written permission of their husbands."

(Sounds of praying)

(Zind) Since the revolution, Iran's clerical leaders have interpreted Islamic law - called Shari'a - in a way that reverses many of the advances made by women.

In recent years, Iranian women have made some gains. Divorce is still recognized primarily as a man's right, but now it's more difficult and costly for a man to end a marriage.

What Shari'a won't permit, women are finding ways to achieve. Iranians are required to sign marriage contracts and many couples write provisions into these contracts that guarantee equal marital rights for a woman.

Still, there are significant differences between the legal rights of men and women.

In court, a man's testimony is worth twice that of a woman's. In terms of blood money paid by someone who causes a death, a woman's life is valued at half that of a man's.

In today's Iran, there's a tension between those who want change and those who want to preserve the status quo.

(Behruzi talking in background)

(Zind) Maryam Behruzi stands in the reception area of the Zaynab Society in Tehran and quietly scolds a visitor. She's unhappy that the wife of one of his associates has publicly remarked that women belong at home, not in politics. When he leaves, she invites her guests to remove their shoes and to follow her into a conference room carpeted in Persian rugs.

(Zind) Behruzi is the director of Zaynab, a conservative women's political group.

As a member of Iran's parliament for sixteen years, she's devoted her life to politics. Under the Shah she fought for change - for an Islamic government. Now she's resisting change - fighting to maintain a more traditional interpretation of Islamic law.

In 1995, Behruzi was a delegate to an international women's Conference in Beijing, where she voted against a declaration of equal rights for women. She says it conflicts with Islamic law. As an example, she cites the fact that, by law in Iran, men are permitted to have more than one wife, although the practice is rare and generally frowned upon.

(Behruzi speaks)
(Translator) " then it should be possible for a woman to have more than one husband! Well, this is impossible. This does not agree with our Shari'a laws. Or the case of inheritance in Islamic laws; women inherit half of what men inherit. Of course if you make a calculation, women's share ends up to be more than men because men are responsible for child support and the support of their families. If we base the laws on equality of the sexes, then Shari'a law will face difficulties."

(Zind) In Behruzi's view, women and men don't enjoy the same legal standing, but the rights women are entitled to, offset those reserved for men.

These issues - their rights under the law are what many Iranian women are concerned about. They feel the west focuses far too much on Islamic dress, called hejab.

In fact, some credit hejab with helping create today's women's movement in Iran.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a London-based researcher who's written extensively on women in Iran.

Mir-Hosseini says after the revolution, the imposition of an Islamic dress code and public segregation of the sexes created a friendlier environment for young women from conservative religious families.

For the first time, these families permitted young women to attend college. Mir-Hosseini says the result was the birth of a broad-based women's movement.

(Mir Hosseini) "Because once women were out in the public space, once they were educated, then they came to realize that in the dominant interpretation of Islamic law, they're second class citizens."

(Zind) Robabeh Rafeei is among these women.

(Rafeei talking in the background)

(Zind) Rafeei comes from a very religious family. She enrolled in college after the revolution and graduated when she was 44.

She served in the administration of former President Mohammad Khatami.

Rafeei says her views today put her at odds with members of her family. She's a strong advocate for improving women's rights in Iran.

She says the problem lies not with Shari'a, but with how it's interpreted.

(Rafeei speaks)
(Translator) "We are a contradictory society. On one hand we claim Islamic law is running our country. On the other hand, we are advancing towards development. But the current interpretation of Islamic law and development are not compatible with one another."

(Zind) Rafeei wants change, but she also wants Islam to remain the cornerstone of Iranian law.

There are those in Iran, including some influential clerics who want a complete separation of religion and politics. While most Iranians are unhappy with their government, the country lacks a strong, organized opposition to religious rule.

The debate over women's rights will continue to center on conflicting interpretations of Islamic law.

Writer Ziba Mir-Husseini says what's emerging from that discussion is a unique brand of feminism - shaped by Iranian women's Muslim identity.

(Mir-Hosseini) "And they're challenging the patriarchal and absolutist and totalitarian interpretation of the Sharia."

(Zind) There's another powerful force at work in Iran - the deeply ingrained cultural attitudes about the role of women in this largely traditional society. It's likely these attitudes will change only very slowly over time.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind.

Note: Tomorrow in our Iran Today series, Steve Zind profiles an Iranian poet who has battled censorship and worked to speak out for human rights.

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