Women in Iran march against discrimination

By Moni Basu

(CNN) — Like thousands of other Iranian women, Parisa took to Tehran’s streets this week, her heart brimming with hope. “Change,” said the placards around her.

Women, regarded as second-class citizens under Iranian law, have been noticeably front and center of the massive demonstrations that have unfolded since the presidential election a week ago. Iranians are protesting what they consider a fraudulent vote count favoring hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but for many women like Parisa, the demonstrations are just as much about taking Iran one step closer to democracy.

“Women have become primary agents of change in Iran,” said Nayereh Tohidi, chairwoman of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at California State University, Northridge.

The remarkable images show women with uncovered heads who are unafraid to speak their minds and crowds that are not segregated — both the opposite of the norm in Iran, Tohidi said.

She said a long-brewing women’s movement may finally be manifesting itself on the streets and empowering women like Parisa.

“This regime is against all humanity, more specifically against all women,” said Parisa, whom CNN is not fully identifying for security reasons.

“I see lots of girls and women in these demonstrations,” she said. “They are all angry, ready to explode, scream out and let the world hear their voice. I want the world to know that as a woman in this country, I have no freedom.”

Though 63 percent of all Iranian college students are women, the law of the land does not see men and women as equal. In cases of divorce, child custody, inheritance and crime, women do not have the same legal rights as men.

In the past four years, Ahmadinejad has made it easier for men to practice polygamy and harder for women to access public sector jobs, according to CNN’s Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

Even the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic republic, voiced frustration at the way women are treated.

“Women are just living things,” Zahra Eshraghi told Amanpour. “A woman is there to fill her husband’s stomach and raise children.”

For the first time, women were allowed to register for the presidential race, though none, including Eshraghi, were deemed fit to run by the religious body that vets candidates. But women’s issues surfaced in the campaign.

That was partly the result of a women’s movement comprised of educated, urban, middle-class women that has grown in recent years with the addition of more conservative and poorer women, said Tohidi, a longtime observer of women’s rights in Iran. Ironically, traditional women first gained voice under the clerics.

“Khomeini needed their votes, so he encouraged them to be publicly active,” Tohidi said.

The middle-class women who enjoyed certain freedoms in prerevolutionary days refused to turn back, while a new generation of conservatives were awakened to feminism.

In 2003, lawyer and women’s rights activist Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize, providing a “big boost” for Iranian women, Tohidi said.

At the same time, private organizations and charities that deal with women’s issues blossomed under the presidency of reformist Mohammed Khatami, growing by as much as 700 percent, Tohidi said.

Marriage age increased as more women opted to marry for love, instead of entering arranged marriages. The One Million Signatures Campaign officially launched in 2006 sprouted new discourse and attention with a petition that asks the parliament to reform gender discriminatory laws.

Two opposition candidates, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, vowed to look into parts of the Iranian constitution that defer women’s rights to what is regarded as an outdated version of sharia, or Islamic, law. Moussavi had even promised to appoint women as cabinet ministers for the first time.

Some women in Iran looked to Moussavi to carry their banner, perhaps because they were inspired by his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a much-admired academic who told CNN’s Amanpour that Iran’s 34 million women want civil laws and family laws revised.

Author and journalist Azadeh Moaveni, who spent several years working in Iran, said Ahmadinejad’s fundamentalism has pushed Iranian women to the edge.

“He has been a catastrophe for women,” said Moaveni, who wrote “Lipstick Jihad” and co-authored “Iran Awakening” with Nobel laureate Ebadi.

The weight of discrimination against women is felt most profoundly through Iran’s legal system, but Moaveni said Ahmadinejad added to the hardship by clamping down on women’s lifestyles. He mandated the way women dress and even censored Web sites that dealt with women’s health, Moaveni said. A woman would be hard-pressed to conduct a Google search for something as simple as breast cancer.

Moaveni was almost arrested because her coat sleeves were too short and exposed too much skin. In that setting, she said, it’s striking to see women protesting, especially without their hijabs, or head coverings.

“While it’s not at the top of women’s grievances, the hijab is symbolic. Taking it off is like waving a red flag,” Moaveni said. “Women are saying they are a force to be reckoned with.”

Azar Nafisi, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” said she has been watching the footage from Iran with “inordinate pride.”

She marched on the streets during the 1979 revolution because she believed in greater freedoms for her people, only to see her dreams shattered as hardline clerics took hold of Iran. “Reading Lolita” is largely a memoir of her harrowing days in Iran until 1997, when she immigrated to the United States.

“The way I walked down the street became a political statement,” Nafisi said.

She recalled her own mother being a devout Muslim who chose not to wear a veil. Her grandmother, like more traditional women in Iran, wore a veil but resented the government ordering her to do so. Covering up, Nafisi said, was a matter of faith, not politics.

Nafisi believes that women have become a symbolic statement of the power of the Islamic state. She called Iranian women canaries of the mind — barometers of how free society is.

It’s impossible to predict what will transpire in Iran in the coming days.

Nafisi believes a regime change will not be enough; that only a change in mindset can lead to greater freedoms for women.

Moaveni said the sheer scale of the demonstrations assures her that the political and social climate will never again be the same in Iran.

Tohidi is keeping her fingers crossed that the protests won’t prompt Iran’s hardliners to clamp down and rule by repression.

But all of them shared the hopes of the women — like Parisa — who are marching on the streets.

“Today, we were wearing black,” Parisa said, referring to the day of mourning to remember those who have died in post-election violence.

“We were holding signs. We said, ‘We are not sheep. We are human beings,'” she said.

Parisa was thankful for all the images being transmitted out of Iran despite the government’s crackdown on international journalists. She was thankful, too, that the world cared.

“Today,” she said, “I had this feeling of hope that things will finally

Read it all

Egyptians win the right to drop religion from ID cards

HH here: The personality Muslim world (as opposed to the world of Muslims in the West) seems to be quite split nowadays. We have one personality that insists that the orthodox expression of Islam is barbaric and shameful and desperately needs to have a good old fashioned reformation. This personality can be heard in the voices of people like Wafa Sultan, Tarek Fatah, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Nonie Darwish.

But side by side with them lives another, stronger, more violent personality. Call it Big Imam. This personality sees all that is “western” like man-made laws and constitutions and universal Human rights are unholy deviance and will beat or kill anyone who denies its right to hold the God given Truth. The orthodox Islamic does not preach ideas, they proclaim what simply IS. It is for the masses to submit to this “truth”…or else. This makes for an uncomfortable political life in these countries to say the least.

This blog is dedicated to cheering on the first personality and highlighting and informing about the other. Here is a bit from the “this is a good thing” file.)

By Liam Stack Liam Stack – Mon Apr 20, 5:00 am ET
Cairo – Egyptian followers of the Bahai religion celebrated a long-awaited legal victory last week when the country’s Interior Ministry allowed them to obtain national identity cards without falsely listing their faith as one of the only three recognized by the state.

Rights activists say the ministry’s decision to honor a court ruling allowing Bahais to leave their religion off their official documents is an historic first step towards a more inclusive definition of what it means to be Egyptian.

“It is a significant development in our legal history as a nation,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which filed a lawsuit against the Interior Ministry’s Civil Status Department on behalf of Bahai citizens. “It is the first legal institution to sanction, or even accommodate, the idea that you can be Egyptian and follow a religion outside the three recognized ones.”

All Egyptians are required to obtain a national ID card at age 16. The card states their religious affiliation, and since 2000 there have only been three options: Muslim, Christian, and Jewish.

The cards are necessary for accessing almost all aspects of life in Egypt, from opening a bank account to immunizing children.

Those who follow a faith besides the three the state refers to as “the heavenly religions” were previously either forced to lie about their religion or go without the cards, consigned to a bleak state of official nonexistence.

But on March 16, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower courts’ 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.

The Interior Ministry had appeared not to recognize the 2008 ruling, and Bahais had reported trouble registering their children in schools and universities.

But the ministry issued the new order March 19 complying with the Supreme Administrative Court’s decision, and it went into effect April 15. Authorities say new IDs will be available within two weeks.

Under the new rules, Egyptians can opt to have a dash mark printed in place of a religion.

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, called the former policy “abusive” and “without any basis in Egypt’s statutory law,” in a statement released when the new policy went into effect.

“We hope this means that the government intends to eradicate all policies that discriminate on the basis of religion and instead promote freedom of belief for all Egyptians,” he said.

Problems with documents began recently

Egyptian Bahais long lived peacefully beside their Christian, Muslim, and Jewish countrymen. That began to change in the 1950s, when some in Egypt became suspicious of the fact that the Bahai world headquarters are located in the Israeli city of Haifa.

Egypt’s Bahai citizens say they began having problems obtaining official documents in 2000, after an effort to modernize the Interior Ministry instituted a computerized system of issuing ID cards, ending the old practice of hand-writing them.

Violence toward Bahais
“Before that there were no problems, they used to write out Bahai or just put a dash,” says Labib Iskander, a professor of mathematics at Cairo University and follower of the Bahai faith. “My old card still says Bahai, and to this day I still have not gotten a new one. Now when I do there will be a dash.”

But the ruling comes at a tense time for the nation’s Bahais, and recent violence directed at them suggests that popular attitudes have yet to catch up with those of the government.

In late March a riot broke out in the southern Egyptian town of Al Shoroneya after a satellite TV station aired a segment on Bahais celebrating the Iranian New Year with a picnic in a Cairo park.

One of the picnickers identified himself as a resident of the village and described it using a phrase in Arabic that could either mean “there are many Bahais there” or “everyone there is Bahai.”

Eight Bahai residents’ homes were set ablaze in the riot, and local media reports indicate the town’s entire Bahai population has fled.

Dr. Iskander is happy about the government’s new policy but says that old attitudes die hard, noting that the state is still unwilling to write the word “Bahai” itself on the national identity cards.

“They think that writing it would mean recognizing it as a religion, but that’s not true,” he says. “It would mean recognizing that some people are just different, and that they believe in something else. But they don’t want to do that.”