Iranian women are looking forward to June 12, 2009 with excitement and hope. On that day, the 10th. presidential election will be held. The contenders are Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent president of Iran, and a Reform candidate, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
Mr, Mousavi has promised that if elected, he will review Iran’s laws which discriminate against women, address issues of women’s rights and appoint women to high positions in his administration. Understandably, women and progressive young people form the bulk of his supporters.
Present Iranian law favors men. The constitution, adopted in 1979, following the revolution that overthrew Shaw Reza Pahlavi, mandates that Sharia law, the Islamic moral code based on the Koran, be enforced in Iranian society. Under Sharia law:
* Girls can be forced to marry at age 13. They cannot choose their husband or their residence.
* Men can divorce their wives whenever they wish, by pronouncing three times, “I divorce you.”
* Men can ban their wives from working or traveling.
* Men can engage in polygamy, and have up to four permanent wives. They may also take any number of temporary wives.
* In the case of divorce, the husband automatically gets custody of children older than 7.
* Females may inherit only half as much as their brothers from their parents.
* In court, women’s testimony is only half as valuable as that of a man.
* Women convicted of adultery are stoned, often resulting in their death.
* A woman who refuses to cover her hair in public faces a jail term and a beating of up to 80 lashes.
* Women can only be treated by female doctors and nurses. Many husbands would rather see a wife die in labor than receive treatment from a male doctor.
However, the winds of change have already begun to blow through this conservative Muslim theocracy. Women are becoming increasingly determined to achieve equal status with men and steps towards the goal, albeit small and tentative, can already be noted.
Some young women are taking advantage of education as a means to gain more respect and freedom. Female students form 65 percent of classes in Iranian universities.
Although they must cover their hair, women do not have to cover their faces. Plastic surgeons are doing a bustling business with rhinoplasties- nose jobs.
Satellite television and the Internet allow Iranian women to glimpse the lifestyles of their sisters in the West. They like what they see and continue the struggle to gain full and equal human rights for themselves.
Books, movies and documentaries which explore sexual discrimination are becoming increasing popular. Even some men are beginning to support the cause of equal human rights for women.
There are women publishers and all-female publishing firms. They print books and pamphlets on women’s issues from a secular point of view.
Women still face severe penalties when they try to have laws changed. “The Campaign for a Million Signatures” was organized in 2005. Its goal was to obtain a petition signed by one million citizens which might influence the government to give women more rights regarding marriage, divorce, adultery, and polygamy. Punishment was swift and severe.
Many of the groups founders have been charged with trying to overthrow the government and thrown in jail. Many others still face charges, and six members are forbidden to leave the country. Consequently, many possible supporters are afraid to sign or even to be seen with the remaining campaigners.
Nevertheless, Janet Afary, a professor of Middle East and women’s studies at Purdue University states that the country is moving inexorably toward a “sexual revolution”. Iran is a country at the crossroads.
The reformist candidate in the presidential election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi is the first public figure ever to campaign in Iran with his wife by his side. Zahra Rahnavard is an intelligent and talented woman and her husband obviously values her support and advice. She has made outstanding speeches on his behalf. The couple has been compared to Barack and Michelle Obama.
If Mr. Mousavi wins the election on June 12, the women of Iran will have reason to celebrate. Their quest for equality will surely be promoted, the repressive bonds of Sharia law will have to be relaxed and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may slink off into some distant corner, never to be heard from again.
And when that happens, we’ll all have reason to celebrate. June 12, 2009, may be an important day not just for the women of Iran, but for the global community.