IPS: Despite suffering under some of the most draconian laws in the world, Iranian women remain at the forefront of the battle for equality and democracy, as shown by their courage on International Women's Day last week, Iranian women's rights advocates here say. Inter Press Service

Lisa Söderlindh

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 16 (IPS) - Despite suffering under some of the most draconian laws in the world, Iranian women remain at the forefront of the battle for equality and democracy, as shown by their courage on International Women's Day last week, Iranian women's rights advocates here say.

The total number of arrests following a gathering of hundreds of women's rights defenders who had made their way from Tehran's Daneshjoo Park to Laleh Park on Mar. 8 remains uncertain, as is the fate of those arrested by security forces, which reportedly used harsh tactics to disperse the peaceful demonstration.

According to Human Rights Watch, police dumped cans of garbage on the heads of women who were seated before charging into the group and beating them with batons to compel them to leave the park.

Mehri Amiri of the Society for Defence of Women's Rights in Iran reported that three women from her organisation had been released over the weekend, but that four others remained in the Evin Prison in Tehran. She said that many more are likely still being held but that her group cannot get in contact with any of them since the phone lines are being controlled by the government.

On the eve of International Women's Day, the Women Rights Association of Iran had prepared a resolution calling for an end to gender discrimination and demanding the social and legal rights of all Iranian women.

Under current Sharia laws, women are barred from running for president, lack equal rights to divorce, and after divorce can have custody of their children only up until the age of seven years, and "blood money" for a murdered woman is half that for a man.

Many of the women who handed out some 2,000 copies of the resolution were arrested "and unfortunately I think their verdicts will be execution", said Zolal Habibi of the U.S.-based group Women's Freedom Forum at a panel discussion here to assess the role of women in combating Islamic fundamentalism.

"Despite knowing what would happen to them, women came to the streets in commemoration of International Women's Day," said Habibi.

"And tens of thousands of great women have sacrificed their life for the ideal of equality and humanity," she continued. "But history has failed to acknowledge them because of the male-dominated culture we live in."

Following Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, the monarchy was overthrown and an Islamic republic was created, in which religious clerics, headed by Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini, wielded ultimate political control.

Under Iran's current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office in August 2005, the pattern of abuses has not been alleviated, and "the human rights situation in Iran remains dire", notes Amnesty International in a February report on the country.

"For the last 27 years, Iran has been the only country that has had a fundamentalist regime in power, and which has actually turned its views and abuses into the laws of the country," said Habibi, pointing to harsh punishments such as stoning, a sentence that can be handed down for adultery.

"If you are able to escape from the hole when you are being stoned to death, you will be spared," Habibi said. "[But"> while men are buried to their waist, women are buried to their neck."

Still, women have persisted in their fight for equality, Habibi said, recalling 13-year-old Fatemeh Mesbah, who was arrested when selling newspapers and executed the following day, in 1981; Mother Zakeri, executed at the age of 70 for supporting the Iranian Islamist opposition group, the People's Mujahedin of Iran; and Mujahedin leader Ashraf Rajavi, executed by the Iranian regime in 1982.

"Those are just some of the thousands of women who paid with their lives for their ideals," Habibi noted.

Since 1991, over 120,000 political opponents have been executed in Iran, according to the Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). A report compiled by Iranian human rights activists in commemoration of International Women's Day says that four women were executed this year, all under the age of 30.

Another 1,372 women have been arrested since the start of 2006, the group says. And according to Human Rights Watch, security forces have repeatedly resorted to violence to suppress peaceful gatherings.

"The list of people who have sacrificed their lives goes on and on, crossing all ages," said Habibi, "but the good thing is that women have not sat down and taken this, they are still standing up strong against the injustices."

Despite frequent crackdowns on public dissent by government security forces, the Mar. 8 women's day rally drew twice as many participants as last year, according to the non-profit news service Iran Focus.

Habibi said the gathering sent a clear message that the Iranian people are fed up with the regime, "and this resistance, coming from all directions, serves as pressure which will eventually build up to a complete regime change".

"This growing force of women in the resistance inspires women in Iranian society on a large scale to aspire to democratic change and transform them into major force to liberate Iran," said Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the Paris-based NCRI, in a speech presented as a video installation at the U.N. panel.

"The Iranian Resistance has the necessary political and social capacity to realise democratic change in Iran," she went on. "But the spirit that transforms these underlying potentials into reality is women's leadership."

The way to defeat Islamic fundamentalism is to "eliminate the male-dominated culture as an inhumane culture, through women's leadership", Rajavi noted. Because "the establishment of democracy without the active role of women in society's leadership is impossible".