THE BLOG
06/11/2013 03:32 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

Iranian Women's Movement Strangled by Restrictions

The women of Iran are forbidden to stand in the upcoming presidential election on June 14, and are being strangled by ever-increasing restrictions. What has happened to the courageous Iranian women's movement of dissent that gave inspiration to the protests of the Arab Spring uprisings?

A member of the Guardian Council, who vets election candidates according to their Islamic credentials, declared that women were barred from running. Under the constitution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cannot stand for a third term, and out of 686 candidates competing to fill his place, only eight were cleared by the Guardian Council. Two have since resigned. All six remaining are associated with the supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They include the frontrunner, Saeed Jalili, an Islamist ideologue and protégé of Khamenei.

Women's rights activists are hampered by restrictions in freedom of speech and assembly. Moreover, the Iranian constitution is founded on velayat-e faqih, the principle of absolute rule by an Islamic cleric, and a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Women not wearing the Muslim hijab or scarf in the public space can be sentenced to flogging, and the law stipulates that a woman's life has only half the value of a man's. Article 1133 of the Civil Code states a man can divorce his wife whenever he chooses, and Article 1117 ensures a husband can veto his wife's choice of profession.

The Iranian women's movement has a history of fighting state-mandated discrimination and violence, including stoning sentences for adultery. It emerged as the most defiant movement of its type in the Muslim world, and during the reform period of President Khatami, activists established more than 600 NGOs and took to the streets in a series of peaceful protests.

Their One Million Signatures Campaign aimed to raise awareness as well as petition parliament for the repeal of gender-biased laws like polygyny, custody of children given to men in cases of divorce, a woman's entitlement to only half the inheritance of a man, and a woman's testimony in court carrying only half the weight of a man's. Other legislative demands included freedom of dress, equal marriage rights, the abolition of quotas for females at universities and equal compensation in the event of injury.

In spite of protesters' insistence that they were not opposed to religion or the political system, they were often beaten and arrested, at times by a women-only police force employed by government authorities.

After dissidents turned to the Internet as an outlet for expression and communication, the regime arrested bloggers and blocked women's rights websites.

The government has allowed women to pursue tertiary education, but last year they announced bans on female entrants in 36 universities for 77 fields of study, including science, engineering, education and business management.

Increasing numbers of women prisoners of conscience are languishing in Tehran's Evin prison, some serving sentences associated with demonstrations following the disputed elections of 2009. Attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh represented political prisoners until she herself was arrested and imprisoned.

As the June election approaches, many Iranian journalists are increasingly intimidated and fearful of pre-election crackdowns. Forty journalists are currently in prison, due to a level of censorship second only to Turkey, where more than 70 journalists are in jail.

Some years ago, attempts by the regime to tighten the noose of misogyny and other basic freedoms might have been met with fierce opposition and rage would have spilled onto the streets.

Reformers are impeded by state-sponsored restrictions, and the demoralization that followed lack of western support after the contentious election and bloody riots in 2008. The government has also throttled dissidents by expanding the Basij, a people's militia of indoctrinated members, dedicated to rallying support, demolishing opposition and marginalizing reformers. This feared organization sent hundreds of thousands of volunteers to clear minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and helped destroy the Green Movement in 2009. Since then, the group increased membership of its sister Women's Society Basij Organization. According to the director, more than 5 million members have joined thousands of branch offices throughout Iran, the organization cynically pitching women against women.