As the protests in Iran over the recent election results continue, an opportunity for the United States to strongly support democracy and women's rights was sadly lost this week. This week President Barack Obama proclaimed that there was not much difference between Mir Hussein Mousavi and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he stated: "Either way (the United States is) going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons." Yet, with respect to women's rights -- one of the key issues for reform minded Iranians -- this is absolutely not the case.
Mousavi campaigned on restoring women's rights in Iran and promised during the campaign that, if elected, he would "reform laws that are unfair to women" and disband the so-called "morality police" force who regularly arrest women they view as inappropriately dressed. Zahra Rahnavard, Mr. Mousavi's wife, who is something of a feminist icon in Iran, said during a campaign rally for her husband:
"We should reform laws that treat women unequally. We should empower women financially; women should be able to choose their professions according to their merits, and Iranian women should be able to reach the highest level of decision making bodies."
When thousands of Iranian women are risking their lives, and literally could face arrest or execution, to rally for an overturn of the election results in Iran, it is disheartening and deeply disappointing that our President has not struck a firmer tone of support for protesters in Iran who are marching peacefully for freedom of speech, women's rights, democracy and transparent elections.
While President Obama and his advisors state that they do not want to "meddle" in internal Iranian affairs, and while we all know the cold harsh political reality that Obama wants to preserve his ability to negotiate with Ahmadinejad over nuclear weapons, we cannot sacrifice the very ideals that we are trying to promote throughout the world. It is hardly meddling to issue a strong statement of support for the protesters who are trying to reform the oppressive regime in Iran.
We have to remember that women face not only real discrimination in Iran but also persecution just for trying to peacefully exercise their rights. Numerous Iranian activists who have worked on women's rights initiatives, such as the campaign to collect one million signatures demanding an eradication of discrimination against women in Iran, have been arrested and imprisoned. Women are forced to wear the hijab and the morality police have arrested many women if they are not properly covered.
Legally, men in Iran have the sole right to divorce and to have custody. In court, a woman's testimony is equal to half that of a man and men can forbid their wives from working outside the home. While the government has now technically disavowed stoning, it nevertheless exists in the penal code as punishment for women who commit adultery.
The fact that women, and men, are turning out in droves day after day to protest the election results and the oppressive regime in Iran, deserves our support. When we look back at how other Presidents have used strong rhetoric to promote ideals that the Unites States is trying to promote (whether it be Kennedy's famous 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech or Reagan's "Tear Down that Wall Mr. Gorbachev"), we have seen US Presidents insert their beliefs and ideals to promote change. While clearly President Obama must tread carefully with regard to the ultimate goal of getting Iran to stop its nuclear program, we cannot turn our backs on a historic opportunity to have a reform minded movement in Iran that ultimately may be our best hope of producing a solution on the nuclear issue.