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Iranian Parliament Delays Vote on Bill That Upset Judiciary, Women's Activists

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

TEHRAN, Sept. 2 -- Iran's parliament has indefinitely delayed a vote on proposed changes to the country's civil law that had angered an unusual coalition of women's rights activists and Iran's judiciary. The opponents, more accustomed to disagreeing with each other than finding common cause, shared concerns that the legislation would promote polygamy and undermine women's financial independence.

The assembly decided Sunday to send the bill back to its legal committee for more work, a decision that analysts said would result in the removal of changes made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet.

Ali Reza Jamshidi, spokesman for Iran's judiciary, explained Tuesday that the organization disagreed with the cabinet's positions on polygamy and the taxing of "bridal treasures." Many Iranian couples agree when they marry that the husband will transfer to the wife a set amount of money or property upon her request.

Iran's judiciary not only oversees prosecution and judgment; it also drafts legislation so that it conforms with Islamic law. Jamshidi did not elaborate on the judiciary's objections to what is known as the family support bill. "We worked on this proposal for a long time and should try to solve these issues," Jamshidi told reporters.

Women's rights activists, some of whom have been sentenced to jail terms and lashes on charges of organizing illegal protests and a signature campaign, found an unexpected ally when they began objecting to the bill after the cabinet revised it this year.

"A door has been opened by the judiciary," said activist Minoo Mortazi. She has been sentenced to six months in prison and 10 lashes for demonstrating in front of a court against the arrest of other activists, although the punishment has not been implemented.

Some groups within the judiciary have promoted strict interpretations of Islamic laws. But the organization's leader, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, has moved away from some strict interpretations and in August proposed the abandonment of sentencing people to death by stoning. Iran is second only to China in the application of the death penalty, with 297 executions in 2007.

Much protest focused on what was seen as the promotion of polygamy in the version revised by the cabinet. "The proposal in its original form added consent of a judge as an extra obstacle for men who wanted to take a second wife. But the government scrapped the need for the permission of the first wife," Mortazi said.

Even though Iran is a Muslim nation and Islam permits polygamy, it is highly uncommon for Iranian men to have more than one wife at a time. "Before, some men managed to find their way around getting consent from their first wives. But if that legal condition is completely removed from the law, it will definitely increase polygamy," Mortazi argued.

Controversy also arose over the cabinet's changes in the section on the taxation of bridal treasures. Iranian divorce laws favor men, so the bridal treasure is seen as a financial safety net in the event a husband leaves the marriage and is not forced to pay alimony.

"This is a private agreement between a man and a wife. The government does not have a right to mingle in this," Mortazi said. Judiciary spokesman Jamshidi said his organization also objected to this part of the revised bill.

The new legislation was initially proposed by the judiciary to simplify civil laws altered after the 1979 revolution, which brought to power Shiite clerics and turned Iran into an Islamic republic.

Not all women's rights activists welcomed the revisions, demanding instead complete equality on all fronts.

"The whole bill is not good at all, not just some parts. Bias against women still exists in it," said activist Parvin Ardalan. "The judiciary is not denying polygamy," she added. "It should be completely stopped."

But Mortazi said that change can happen only gradually. "People will react negatively to sudden shifts," she said.

She saw some good points in parts of the bill that were not rewritten by the government.

"It states that there should be women judges in family courts. Also, half of the family counselors should be female," Mortazi said. Until now, Iran has not allowed women to be judges.

"The Iranian government has created squadrons of policewomen, bus drivers and female university students," she said. "But at the same time, they want to turn women into housewives and make them accept polygamy. There is a big paradox here."

Ahmadinejad's cabinet has not commented on the decision by parliament to study the bill further.

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