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IRAN: Women fight back, and score rare victory

September 2, 2008 | 10:07 am

Sarajamal

Iranian women’s rights activists are celebrating a rare but significant victory today after parliament’s decision to shelve a piece of legislation that would turn back the clock on marriage rights.

In July, conservative lawmakers proposed several changes to the country’s family law that would allow husbands to get “temporary” marriages or marry additional wives without the consent of their first spouse. The changes would have also imposed a tax on the alimony the husband is obliged to pay his wife in case he divorces her.

In a move that would warm the heart of any Washington political consultant, the proposed changes were called "The Family Protection Bill."

But under enormous pressure from Iranian women's rights activists and celebrities, lawmakers opted to indefinitely postpone discussion of the bill on the floor of the legislature.

The proposed changes have been the talk of the country. Temporary marriages, or sigheh in Farsi, are religiously sanctioned quickie weddings that can last as long as a lifetime or as short as, um, 30 minutes. They've been traditionally popular with male travelers or seminary students who find themselves a long way from their wives for long stretches of time.

Iran’s laws allow men to engage in polygamy but only with the consent of the previous wife or wives. But polygamy is not popular in mainstream Iranian society and frowned on except in certain rural or tribal areas.

According to critics, the proposed changes would have effectively let a man legally engage in prostitution, remarry behind his wife's back and make it tougher for her to move on with her life if her husband dumps her.

The proposals were sent back to committee for further work. Some warned that they could still be resurrected. Turan Walimorad, an expert on women's rights issues who often appears on state-run television, said lawmakers had agreed to consult with women's rights activists before reformulating the changes.

"We hope we can come to agreement to legalize temporary marriage only in exceptional cases, not as a right for every man to engage it," she said. "Until then, we will try to postpone the approval of the bill as long as we can."

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Dozens of political organizations and nonprofit groups mustered all their energy to fight the bill. On Aug. 31, about 100 women from all walks of society went to the parliament to discuss the danger embodied in the proposed articles. Among them were Shirin Ebadi, the Noble Prize winner; Simin Behbahani, a famed Iranian poet; Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, a film director; Laleh Sadiq, a female race car driver; and Elahe Kolaee, a well-known former lawmaker.

Amnesty International also issued a report calling on Iranian authorities to stop harassing activists trying to fight the bill. 

Opponents of the law were helped by an unlikely ally: Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the conservative cleric who heads Iran's judiciary and who had criticized the proposed changes.

Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos: Top, tae kwon do athlete Sara Jamal Khosh (right) of Iran in action against Yang Shu-Chun of Taiwan during a quarterfinal match during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Yang Shu-Chun won the match. (Credit: Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency); Bottom, Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi (center) leads a group of women heading to the Iranian parliament to oppose a proposed marriage law. (Credit: Iranian Women's Society)

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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