Iranian women's groups and other organisations are fighting a much discussed proposed law which they say would encourage polygamy by allowing a man to take a second wife without the permission of the first under certain circumstances. The proposal comes at a time when the country has been rocked by protests, in which women have played a major part, following the disputed re-election last June of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Although Islamic law permits a man to marry up to four wives (with strict restrictions), polygamy is not widely practiced in Iran. At present, an Iranian man needs his wife's permission to take a second wife.
A so-called Family Protection Law, proposed by the government in 2008, said a man could marry a second wife on the condition that he could afford both wives financially. The Parliament dropped that clause following a wave of opposition from women, but is now reconsidering a different version of the provision.
The spokesman for the Parliament's Judicial and Legal Commission, Amir Hussein Rahimi, announced recently that the commission has now approved Article 23 of the proposed Family Protection Law that states, "A man can marry a second wife under ten conditions."
The new version still requires the first wife to give her husband permission, though controversially this permission would not be required under certain conditions, such as if she is mentally ill, suffers from infertility, does not cooperate sexually or has a chronic medical condition or drug addiction.
Iranian women still oppose the legalisation of polygamy, saying it weakens their role and status at home and in society.
The original plan was dropped after a group of intellectuals, religious, social and human rights activists created a movement to voice their opposition to the law. In September 2008, a group of 50 well-known women, including poet Simin Behbahani, politician Azam Taleghani and lawyer and Noble laureate Shirin Ebadi, met representatives from the parliament to express their concerns about what they called "an anti-family protection law".
Islamic organisations such as the Zeinab Association and the Women's Organisation of the Islamic Revolution also supported the movement. And the One Million Signatures campaign, which opposes discrimination against women, played a significant role in mobilising public opinion.
The law was also controversial among government officials. Several reformists protested against it openly. Iran's former president, Mohammad Khatami, called it "persecution". And a leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, stated, "If the first wife does not permit her husband to take another wife, the marriage will not be legitimate, even if a man can support both wives financially."
Nevertheless, the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, has declared that it will consider a slightly amended version of the controversial article.
To which a young member of the Centre for Iranian Women, Taraneh Bani Yaghoub, replied, "The women's movement will not remain quiet."
Iran's first law recognising polygamy was passed when Reza Shah, who ruled between 1925 and 1941, was in power. In 1970, female activists demanded the secular government of Mohammad Reza Shah outlaw polygamy, but despite the government's positive reaction to their demand, clerics prevented it. In 1975, an alternative law was adopted, stating that polygamy was permitted under certain conditions, such as obtaining the first wife's permission.
Much has changed in Iran since 1976, when only 36 per cent of women were literate. Now, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran, 80 per cent of women are educated, and almost 1.6 million are university graduates – compared to 46,000 in 1976.
Despite government restrictions on women, the number of female professionals has increased to around six per cent a year, or 2.5 million women in 2006, according to official statistics. A large group of educated women has shaped today's Iranian society. For years, these women have demanded legal and social rights and equal treatment with men. They have resisted any law that weakens their rights or degrades their position in society.
Women are angry with the proposed law, and they have been disappointed by the reaction of key figures of the opposition movement. A recent statement signed by a group of women activists accused defeated presidential contenders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi of ignoring women's rights and even their existence in their political manifestos, claiming that "women's issues are a major part of the current crisis and no solution will be achieved unless this issue is included."
* Sahar Sepehri is a journalist and media analyst based in Washington, DC. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. The full text can be found at www.mianeh.net.