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Iranian Women Take Key Role in Protests

Negar Mortazavi, who lives in Washington, D.C., stays in touch with Iranian friends who have been protesting in Tehran. On Saturday, a male student described on the phone violent clashes between protesters, police and plainclothes militia.

One scene stood out, and "he couldn't believe his eyes," said Mortazavi, 27, who came to the USA from Iran in 2002 and is helping to coordinate protests in the United States. "He decided it was time to start running when the police were coming. He turned back and saw some women still standing," she says. "These women are not afraid."

Iranian women have been on the front lines of anti-government protests challenging the official results of the June 12 election, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the victor.

The face of a woman has become the symbol of the opposition. Music student Neda Agha Soltan, 27, was captured on video dying of a gunshot wound. The unsettling scene was transmitted around the world, and even President Obama referred to it this week.

Political protest is not new to Iranian women. Yet, the extent of their activism in this election is unprecedented in the years since the 1979 revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed shah and created an Islamic regime, some Iranians and Iran experts say.

They cite several factors, including a growing population of young women who are hungry for social freedoms, the participation of prominent women during the campaign and promises by opposition candidates for advances in women's rights.

On Wednesday, the wife of the main opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, continued to speak out. Zahra Rahnavard said on one of her husband's websites that arrested protesters and activists should be released, the Associated Press reported.

She added that government should not act "as if martial law has been imposed on the streets."

Rahnavard is an academic, writer and artist who campaigned alongside her husband. "She was saying women are equal to men, that they need opportunities to participate," said Dokhi Fassihian, a board member of the National Iranian American Council.

Rahnavard's campaigning inspired Iranian women to get active and vote, she said.

"They are maybe even more active than the men are," Fassihian said. "They have the most to gain from changes, from seeing a new government in Iran."

Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said she is "not surprised at all" by the level of participation among Iranian women. Coleman is author of the forthcoming book "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: Women and Reform in the Middle East".

Iranian women can drive, vote, own businesses, attend and teach college and hold political office, among other things.

At the same time, they have fewer rights than men in family and criminal law, Coleman said. Iranian women are also required to observe Islamic dress, but how they comply ranges from the head-to-toe covering known as the "chador" to a strip of fabric covering some of their hair.

"What you're seeing boiling to the surface right now is the unbearable weight of contradiction for women in Iranian society," Coleman said.

In 2006, Iranian female activists started the "One Million Signatures Campaign," an ongoing effort to change laws that discriminate against women.

Ahmad Iravani, an Iranian ayatollah who teaches Islamic law at Catholic University of America in Washington, said Iranian women "have always been in front of any kind of protest ... especially when they feel, right or wrong, that injustice is going on."

The desire for gender equality has grown as satellite dishes, the Internet and other technologies have allowed Iranians easier access to the outside world, he said, especially among the large youthful population in a country where the median age is 27.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo served in the Iranian parliament from 2000 to 2004. She and her colleagues passed a law to join an international convention calling for an end to discrimination against women, she said, but the law was vetoed by the country's powerful Guardian Council, an unelected body of clerics.

Haghighatjoo, who resigned from the parliament to protest a government crackdown on activists, came to the USA in 2005 and is a visiting scholar at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

She agreed that Iranian women have been particularly active in this campaign, and believes they were energized by promises from some candidates for more gender equality. "They're fighting at this very moment to create a better future for their children," she said. "I am hopeful."

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