Iranian law institutionalizes discrimination against women in a variety of ways. Under the law, women have fewer rights than men in matters relating to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and civil compensation. An Iranian woman's testimony in court is worth half that of a man's. The majority of university students in Iran are females, yet they are not treated equally when they enter the workforce.
In Iran, a woman must obtain a male relative's permission to travel abroad. In Iran, women may not run for president, nor are they allowed to be judges. And punishment for so-called immoral behavior is meted out disproportionately to women in Iran.
To change these laws, a petition drive was started in 2006. The campaign was launched after a series of peaceful demonstrations by women's rights activists were violently broken up by Iranian security forces. The campaign relies on volunteers to hand out pamphlets describing Iran's current laws and to offer those interested a chance to sign the petition demanding changes. The goal is to collect one million signatures.
Mahnaz Afkhami is president of the international non-governmental organization Women's Learning Partnership. She praises the signature campaign in Iran as "an educational process as well as a demand for change and for reform":
"It is a grassroots campaign, which at the very least educates the public and gains public consensus. And at most, which is the highest hopes they have, and we all share, is that it will end up in more egalitarian laws regarding women."
The response of the Iranian government has been harsh. Many women's rights activists have been given prison terms and some have been sentenced to flogging. The situation has become so bad that Iranian lawyer and Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi has written to the U-N High Commissioner for Human Rights asking for an investigation. "Campaigning to end discriminatory laws should not send a woman to jail," said Ms. Ebadi.
The U.S. agrees. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, in a statement, said that "the United States stands with the women of Iran, who courageously struggle for their universal rights and justice in their country."
Despite the arrests of many women activists, women in Iran continue to struggle to achieve basic rights and dignity.