Iranian women fight controversial ‘polygamy’ bill

amnesty:On a summer night in 2008, the wives of some Iranian members of Parliament started receiving phone calls.‏

“Would you mind if I married your husband – just for a week?” asked the female voice on the end of the line.

The
callers argued that taking another wife is a Muslim man’s right. By
allowing it, the MPs’ wives would be performing a good Islamic deed.
Some of the wives hung up in shock.

But marrying the MPs was the
last thing the callers actually wanted. In reality, they were women’s
rights activists opposed to a controversial “Family Protection Bill”
which the Iranian government proposed in 2007.

The activists say
they discovered that at least 65 male members of the country’s
290-strong parliament had two or more wives. This is despite the fact
that polygamy contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran has ratified. Article 23 stipulates
that states must ensure that men and women have equal rights when
marrying or at the dissolution of marriage.

If passed, “The
Family Protection Bill” would reduce Iranian women’s rights even
further, allowing men to take up to three additional wives without the
consent or knowledge of their first spouse. Iranian law currently allows
Muslim men to have up to four wives, but only after obtaining a court
order demonstrating the permission of the first spouse and his ability
to treat them all equally. For women who depend entirely on their
husband’s income, sharing that with a second, third or fourth wife can
mean severe financial hardship.

According to Shi’a Islam, Iranian
men can already take any number of “temporary wives” without informing
their first wife. The length of a temporary marriage is defined in
advance and can last anything from hours to decades. Temporary wives
generally face social ostracism, and their children may face
difficulties in accessing public services such as education because if
the marriage is unregistered, it may be hard for the mother to prove
paternity.

Roya Kashefi of the Association of Iranian Researchers works closely with women’s rights activists in Iran.
 
“In Islam, family is the most important element within society,” she says.

“It’s
a sacred entity and there are many articles in the Iranian Constitution
that point to the importance of marriage. So it’s very contradictory to
have laws that actually endanger the very foundation of that marriage
with polygamy.”‏

Roya Kashefi has helped to organize a
Europe-wide tour publicizing a banner inscribed with the tragic stories
of 40 Iranian women who are second wives, temporary wives or the
children of such marriages. The tour, named “Chehel Tikeh” (“Forty
pieces”) is aimed at raising international awareness about the
discriminatory bill.

The banner was taken to Iran’s parliament, the Majles, a year ago, although MPs refused to accept it.

Fifteen thousand women signed a petition calling for a ban on polygamy, submitted at the same time. 

Women’s
rights activists are urging the Iranian authorities to outlaw polygamy,
grant equal divorce and custody rights and create laws tackling
domestic violence.

At the moment married women in Iran can be
prevented from working, leaving the country or pursuing further
education by their husbands. It is difficult for a woman to divorce her
husband without his consent – even if he has been violent towards her.
If she remarries after divorce, she loses custody of any children.

Activists
say provisions in the new bill will make it even more difficult for
women to obtain a divorce, leaving thousands at risk of continued
domestic violence, which is not currently criminalized under Iranian
law.

Four years after its inception, the bill has still not been
passed, largely because of widespread opposition from a broad coalition
of women’s groups.

A ban on polygamy is unlikely to happen soon
in Iran even though the UN Human Rights Committee – an expert body
charged with overseeing the ICCPR – says the practice should be
abolished because it violates the dignity of women. For change to
happen, external pressure is needed, says Roya Kashefi.

“The
international community needs to reinforce the voices of Iranian women
and raise the alarm about this bill which will leave Iranian women even
more vulnerable,” says Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s
Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.

“Instead of
enhancing equality between men and women, Iranian MPs are seeking to
take women’s rights a step backwards and to yet again disregard
international law,” she added.

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