Two well-known and moderate women's rights activists have been detained in Iran since last week for participating in a peaceful street protest. The incident has outraged activists in Iran and elsewhere, but there is much more to it.
On June 23, 2003, after months of heated debate, the then-reformist parliament in Iran passed a bill, in favor of signing a UN document that would abolish legal discrimination against women.
It was a big day for the 14 female MPs, who had tirelessly pushed for the bill in the hope that it would be a serious start to a series of changes in Iranian legal system - and an attempt to repair the Islamic republic's terrible international image on human rights.
But the law, to little surprise, was rejected by an ultra-conservative body (The Guardian Council) which has six top clerics and six lawyers and oversees parliament to make sure its decisions are not against the Iranian constitution or the core values of Islam. (Or their reading of those values.) They said the bill violated both Iran's sovereignty and Islamic law.
The then-77 year-old secretary of the council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, an infamous opponent of the reform movement at the time and a strong supporter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now, said it was his saddest day of his work on the council, according to an Iranian official.
The rejection came after months of lobbying and protests (including street protests) by ultra-conservative clerics and their supporters who opposed the bill - despite a small minority of high-ranking clerics, such as Ayatollah Sane'I, who supported the law and didn't find it un-Islamic. The unlucky bill has so far been passed between various legislative councils and bodies and its future is entirely unclear.
Four years later, women's activists in Iran have tried alternative routes to abolish the discriminative laws against women, in areas such as employment, divorce, inheritance and custody rights, among others.
Two different approaches have emerged: One approach believes that the best way to silence the conservative critics, who accuse the reform movement of being a Western import with an aim to undermine religious values, is to construct a broad and inclusive manifesto, from bottom up, by mostly Muslim Iranian women, based on the experiences of post-colonial feminists in Asia and Africa.
The other approach is focuses around a campaign that wants to create local and international pressure on the Islamic republic by collecting one million signatures from ordinary Iranian women, and use that leverage to raise awareness of and abolish the discriminatory laws.
While the former approach tries to work within the current social, political and juridical structure, the latter rejects the structure in the first place and, by using methods of organised, massive civil disobedience, tries to force the establishment to accept the changes.
Both approaches have been more or less tolerated by the Islamic Republic in the past couple of years and, as a result of various conflicting opinions within the establishment, a neutral position has emerged in regards to the women's movement.
But in the past few months, there have been some signs that the American 'pro-democracy' project has developed an appetite for Iran's women's movement. And why not? What else can potentially mobilise half the population of a country against its government and possibly foment Ukranian or Georgian-style coloured revolution?
A Dutch newspaper discovered last year that a controversial Dutch grant to promote 'pro-democracy' media projects was awarded to an American organisation, Freedom House, to launch an online Persian-language magazine (Gozaar) to promote human rights and democracy.
Immediately, Iranian authorities who were already suspicious of the Dutch government's intentions (they are the perhaps the only country other than the US that has publicly created a fund to promote democracy in Iran) started to closely watch the other projects aided by the 15 million Euro fund, which was mostly awarded to European-based Iranian exiles. They began to see the whole budget as a Dutch cover up for the American regime-change project.
One other grant was awarded to an Iranian dissident to start a web magazine on Women's issues. But it emerged that the woman in charge of the web magazine, Shahrzad News, was an active member of what was once an armed opposition group that was outlawed and dismantled in the early years after the Iranian revolution.
Shahrzad News developed close ties with some of the women's activists, mainly with those who favored the civil disobedience approach, and, in addition to having them write articles, it organised a workshop in Dubai to improve the journalistic skills of some women's activists.
At the same time, the US State Department announced that it had created a special office in Dubai to gather intelligence on Iran and establish easier contact with Iranian dissidents. New York Times reported last December that US State Department has indirectly funded workshops on organising civil disobedience, hoping to foment massive revolts in Iran and overthrow the regime.
A mix of paranoia and intelligence has, ever since, led the Iranian government to become extremely wary of the activities of the non-governmental organisations, especially those working on women's issues. Last month they prevented a group of women from attending a new workshop in India, organised by Shahrzad News, and detained three of them for a day. Based on the accounts later published by those activists, the well-behaved intelligence officers questioned them in detail about their financial ties with Shahrzad News and other possible foreign-funded organisations.
And last week they detained over thirty female activists who had gathered in front of a court to protest the prosecution of a few other activists, who were charged with disrupting national security by participating in an street protest on Women's Day in Tehran. They have now all been released, except for two - Shadi Sadr and Mahboobeh Abbasgholizadeh. The Islamic republic has lost much of its tolerance.
It's a sad story. On the one hand, foreign 'pro-democracy' groups try to use women for their regime-change plans. On the other hand, the ultra-conservative factions in the Iranian establishment have found new justifications for painting the entire women's movement as a threat to the national security - which alienates the moderates within the establishment - and are pushing for a total crackdown on any sort of women's activism.
The only thing that could save the women's movement from a further duress is to distance itself from foreign 'pro-democracy' funding and abandon even peaceful street protests. Going back to lower-profile types of activism, engagement with moderate conservative officials (especially in the judiciary) and attempts to enter the local and national legislature are the most effective and least-costly options at the moment.