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As Elections Near, Iranian Women Stage Protest


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Several people were killed in Iran yesterday when a series of explosions rocked two cities. Hardest hit was Ahvas in the south near the border with Iraq. Tehran was also a target in what's described as the worst outbreak of political violence in years there. Iranian officials said the attackers were seeking to disrupt this Friday's presidential elections. Political dissent in Iran usually takes the form of unauthorized demonstrations. This was the case yesterday when hundreds of women marched through Tehran protesting gender discrimination. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from the Iranian capital.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Iran is just days from presidential elections, but the questions on the streets isn't so much who are you voting for but will you even go to the polls. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the appointed clerics that rule this country and many Iranians have threatened to boycott election day in protest. It's in this political climate that women's rights activists announced they would organize a street protest against gender discrimination yesterday without permission from the authorities. They were met by scores of police.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: The police set up a perimeter on a crowded street in central Tehran and physically prevented people from joining the rally. When they began swinging their clubs at pedestrians, the street erupted in boos of disgust.

(Soundbite of protesters)

WATSON: Several people were beaten and detained. One furious man turned to a foreign reporter and said the Iranian authorities were worse than Hitler. For some here, a visiting Hollywood actor became an unlikely symbol of hope. A distraught middle-aged woman approached Sean Penn to say she'd seen police beat and drag away two women.

Unidentified Woman #1: Mr. Penn...

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #1: ...please, they want you to write the truth.

WATSON: Penn's reporting trip to Iran to cover the elections has made front-page news here this week, but the actor said police took away his camera and journalistic credentials when he tried to attend the demonstration.

Unidentified Woman #2: They took your camera?

Mr. SEAN PENN (Actor): Yeah, my video camera.

Unidentified Woman #1: Mister, now I want you to write the whole truth.

WATSON: Despite threats and intimidation, a core group of several hundred defiant women pushed through the police lines and gathered in front of the gates of Tehran University. There, surrounded by police, they sat on the sidewalk dressed in black chadors, overcoats and shawls, chanting for freedom and an end to discrimination against women.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Foreign language spoken) So follow me. (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Last month, the clerics on Iran's Guardian Council disqualified more than 80 women from running for president because of their gender. The constitution also states that the value of a woman's life and her testimony in court is half that of a man and wives cannot travel without their husbands' permission. One of the protesters yesterday was a doctor who only gave her first name, Mirjan(ph).

MIRJAN (Doctor): We are here to prove that we Iranian women want to be equal to the men. We are almost half of this country and we do not want to just continue like this. We are suffering, our country, our everything. Our continent is so bad. We are suffering any political issue here.

WATSON: Several plain-clothed security officers were among the crowd carefully videotaping demonstrators, but in the end, authorities allowed the women to chant and wave their protest signs for more than an hour before they peacefully dispersed.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

WATSON: Organizers said they wanted to capitalize yesterday on the fact that authorities have held back from cracking down on public demonstrations in the run-up to Friday's presidential election. Last week, several dozen women broke a quarter-century ban on female sports spectators when they successfully forced their way into a stadium to attend a national soccer game. Though yesterday's protest pushed the boundaries yet again, some demonstrators expressed disappointment at its small size. Since 1999, student activists have led much larger opposition rallies which were then violently crushed by supporters of the ruling clerics. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Tehran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.