Tue, 04 Sep 2001

Iran's female daredevils lead fight for more equality

By Ali Akbar Dareini

TEHRAN, Iran (AP): The teenager mounts her motorcycle, starts the engine and in a flash is defying gravity, balanced nearly parallel to the ground as she speeds around inside a eight-meter- tall she calls her "Wall of Death."

She's also defying the strict social mores that conservative Islamic clerics are seeking to maintain despite strong electoral support given to Iranian reformers in recent years.

"I'm happy that I enjoy the right to do this, when before in the Islamic Republic it was not possible," 16-year-old Elham Madani said after one of her 15-minute performances in a Tehran park.

Daredevil motorcycle shows. Wearing makeup in public. Pushing back headscarves to show more and more hair. Iranian women are testing the restrictions imposed on them since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Female journalist Raheleh Imani believes such small steps will lead to bigger things.

"Easing of restrictions has given women the courage to seek rights equal to those of men. Gender should not bar women from making progress. Banning women from social activities such as riding a motorcycle has no supporters among women," said Imani, dressed in a black, loose-fitting head-to-toe chador.

"They also want to play a role in the political arena and not be ruled by men," she added.

The debate over the role of women is part of the struggle over the direction of the Islamic Republic 22 years after the revolution.

Religious hard-liners don't want to see restrictions on women eased. And despite election victories by reformers, the conservatives have the power to enforce their ideas because they control the judiciary, police and state-owned media and have the backing of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Reformist President Mohammad Khatami easily won the 1997 presidential election and re-election June 8 on strong support from women and young people seeking social and political liberalization.

Women's rights need "a new approach at all levels of society," Khatami said recently. "Discrimination against women which exists in our culture, our laws and our political structure must end."

Currently women can vote and run for seats in the parliament, rights they have had since the revolution.

But no woman has served on the Cabinet and they are not well represented in government. The hard-line Guardian Council, which reviews all laws passed by parliament and oversees elections, has refused to certify any woman presidential candidates.

On the personal level, women must cover their hair and cloak their bodies in loose coats or chadors. By law their inheritance is only half that of their male siblings. In a court of law, their testimony is worth only half that of a man's.

"Clerics say this is Islamic law, but I cannot accept that women are discriminated against," said Bahareh Nowruzi, a 24-year-old student. "We want equal legal political rights to decide our destiny. Easing of social restrictions really encourages women to seek a more active social and political role."

Reformist lawmaker Fatemeh Haqiqatjou won her seat in the 290- member parliament in elections last year pledging to promote women's rights.

"We want to get rid of unnecessary restrictions imposed on women based on strict interpretations by hard-line clerics. Islam supports equal rights for men and women but, unfortunately, hard- line clerics oppose women getting top posts. We don't want to be discriminated against," said Haqiqatjou, one of 11 women in the legislature.

The parliament has taken steps to promote women's rights by approving legislation to lift a ban on unmarried women studying abroad and another bill to prohibit girls under 14 and boys under 16 from getting married without court permission.

The hard-line Guardian Council approved lifting the travel ban, but rejected the minimum marriage age bill, saying it contradicted Islamic laws that clerics interpret as allowing girls to be married at 9 and boys at 15.

Haqiqatjou said hard-liners realize their conservative interpretation of Islamic law has little public support, but other women disagree.

Monireh Ahmadi complained that behavior such as wearing makeup and motorcycle riding are not signs of freedom, but rather "pave the way for the corruption of our girls."

Elham, the motorcycle daredevil, does have her fans. She and her sister Nasim, 20, have being awing spectators in at Eram Park with daily shows on their Wall of Death.

Elham cuts a striking figure with her brown lipstick and wind- whipped gray coat, her sleeves brazenly rolled up to her elbows and locks of hair flying out from beneath her loosely tied black headscarf.

"She is fantastic. I've never seen such a scene in my life. I wish women would have been allowed to do this many years earlier," said one spectator, Ali Fadaei.

Others in the audience, most of them young men, clapped and whistled, and some pressed 10,000-rial note (US$1.25) tips on Elham.