Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Iran bloggers back women's protest

Sebastian Usher, BBC News:
Iranian news websites and women bloggers have been full of angry comment about the way that policewomen took part in breaking up a women's demonstration for more legal rights in Tehran on Monday.

Pictures on several Iranian websites showed the policewomen in black chadors wielding batons against women protesters - many of whom were dressed in patterned headscarves and short, colourful overcoats and jeans.

The descriptions and photos appeared on some of the more than 100,000 active blogs in Iran that have sprung up in recent years, providing an unprecedented insight into Iranian people's lives and concerns - and for the most part bypassing the censors. READ MORE

The women's rally in Tehran on Monday was organised to demand an end to Iranian men's right to take more than one wife, as well as to call for greater equality on divorce.

The protest, involving about 200 women, was broken up by the police, using batons and pepper spray.

'Without restraint'

Among the police were a number of women officers. Their behaviour has been widely noted by Iranian bloggers.

One site commented that the women police were swinging their batons without restraint.

Another written by an eyewitness called the confrontation between the women police officers and protesters "very interesting" - and described one protester being chased by a policewoman, shouting back at her: "Don't you care if your husband takes a second wife?"

A posting on another site described some policewomen as taking off their chadors so they could use their batons more easily - commenting acidly that they did not seem to mind that non-family members could see them uncovered and hear their voices.

Photos of the rally posted on several Iranian websites bore out these descriptions - with one picture showing a policewoman in a black chador facing off against a protester in a tight, short coat and high heels, symbolising the gulf between conservative and reform-minded women in Iran.

Counter intelligence

Iranian women were allowed to join the police in 2000 for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

In line with the conservative Islamic code in force in Iran since then, their activities are mainly confined to dealing with other women. Their involvement in breaking up a protest is a rare occurrence.

The bloggers and websites that have commented on their involvement are just a small part of about 800,000 websites that have been registered in Iran in the past five years.

Although most are dormant, it is estimated that at least 100,000 are currently active.

As in the rest of the world, most are personal and non-political - but others do express views and post news and information that run counter to official opinion in Iran.

This has become particularly important in the past few years as most mainstream reformist outlets have been closed, forcing opposition voices to find new ways to express themselves on the internet.