An Iranian woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the Shiite holy shrine of Massoumeh, in 2008 parliamentary elections. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
What if Iranian women woke up one morning and found they could apply for a passport without a husband’s say-so?
Or if they could go out on the street bare-headed without risking 74 strokes of the lash?
Or if their inheritance rights spiked overnight from 50 per cent of men's to a full 100 per cent?
Or if their husbands could no longer divorce them on a whim, without warning?
The odds on that happening would be boosted if an Iranian woman won the presidency in next month’s contentious election.
But don’t bother to scan the slate for likely female candidates.
They’re banging their heads on the cast-iron ceiling of election laws constructed by the current constitution.
A total of 686 wannabees have registered to campaign against widely-resented President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who must step down shortly because of term limits. But the 30 or so female candidates bold enough to reach for the exclusively male highest circle of power were sharply reminded of their place last week by a member of Iran’s constitutional watchdog group, the Guardian Council, which keeps “undesirables” from seeking office.
Although there are nine female Iranian members of Parliament, all of them are conservative and hand-picked by the council. Reformers are not allowed in the race. But female presidential candidates are forbidden altogether: “the president must come from among the religious and political statesmen” or “rejal” in Farsi. In case of doubt, the word means “men of high achievement.”
The same holds true of the office of attorney general, who must be a “mojtahed,” or religious man qualified to issue a decree. Not much room for woman-power there.
That shuts out all of Iran’s capable, energetic and well educated women – like Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who now lives in exile under death threats. Ebadi, a lawyer and Iran's first female judge, was an egalitarian activist who opposed the Shah, and was happy to see him leave the country in 1979. A year later she was purged from her job by the new clerical regime and demoted, absurdly, to law clerk.
“They turned back the clock 1,400 years,” she told me in an interview. And when Ebadi and her liberally-minded husband went to a notary to swear out a marriage agreement that would give her back her matrimonial rights, the official was aghast. “Why would you want to do such a thing when the law has given you all the rights?” he asked her husband.
Three decades later, women seldom dare to ask the regime why their rights are still stuck in the Dark Ages. Although the presidential poll bars women candidates, the doors of the prisons are always open.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.