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PRAGUE, June 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Mehrangiz Kar is among Iran's most prominent human rights lawyers and the recipient of a number of international rights awards. A writer and essayist who has been widely published on human rights and women's issues in Iran, Kar has been persecuted and imprisoned by authorities because of her work. She currently lives and conducts research in the United States. Kar recently visited RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, where she told RFE/RL that women cannot achieve equal rights under Iran's current establishment. She also talked about authorities' June 12 suppression of a women's rights protest in the capital, Tehran, and legal obstacles to gender equality. She spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.
Iranian lawyer and rights activist
Mehrangiz Kar on June 12

RFE/RL: As you know, on [June 12] police forces in Tehran used force to disrupt a peaceful gathering by activists who were demanding an end to legal discrimination against women. Witnesses say police forces -- including female officers -- violently beat the protestors, insulted them, and arrested many. Iranian officials have confirmed the arrest of 70 people for attending what they have described as an "illegal gathering." But activists say the gathering was legal under Iranian law and that it was not political in nature. What is your view as a lawyer, and why do you think the government took such tough action against the gathering?
Mehrangiz Kar: I really don't know why [authorities dispersed demonstrators], but I know that this gathering was not in any way violating Iran's constitution. One of the principles of the Islamic Republic's constitution is related to the right to hold gatherings -- which is free unless people carry weapons or it is correctly assessed that a gathering is against Islamic principles. Of course, there is a general belief that seeking justice is not violating Islamic principles. The women [who attended the gathering] were not carrying guns; the gathering was calm and peaceful, and they were just protesting against some laws. And in fact they were demanding justice. Justice according to all Islamic scholars and religious experts is the essence of Islam. So it is not clear why there was such a violent reaction to the gathering.
RFE/RL: In recent months and since last year, women's rights activists have on several occasions launched such protests. And each time they have been met with a tough government response. Nevertheless, activists have vowed to continue their protests and take further action until their demands are met. Do you think that such protests will bring results? 

Mehrangiz Kar: In all societies, protest begins from some point. And in the beginning, protests are not usually large -- protests can be very small in their initial stage, when they are being formed. But if small protests are not met with a reasonable and wise reaction, gradually they turn into movements that can sometimes take the form of a riot. In the current situation, it seems that such reactions have not been successful in ceasing these demands. Iran's laws should be reconsidered. It's not only the women who are unhappy about these laws, but also citizens -- whenever they come into close contact with these laws in their daily lives -- [they] express their dissatisfaction. The [government] response is not a reasonable response, and we hope that it will be reconsidered.
RFE/RL: Do you think that there could be an end to discrimination against women in Iran under the current establishment?
Mehrangiz Kar: In my opinion, no. I have doubts that it is possible to end discrimination in the sense that the establishment -- if it's willing to do so -- would include equality between men and women in the laws. And I also think that the [political] establishment's hands are tied in this regard under the current constitution. On the other hand, all the bodies that are involved in legislation and take decisions in that regard -- the parliament, the Guardians Council, and the Expediency Council -- all three are under the control of [those] who interpret Islam in a way that does not result in equality between men and women. But I think that even if in the current framework there were a will to have a tolerant approach toward women's demands, then an improvement would have been possible -- but not total equality of women and men's rights. For example, the power of the Guardians Council in screening election candidates could have been reduced, approbatory supervision could have been abolished, and candidates [reflecting] other views could have entered the parliament. And also the composition of the Guardians Council and the Expediency Council would have changed. And Islamic scholars who could give better religious interpretations and reconsider current laws could have entered these bodies. But even under such circumstances, equality of men and women under the law would not be achieved -- because religious outlook, as far as we are informed, does not tolerate the equality of men and women in Islam, and it determines women's rights based on work distribution and also based on the distribution of roles it grants men and women.
RFE/RL: Let's talk a bit about you. You are one of Iran's most prominent human rights activists and defenders of women's rights. You have published several books and articles about women's issues -- such as violence against women -- and your work has often put you in conflict with authorities. What made you choose this path?
Mehrangiz Kar: Before the [1979] revolution, I worked as a journalist, and I published many political, social, and cultural articles. And some were dealing with the situation of women. But, in general, I was not very involved in [women's issues]. But after the revolution -- because of the necessity and situation that arose and conditions that were created -- many of the women who were not even sensitive to the issue of women's rights became sensitive. I think the first actions after the Islamic revolution created the motivations for this movement. It began with the compulsory veil (hejab), segregation, the expulsion of women from the workplace, and many other limitations that were imposed on women. They all had an influence, and naturally I used my writings skills to express regret over the conditions that women were facing. And look for solutions and also to protest against the legal and social situations of Iranian women.
RFE/RL: You've been living in the United States for the past four years, where you have been involved in academic activities and research. Could you tell us something more about your current activities?
Mehrangiz Kar: I did not choose to emigrate, or to live in exile, or whatever we call it. I came to the U.S. for medical treatment. But following [the arrest] of my husband [veteran journalist and cultural figure Siamak Pourzand] and [charges] that I heard were being made against me in relation to that case, all my friends and informed people told me, 'Don't return to Iran.' In recent years, I have been in contact with Iranian officials so that I can return to Iran safely and continue my work as a lawyer -- and [also because] my husband cannot leave the country. I've always expressed my readiness to bring this family together in Iran, but either there has been no response or indirect responses have been very negative. Outside Iran, I've been mostly working in academic environments, and I've also tried to a certain extent to continue my past activities. I am also writing several books, which I hope I will be able to publish. I was hoping that everything could be published in Iran; but since I left Iran, publishers cannot obtain permission to publish books under my name anymore. Because of that, I have reached the conclusion that I have to publish my books outside the country.
RFE/RL: Do you think you will be able to return to Iran in the near future? Are you hopeful?
Mehrangiz Kar: I'm very hopeful, but my family has suffered a lot -- especially my two daughters, who tell me that if my security is not [guaranteed], I shouldn't return to Iran. They say, 'We have practically lost our father, and we don't want you to be arrested. We'd have again to reach [out to] human rights organizations.' They are tired of it. Therefore, I am hopeful. But this hope is only [motivation] for me to continue my life. Otherwise I don't think it will be anytime soon.

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