By Roya Karimi and Daisy Sindelar, RFE/RL
The draft law stipulates that single women up to the age of 40 must receive official permission from their father or male guardian in order to obtain travel documents.
Lawmakers in Iran are preparing to consider legislation that may drastically alter an adult woman's ability to obtain a passport and travel outside the country.
The draft law, set to go before the 290-seat Majlis, stipulates that single women up to the age of 40 must receive official permission from their father or male guardian in order to obtain travel documents.
Under current law, all Iranians under 18 years of age -- both male and female -- must receive paternal permission before receiving a passport. Married women must receive their husband's approval to receive the documents.
The proposal is expected to find support in the conservative Majlis.
Critics say the draft law is the latest attack on women in a country whose Islamic leaders are eager to scale back a burgeoning rights movement.
Human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Iran's interpretation of Shari'a law puts girls and women at a distinct disadvantage.
"According to our laws, if a 9-year-old girl commits a criminal offense, she will be tried and punished exactly as a 40-year-old person would," Ebadi says. "But if she wants to leave the country she is required, until the age of 40, to get permission from her father [for a passport]. If her father is deceased, she has to get permission from a judge."
Iran's civil code overwhelmingly favors fathers and husbands in all personal matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.
Girls may be legally married as early as 13, and some lawmakers argue the age may, under Islamic interpretation, drop as low as 9. All women require permission from a male guardian to marry, regardless of their age.
Under Iranian law, women are also strictly compromised in terms of rights to compensation and giving legal testimony.
They are also bound by a strictly observed Islamic dress and conduct code, which forbids casual contact with the opposite sex and ordains that a woman must keep her hair and body covered in public.
Such laws are often used as a pretext to crack down on political opponents.
Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent advocate for women's and children's rights, is currently serving a six-year sentence in Tehran's notorious Evin prison for a range of charges, including violating the Islamic dress code for appearing in public without a head scarf.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is in the fourth week of a hunger strike (file photo)
Free Nasrin Sotoudeh
Sotoudeh, who in October was co-awarded the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, is in the fourth week of a hunger strike.
Women's rights activists have seen some success in fighting back against some of the harsher aspects of Shari'a law.
One campaign claims to have reduced the number of women facing death by stoning for convictions of prostitution or adultery.
Another, the 1 Million Signatures campaign backed by Ebadi, has helped call attention to the stark legal discrimination against women in Iranian laws.
Ebadi, who now works in London after fleeing Iran amid rising harassment, says the rights movement has caused discomfort among Tehran's ruling establishment.
"Feminist movements have become very large, very active in Iran. Women are fighting for equal rights. Equal rights are the first pillar of democracy," Ebadi says. "So the government is using different ways to create restrictions for women."
The draft law on passports and travel comes just months after Iran announced it was closing dozens of university-level courses to women across the country.
Education officials defended the change, saying single-gender courses were needed to reestablish "balance" in the republic's universities, where female students outnumber males 3-to-2.
The move was seen as an attempt to weaken the country's cadres of politically active, well-educated women.
But at a time of low population growth and high unemployment, it may also be an attempt to force independent, working women back into traditional roles as homemakers and mothers.
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