Women’s groups here have abandoned plans to demonstrate for equal rights on International Women’s Day today, after more than 30 of their colleagues were jailed for protesting on Sunday.
But even after that decision, rumors spread by e-mail and cell phone text messages Wednesday night that an ad hoc protest might take place anyway, in front of parliament.
Fifteen of the women were released by late Wednesday, and the remainder told family members they were on a hunger strike inside Tehran’s Evin Prison.
The women were detained outside the Revolutionary Court, where cases had begun against five women who were charged with “acting against national security” after a June street rally calling for equal legal rights for women in Iran.
The cases and arrests are part of a mixed picture of social freedoms and human rights in Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While the arrests Sunday have shaken activists, Iranians note at the same time little enforcement of Islamic dress codes long expected under conservative rule.
The mixed signals sent by the government highlight the measured – and targeted – way its conservative agenda manifests itself on the street.
Activists charge that the pretext for the arrests is the government's suspicion that the women were receiving some of the $85 million earmarked by the US to undermine the government by funding antiregime and pro-democracy groups. Activists say they haven't received any of those funds.
"I am so sorry, [but] I am not surprised [by the arrests]," says Elahe Koulaiei, a former member of parliament's national security committee. "I think [the arrests are] not acceptable in the context of our revolution and Islamic thought, [which require] a very kind relationship between rulers and the ruled."
But she adds,"These [authorities] are very pessimistic about the intentions of foreigners, and assign this kind of [protest] to external factors."
Wednesday, 620 leading members from several Iranian political parties and trade unions wrote an open letter to Iran's judiciary chief voicing "disappointment" over the arrests.
"Today is no longer a day for someone to be jailed for thinking and expressing their views," said parliament deputy Soheli Jelodarzadeh, speaking at a women's conference.
The human rights organization co-founded by Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, earlier called the arrests "illegal."