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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

In Iran, the pace of dissent among women has gained momentum. Here's how Hadi Ghaemi of Human rights watch describes the situation.

Mr. HATTI GAYEMI (Human Rights Wants) The women's movement in general is in the forefront of social activist that we are on at the moment. They have been prosecuted since March 8th of last year. Many of them have an open case pending against them and two of them are in arbitrary detention in solitary confinement.

LYDEN: Those two are the last of 33 women protesters rounded up in the demonstration earlier this month. They've been demonstrating against the trials of others who led a protest last summer.

One of the leaders of that demonstration, Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, avoided trial when the government allowed her to leave the country. Human rights activists say, Iranian authorities more and more, are encouraging dissidents to leave in hopes of weakening the protest movement and avoiding the creation of martyrs in jail. Fariba Davoodi Mohajer arrived two weeks ago in Washington, D.C.

We sat down with Mohajer at the offices of the National Endowment for Democracy, where she was visiting, to talk about the status of the women's movement in Iran.

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LYDEN: What do you make of the government's crackdown on women's groups protesting then, for example, March Force last summer? The climate is very severe for wome activists.

FARIBA DAVOODI MOHAJER: (Through Translator) March 4th was very symbolic in the sense that it was a brave move by the women who came and protested. They were protesting because they wanted to show solidarity for the other women who were to be put on trial. And this is significant, given the very dangerous climate in Iran today, that these women have the guts to stand up. And what they're saying is that there is another line of defense. If you take this women, there are more behind them, and we will be there and you will hear our voices.

The government has to understand that it is in a woman's blood to speak out, and they would no longer be silent and scared that for example, a group of top leaders will be held in prison because they know that there will be another group of women that will come behind them.

And the strength of the women's movement is that, uh, the women are not fearful of what will happen to them next, that there's another cadre of women who will come and support them.

LYDEN: A journalist by trade, Mohajer worked for a string of newspapers that were shut down by the Iranian government. The diminutive, almost winsome blonde, had delicate features that belie her strength. Now 43, she looks a decade younger. It's hard to picture her spending 40 days in solitary confinement, which she endured in 2001.

When we met her, Mohajer had just come from the gym, where she had lifted weights to prepare, she said, half jokingly, for her next arrest. Indeed, she will likely be jailed if she returns to Iran, which, she says, she's planning to do.

After the June 12th protest last year, the Iranian authorities with against national authorities with acting against the national security, propaganda against the state, and giving interviews and disseminating falsehoods. So she and the other women activists decided to avoid direct confrontation with the police and went door to door in what they called the One Million Signatures campaign.

They asked women and men to sign a petition demanding changes in Islamic laws which allow for stoning women, denying women inheritance and equal rights, child custody and other basic rights. Human rights watch calls the campaign a win-win enterprise because even if a woman failed to sign a petition, she's informed about her rights.

DAVOODI MOHAJER: (Through Translator) Let me just give you a little bit of history of how this came about. This was actually after June 12th, when 70 women were arrested. We got together and we thought about what it is that we could do. And one of the younger members of our group said, well, why don't we come up with a campaign where we actually go door to door and knock on people's doors and talk to them about the discriminatory laws that are inside Iran. Because what we thought is that we have many members who are young, who have husbands and children, and you can't expect that all of them would be a situation where they could afford going to prison.

Usually, we try to go during hours when the men might not be at home because we've found that if the men are home, they don't allow their wives to sign the document. And it's very interesting because we also asked these women, what is your identity. For me, I'm a woman from Tehran. My identity and my cause might be to change the discriminatory laws, or to talk about gender discrimination.

But we're very curious, what it is that the rural Iranian women want, and there's two issues that they're concerned with - one is to have financial independence, and second is to stop violence against women within the household.

And so in the end, when we present this, we've gathered one million signature, and we present this to the government and to the people, they actually will be able to read what it is that women wish and desire in various different regions around the country.

LYDEN: It sounds like you are all very passionate; you yourself, very courageous. You're actually planning to return to Iran, knowing that you'll be going to prison?

DAVOODI MOHAJER: (Through translator) The real courage belongs to young women, specifically, I have the story of one woman who was arrested on that June 12th, and she was beaten very badly by the police forces. And then, when she went home, after three days, she was beaten again by her father. And these are the stories that give you a sense of, you know, what is at stake for these young women, and how they put themselves in danger, because they want the society to be better.

LYDEN: We spoke with Fariba Davoodi Mohajer at the office that her son-in-law, Ali Afshari(ph) occupies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Back in Iran, the two activists passed through the same prison. Afshari was himself a prominent dissident and former leader of the Iranian student protest movement. During his imprisonment between 2000 and 2003, Afshari was tortured and spent 400 days in solitary confinement. This year, the family, now reunited in Washington, will be together for the approaching Persian new year called Nourouz.

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LYDEN: The two women arrested this month who remain in solitary confinement after being imprisoned in Tehran are Shadi Sadr, a journalist and lawyer who helped to to over overturn the conviction of women sentenced to death; and Mahbubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a member of the campaign against stoning.

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LYDEN: Our producer, Davar Ardalan, interpreted for Ms. Mohajer. To read profiles of some of the key players in the Iranian women's movement and to hear more from Human Rights Watch on their status, visit npr.org.

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LYDEN: This is NPR News.

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