TEHRAN, Iran A bill that would allow Iranian men to take additional wives without the consent of their first wife has angered women and the country's top justice official, who say it would undermine women's rights and could be a government attempt to more deeply enshrine its strict Islamic interpretation into law.
Outcry over the bill forced parliament to postpone a vote scheduled for Tuesday so lawmakers could debate it further in a committee.
Under Islam, a man can have up to four wives, and countries around the Mideast allow polygamy. However, Iran is one of the few along with Syria and Tunisia that require the consent of the first wife before a husband can take another. Still polygamy is rare in Iran, where most people frown on the practice.
The government of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed amendments last year to legislation drawn up by the judiciary that was supposed to be a landmark bill to allow women judges for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Opponents said the government is trying to impose an even stricter version of Islamic law in Iran, especially toward women. The complaints were enough to force the parliament speaker to send the bill back to committee before it was to be put to a vote for the first time Tuesday.
Under Iran's Islamic Republic, women are required to wear headscarves and conservative clothing. A woman needs her husband's permission to work or travel abroad and a man's court testimony is considered twice as important as a woman's.
Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 in part on a platform of restoring "Islamic values" that hard-liners say were eroded under the reform program of his predecessors. In 2006, Iranian activists launched a campaign to try to change laws that deny women equal rights in matters such as divorce and court testimonies sparking a crackdown in which a number of women activists were arrested.
Despite the current restrictions, Iran's 35 million women have greater freedoms and political rights than women in most neighboring Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. There are numerous women in parliament and other political offices, though they are barred from the presidency and the more powerful, clerical post of supreme leader.
Earlier this week, dozens of women's rights activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, went to parliament to protest the polygamy bill.
"That the parliament postponed the vote is a significant victory for women in Iran," said women's rights activist Farzaneh Ebrahimzadeh. "But we have to fight on. The bill may return to the parliament for a vote but we have to make sure that articles reducing the rights of women are deleted."
Hard-line lawmaker Fatemeh Alia said in remarks published Thursday that she and other conservative lawmakers won't give in and will fight for a vote in the parliament soon.
"Lawmakers will never give up drawing up Islamic laws ... and won't give in to mudslinging by a group of secularists gathered around those obtaining gifts from aliens," Alia was quoted as saying by the daily Etemad-e-Melli. She was referring to Ebadi, who hard-liners accuse of working for the interests of Iran's enemies.
The government amendments were added to the Family Protection Bill soon after it was drawn up last year by the judiciary. Aside from allowing some female judges, the bill imposes prison sentences for men who marry girls before they have reached legal age. The bill had sat in parliament's judiciary committee since its submission to parliament.
Another government amendment that has drawn objections from the judiciary would introduce a tax on the dowry grooms pay to wives upon marriage under Islamic law. Opponents say the government should not be allowed to get its hands on that money.
Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi criticized the government's amendments as harmful to women. He said the proposed changes have overshadowed the pro-family articles in the original bill drawn up by the judiciary.
"The dowry tax was unnecessary. It is harmful to women," he told judges Monday. He also signaled his opposition to the polygamy amendment, saying it should be "amended and debated, away from public controversy."
The bill is now the focus of family discussions in Iran. At an "iftar" dinner Thursday ending the daily fast in the holy month of Ramadan, a family hotly debated the issue.
"A man taking another wife will give financial protection to the second woman. This will help fight social vices in the society," said Reza Khodakarami. His wife, Mahtab, strongly disagreed. "No. It only tramples women's rights," she said, as other family members clapped and whistled in support of her comments.
Iran has refused to ratify the U.N. convention on women's rights, and the country's senior clerics in Qom, Iran's main center of Islamic learning, have rejected the convention as un-Islamic.
But women's rights got a boost with the 1997 election of former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who appointed a female vice president. Since then, other women have held positions within the government but have not been Cabinet ministers. And while women in Iran can run for parliament, they are prohibited from running for president.