Iranian Women 'Freest in the World,' Ahmadinejad Says

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - In defiance of reports from the U.S. State Department and various human rights groups, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday that "the freest women in the world are the women in Iran."

"If you look at our women, they're active in every level of society as researchers and social groups and universities, in parties, in the press, in the arts, in politics, in political associations," Ahmadinejad told reporters at the National Press Club. "They're [among] the most active women in the world and they're free."

"Human rights groups say what they want and we tell them that they're wrong," Ahmadinejad said.

But the Iranian penal code is discriminatory toward women, and violence and mistreatment of women is widely tolerated, according to a report released in March 2007 by the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Women and men who are found guilty of adultery could be subject to stoning, according to the report, which also found that a "morality force" beats women in the street for "wearing makeup or clothing regarded as insufficiently modest."

Women who appear in public without the appropriate Islamic head coverings can be sentenced to fines or lashings, stated the report, which pointed out that "absent... a clear legal definition of appropriate hejab or punishment, women were at the mercy of the disciplinary forces or the judge."

It found evidence of "rampant" honor killings in western regions of Iran with little punishment for perpetrators.

Police broke up at least two women's rights rallies in Iran in 2006, according to the report, and several Web sites dealing with women's issues also were blocked. At one rally, a human rights activist was detained and held until October without facing charges.

"The government enforced gender segregation in most public spaces and prohibited women from mixing openly with unmarried men or men not related to them," the report said. "Women must ride in a reserved section on public buses and enter public buildings, universities, and airports through separate entrances."

"The testimony of two women equates with that of one man," the report found. "The blood money paid to the family of a female crime victim is half the sum paid for a man."

Ahmadinejad said agencies that report on human rights around the world "are unaware of the situation in Iran," and insisted that "our people are the freest people in the world, the most aware people in the world, the most enlightened."

Rob McInturff, a spokesman for the Department of State, told Cybercast News Service that the department's lack of personnel in Iran is "certainly a limitation but it doesn't mean we have no idea what's going on there."

There is no U.S. embassy in Iran, so government officials are prevented from directly observing the human rights situation. The report draws heavily from non-government human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International.

McInturff said that in addition to monitoring news reports of human rights violations and cross-referencing the annual reports from various NGOs, the State Department works closely with other nations that do have diplomatic relations with Iran and are able to report on human rights conditions from within the country.

Zahir Janmohamed, advocacy director for the Middle East at Amnesty USA, said there is "no basis for his [Ahmadinejad's] defense because we are basing these reports on leading human rights activists, reports in newspapers, even admissions by the Iranian government."

"I think the record speaks very clearly that there are still very serious challenges to women's rights in Iran," Janmohamed told Cybercast News Service. "Relativism in this case isn't going to grant Iran immunity from the abuses it's committing."

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