Iran's first daughter of the veil

Tehran - You can tell she is the daughter of the revolution, the daughter of its creator. Zahra Mustafavi's arched eyelids are Ayatollah Khomeini's, she has the same powerful nose, even the sweeping, emotional rise and fall of her father's voice when she speaks of punishment for the wicked and justice for the oppressed. In a world clearly divided between good and evil, there is little room for compromise for men on earth - or for women. And Mrs Mustafavi, cowled from head to toe in black, is the leader of all Iranian women's groups and an expert on Iranian women's rights.

Although equal in the sight of God, it is in the nature of women to be "kind and sentimental", she says, whereas men are "much more serious than women" - which is why they must be responsible for the children. Why, Mrs Mustafavi asks, is it that most soldiers in wars are men? The question is not intended to be critical. "Perhaps women can't stand the blood and the hospitals or the wounds. It's difficult for women, but for men its natural."

So much, I thought, for Florence Nightingale.

So I tried a different tack. If men were more warlike than women, wouldn't it be better to ask women to be soldiers and thus eliminate war? Mrs Mustafavi, Professor of Philosophy at Tehran University, wife of an assistant to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, listened without emotion. "Why don't you ask another question?" she replied.

And when we turned, in Mrs Mustafavi's little Tehran office with its garden of pink roses and climbing ivy, to the inevitable question of hijab, to the head-to-toe covering of Iranian women, to the black chador, the daughter of the Imam watched me like a hawk. In the Shia suburbs of Beirut, I said, some Muslim women wear hijab while others wore blouses and skirts with their hair uncovered. Why could Iran not accept the same practice - encouraging those women who wanted to wear hijab but protecting those who did not wish to do so? "Our role is that Islam is our authority," she said. "Our government is Islamic and, because of the need to keep our family secure, we believe in the hijab. A Christian believes he should go to church. But some people go and some don't go to church because some believe in it but some people are weak. This is Christian law. But in Iran, because the government is Islamic, Islam controls society and we must respect Islam's law."

Mrs Mustafavi wished to pursue her argument. "It's natural that there is an attraction between men and women. But if women appear in society naked, without any clothes, relations between them will become immoral." But hold on, I said, no one was arguing that women should appear naked in public. "So you are saying that nakedness is not good? And you are saying that nobody believes that women should be naked in society? Why not?" Well, I said - beginning to sound a little like the Imam's daughter - it was a question of morality and respect: but this surely didn't mean hijab, I said, because a woman could not be considered naked just because her hair was visible. "But if a woman wants to cover some part of her body, why not all of her body?" Mrs Mustafavi asked. "We have a logical reason for covering all of the body but you don't have any logical reason for not covering parts of the body. This complete covering inhibits men's actions - so the family is very secure here and our divorce rate is very low."

Then if an Iranian woman wishes to work in an office and her husband wishes her to stay at home, which of them, in Islam, should be granted their wish? "Men cannot force women to stay at home and keep the children," Mrs Mustafavi said. "When a couple want to get married here, they have pre-nuptial agreements. For example, the woman can ask her husband not to go out and work. And if he accepts this condition, he must obey it. On the other hand, she can say 'I'm free and I want to be outside the house and you can't keep me here.' And she can have the right to divorce. But they must both agree on all this and write it down before they marry."

But what of the Islamic strictures which say that a woman's testimony in court is worth only half that of a man's, that her inheritance rights are lower than a man's? Mrs Mustafavi replied with care: "You can't talk about one law separately - you have to study all the Islamic laws before you decide what is right or wrong. In Islam, we believe that the man is responsible for the woman's expenses and that he must pay her, and that he can't force her to work in the house. So if she asks for money from her husband, he must pay her. She can save this money if she wants - it is a share of her husband's money. Who benefits here? Even a man's testimony in court can be refused in Islamic law. In some cases, women's testimony is the same as the man's."

Does it not then worry Mrs Mustafavi that women are still, very occasionally, stoned to death for adultery in Iran? "In every country, there are rules, and people must respect these rules," she replied. "There is a condition that if they don't respect the rules, they must be punished. Don't you punish thieves in your country?" Well, I said, we don't stone people to death. "Perhaps, in some villages, in very small areas here this [stoning] happens, perhaps. But nowadays in our country, it's not normal." So was Mrs Mustafavi against stoning?

This "Killing with a stone or killing in another way - killing is killing, it makes no difference. In the time of our prophets, they didn't have guns and they had to kill people (sic) with stones. Perhaps in some cases, under Islamic rules, some guilty people have bad relations [with a man], they must kill her. But nowadays they are killed in a different way."

So what did Mrs Mustafavi think of the status of Western women today? "They have the same difficulties and the same problems as us ... but when I was in France and Britain, I noticed how women were under the pressure of men. It was men first, then women. Men don't pay for the [work of the women]. There were even some women who for money, sold themselves in special streets. This is real suppression of women."