Iranian women defy police whips to demonstrate against 'dictatorship'

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Hundreds of women demonstrated outside Tehran university, calling for greater rights and a boycott of Friday's presidential election.

They shouted "down with dictatorship!" and "shame on you!" in response to the aggressive tactics of police, who tried to prevent protesters reaching the demonstration yesterday.

"I have come to defend my rights because these people have always oppressed us," said Farangis Rafati, holding up a Kurdish women's group banner. "All the candidates in the election say the same things. They're the same people. It makes no difference if we vote because they will have someone elected among themselves."

As the protest ended, another began on the other side of the street calling for a boycott of the election, to be contested by eight candidates who were approved by a clerical watchdog.

Some 89 women candidates, including several well-known conservatives, were barred because of their gender. Women have the same voting rights as Iranian men but suffer what is in effect discrimination in legal matters.

The favourite to win Friday's poll is still the former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but a poll showed the reformist candidate moving into second place, narrowly ahead of two hardliners. No candidate is likely to win in the first round, setting up a second ballot on 24 June between the two front-runners.

Dissident groups are split between supporting the reformist candidate, Mostafa Moin, or advocating a boycott. "We believe we can only influence democratisation through participation," said Ebrahim Yazdi, head of the Freedom Movement, who himself faces possible imprisonment. "It's like Stalingrad - we have to fight inch by inch but we can only win if we participate."

But protesters were sceptical. "The candidates talk about rights but there's no improvement from what they've said before," said the writer and publisher, Soheila Beski. "I have always voted but this time I won't."

Iran's most famous woman poet read to a hushed audience on the ground. But soon afterwards, the crowd roared and surged forward as somebody was dragged away by police. A weeping elderly woman said that she had been struck by a policeman as she tried to approach the rally.

"We don't want to recover our rights at the expense of men," said a journalism student, Shafiq Khanbani. "We want the democratic rights of all people to be respected and we're protesting because they're not."