The cruel death of a nine-year-old girl - taken from her mother and handed to the custody of her drug-addict father after her parents' divorce - has scandalised Iran. But, as our correspondent reports from Tehran, the tragedy of Arian Golshani is leading to ever louder calls for a reform in the `Islamic' laws which favour men over women.
Arian's photograph rests on a library shelf in Shirin Ebadi's office, a black ribbon wound round the top right-hand corner to remind visitors of the fate of the bright, open-faced child. Half-starved and beaten by her father and step-brother, she weighed just 15kg (2.35st) when she died three months ago. And Mrs Ebadi's voice breaks when she speaks of the little girl. "Our `Islamic' law killed Arian because our regulations insisted that she should be given to her father," she says. "Our law was guilty."
As head of the Iranian National Association for the Support of Children's Rights, Mrs. Ebadi speaks her mind. She represented Arian Golshani's mother in the court case that followed the girl's death and openly blamed the misinterpretation of Koranic law when she appeared before the judicial authorities. "Arian's father, Ali, was an addict - he had already been convicted of illicit relationships with other women and had been whipped for this - so why did he have custody of Arian?" she asks.
Nahid and Ali Golshani had divorced in 1991, when Arian was three. Under Iranian law a daughter can stay with her divorced mother up to the age of seven, boys up to only two years old, providing the mother does not remarry. But Mrs Golshani remarried. Desperately unhappy, Arian was handed over to her father and his new wife, Zahra, to live with them and with Zahra's 12-year-old son by an earlier marriage, Ramtin. "They were torturing her," Mrs. Ebadi says. "Although her father had money ... they never gave her enough to eat. She was almost starving. She was so frail that when her half-brother Ramtin kicked her, she fell to the ground and started haemorrhaging."
Iranian newspapers gave big coverage to Arian's death - and the majlis (parliament) passed a new law giving custody of children to relatives or orphanages if their parents were not qualified to look after them. "It was not what we wanted, but it was a small step forward," Mrs Ebadi says. "We want the law changed so that after a divorce the court can decide who would be best at looking after the child. The law about giving a child to the father can be changed easily. There is nothing about this in the Koran - this is an Iranian misinterpretation of Islam."
In the event, Arian's father, Ali, was given a prison sentence of two years and a further sentence of three years "internal exile". Arian's step-brother, Ramtin, who is now 18, has been sentenced to death by hanging for killing the little girl. None of this gives any satisfaction to Mrs Ebadi. "Under our present law, if a father or a grandfather kills a child, there is no execution for this," she says. "They only have to pay blood- money to the mother ... This is a wrong legal view of children's rights."
And, she adds, of women's rights. "Blood money for the killing of a woman is only half that for a man. More terrible still, if I kill a man, the court orders my execution by hanging. But if a man kills me, my family have to go to court and pay half the blood money to him before the court can order his execution ... And look at the age of marriage - it's nine years old for girls and 15 for boys. But a father or grandfather can marry a little girl off under the age of nine. This doesn't happen much - but it's the law and it must be changed. Then there is sigeh - temporary marriage - which is, unfortunately, practised."
Mrs Ebadi writes in the Tehran press insisting on the need for legislative change but her campaign has earned her hate mail and threats. "People said that I was wrong, that I was a feminist, that I was `on the side of the West'."
She is careful not to blame men for the lot of Iranian women. "We have 6,000 years of civilisation here," she says. "The problem is that our laws come from a wrong interpretation of Islam. We could change these laws easily ... all these new laws were written after the 1979 revolution."
Ask Mrs Ebadi about her views on the laws governing hijab - Islamic covering for women - and she scoffs at such a foreigner's question. "I have bigger problems to deal with. When a husband can kill his wife and get away with it, this is a real problem - Did you know that we had 10,000 women demonstrating after Arian's death? And all of them were shouting: 'The law must be reformed.' This is what we should be concentrating on."
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