Tehran, (The Associated Press) Iranian police shoved and kicked them, loaded them into a curtained minibus and drove them away. Hours later, at the gates of Evin prison, they were blindfolded and forced to wear all-enveloping chadors, and then were interrogated through the night. All 31 were women - activists accused of receiving foreign funds to stir up dissent in Iran.
But their real crime, says Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, was gathering peacefully outside Tehran's Revolutionary Court in support of five fellow activists on trial for demanding changes in laws that discriminate against women.
The March 4 arrests highlight how women's rights are being rolled back by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
During her 15 days in prison, "I tried to convince them that asking for our rights had nothing to do with the enemy", Abbasgholizadeh said by phone from Tehran. "But they insisted that foreign governments were exploiting our cause."
The March 4 arrests highlight how women's rights, which were making some advances under the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, are being rolled back by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who succeeded him in August 2005.
Activists say that while world attention has focused on the West's standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, the abuses of women's rights have intensified, using fear of a U.S. attack as a pretext.
Over the past 10 months, security forces have "become more and more aggressive even as women's actions have become more peaceful and tame," said Jila Baniyaghoub, an activist who has also spent time in jail.
Iranian authorities are reluctant to answer specific questions about the treatment of women.
But Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei recently pointed a finger at women activists when he claimed that "the enemy's new strategy is to finance and organize various groups under the cover of women's or student movements". The aim, he told a state news agency, is to depict the government as incompetent and to turn people against it.
Abbasgholizadeh is a 48-year-old mother of two daughters, a matronly divorcée with a fringe of chestnut hair peeking from under her shawl, and her story highlights her change of fortune since the days when Mohammad Khatami was president and reformists were gaining influence in Iran.
Then, she had Khatami's ear through the Center for Women's Participation, a government office set up to promote women's rights, and wrote a report for the president on the state of women in Iran. Under Ahmadinejad, Web access has been curbed, almost all liberal newspapers have been shut, and activists say they are under closer surveillance and often summoned for questioning.
The women say they have borne the brunt of the onslaught.
Abbasgholizadeh and other reformists have waged a lengthy battle against laws that permit death by stoning for women accused of adultery, the practice of polygamy, employment laws that favor men, and family laws that deny divorcées full custody of their children and entitle them to only half the inheritance a man can receive.
Ahmadinejad's government is now drafting a law to limit women students to half the places in college, instead of the 65 percent they now occupy. It is also restricting women's entry to medical schools.
Women working for the government must leave work by 6 p.m. to get home and tend to their families.
And, once again, with the arrival of summer, authorities are cracking down on women for not covering up enough. Police say more than 200 women have been arrested this year and released only after promising to dress more conservatively.
It was during their court hearing that Abbasgholizadeh and the other 30 women were detained. All were soon released except Abbasgholizadeh and her lawyer, Shadi Sadr.
She was never physically abused, she said, but had to endure what she called "white tortures" - no bed or mattress in her 6-by-9-foot cell, just blankets; a fluorescent light that was never turned off; a tiny, barred window near the ceiling that admitted a thin ray of light. And always, a deathly silence.
She had to visit the bathroom blindfolded. Denied TV or radio, she was given only a Koran to read, and she couldn't call home until a day or two before her release on March 19.
Ahmadinejad's government is now drafting a law to limit women students to half the places in college, instead of the 65 percent they now occupy.
She endured five interrogations, always by the same Intelligence Ministry man who has handled her case for years.
An educated man, he sat before her in a small soundproofed room and always asked the same questions: How many trips had she made, and why? Who paid for them? How much money had she received from overseas? What did she spend it on? Who attended her women's-rights workshops?
Abbasgholizadeh confirmed making trips abroad and said her organization received money from a Dutch foundation, described how it was spent, and said her workshops were held in small towns and villages with six to 12 participants at a time.
After days of solitude and silence, Abbasgholizadeh heard a friendly voice: her lawyer, calling out from Cell No. 24.
"Mahboubeh, are you here? Are you OK?" Sadr asked.
"Yes, I am well", Abbasgholizadeh replied through the metal, windowless door of her Cell No. 12.
It was the first time they had spoken since their arrest.
Immediately, a female warden stormed into her cell, telling her she was disturbing other inmates.
Abbasgholizadeh said she exploded at the guard. "I can't talk, I can't walk, I can't look", she shouted. "Why don't you tell me not to breathe, too?"
Meanwhile, Iranian police have warned barbers against offering Western-style hair cuts or plucking the eyebrows of their male customers, international news agencies quoted Iranian media on Sunday.
The report, confirmed by the Iranian Students news agency ISNA, appeared to be another sign of authorities cracking down on clothing and other fashion deemed to be against Islamic values, launched last week.
"Western hairstyles ... have been banned", the newspaper “E’temad” said in a front-page headline.
ISNA quoted a police statement as saying: "In an official order to barbershops, they have been warned to avoid using Western hair styles and doing men's eyebrows".
Under Iran's Islamic Shari’a law, imposed after the 1979 revolution, women are obligated to cover their hair and wear long, loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures.
The British news agency Reuters quoted the head of the barbers' union, Mohammad Eftekharifard as having confirmed that police had instructed it to "exercise specific regulations in barbershops that work under its supervision".
Barbers who do not follow these rules might be closed down for a month and even lose their permits to operate, E’temad quoted him as saying, adding: "An official order has been sent to the union ... not to apply make-up on men's faces (or) do eyebrows ... and hence the barbers are not allowed to do these things".
Foreign tourists, particularly women, are not spared from the new wave of fight against “bad hejabi”, or bad (Islamic) dressing, according to Iranian media.
“So far, there are no report of any arrest among foreign female tourists, but some friendly warnings, telling them it is required of them to respect the Islamic laws of the country”, a spokesman for Tehran police is reported to have confirmed. ENDS WOMEN ARRESTED 1507