TEHRAN, Iran -- On a shelf in Shirin Ebadi's office stands a black and white photograph of Arian Golshani.
A black mourning sash is tacked to a corner of the photo.
She didn't look so angelic when she died last year at age 9, a child beaten to death.
Her hair had been hacked off, her face was swollen into a hideous mask, her body scarred from cigarette burns.
She died in a Tehran hospital two days after the last beating.
Her father, stepmother and 18-year-old stepbrother were convicted of the murder.
But child welfare activists also blame Iran's custody laws for Arian's death, a system based on Islamic laws that often favors men over women.
The custody fight over Arian offers a glimpse into how the Iranian family court treats women -- with sometimes tragic consequences, said Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who represented Arian's mother in her legal fight.
In the years since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, human rights activists have advocated for changes in the system without much success.
Iran's religious code of justice considers women half the equal of men and automatically conveys custody of children to the father if the boy is at least age 2 or the daughter age 7.
The murder of the waif-like Arian so unnerved Iranians that 10,000 people turned out for a memorial service in September -- an unusual public display in a country where speaking out against the government can mean jail. The mourners demanded changes in the law.
Ebadi, a child welfare activist and pre-revolutionary juvenile court judge, saw the public's anger up close. Addressing the flower-strewn memorial service for Arian, she reminded the mourners of the law's preference for fathers, of its failure to act when Arian was taken from her mother.
"Anyone who is against the law of Iran take all the white flowers and throw their petals on the street," Ebadi said she told the crowd.
"After a few minutes," Ebadi said, "we saw the street all white. People were crying and protesting. Angry women raised their fists and [shouted] the law must be changed."
Within a month, Iran's Parliament changed the law to allow a court to remove a child from a home if the custodial parent is unqualified to care for the child and grant custody to a relative or to the state.
"This was just a step forward," said Ebadi, a monitor for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "What we wanted was for the court to take into account the best interest of the child. This is our goal."
Arian's murder focused public attention on the status of children in Iran, where child abuse is not as large a problem as it is in some other countries. The office of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Tehran used the case to promote a workshop on children's rights.
Iran is a signatory to the United Nations' 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, but Yu Qinma, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Tehran, noted that Iran, like other developing countries, has to "do more" to incorporate the convention's principles in daily life.
Ebadi, speaking through an interpreter, said the religious system of law contributes in some ways to the problems facing children.
For example, she said, "beating is a crime in our laws, but if you are doing this for the sake of the child, it's OK. The phrase in the law is, 'You shouldn't beat the child too much.' "
Before the Islamic revolution, Ebadi was the chief judge of the juvenile court in Tehran. She and other female judges lost their posts after the Islamic theocracy was founded.
Ebadi and other women's rights activists believe that women judges in court would improve conditions for women. "Things are connected like chains," said Shahla Sherkat, editor of Zanan magazine.
Mohammed Khatami, Iran's new reform-minded president, was elected on the strength of women's votes and those of young people.
Khatami appointed the Islamic republic's first woman vice president. And in December, the official Iranian news agency reported that four women lawyers were named as judges in family courts in an area near Tehran.
In the days of the shah there also were human rights abuses, Ebadi says. The difference between then and now is this:
"We had good laws under the shah, but no one enforced them. Now we don't have good laws."
In Arian's case, the religious law frustrated the mother's attempts to gain custody of her daughter, according to Ebadi.
After Arian's parents, Nohit and Ali Golshani, divorced in 1991, the father got custody of the couple's son, as Islamic law dictates. Arian should have remained with her mother until age 7, but her father was given the girl as well.
Nohit Golshani tried to get her daughter back -- to no avail, Ebadi said. And when Nohit remarried, her chances diminished even further -- under religious law a divorced woman who remarries loses her custody rights. Her former husband also remarried, but his custody rights are protected.
Nohit Golshani, who could only visit her daughter two hours a week, was pursuing her custody claim when she and Ebadi got word that Arian had died.
An autopsy found evidence of possible past abuse -- broken bones that had repaired themselves, burn scars. Arian, at age 9, weighed what a 4-year-old might, said Ebadi.
After three family members were convicted of killing her, Arian's stepbrother was sentenced to die because evidence showed he delivered the final fatal blow, said Ebadi.
Ali Golshani told Zanan magazine, "Morning to night, I begged my son not to hit her." The father was sentenced to two years in prison, followed by two years' exile to another country, Ebadi said. The stepmother is to serve a two-year jail term.
For the death sentence to be carried out against Arian's stepbrother, Nohit Golshani has to pay money under Islamic law to her former husband, Ebadi said. Islamic law requires compensation to fathers who lose sons.
But Arian's mother cannot afford the large payment. That means the stepbrother will be jailed rather than executed, said Ebadi.
She argued against the blood money payment in court. She said she told the judge, "Is it right that you have taken this child from the woman, killed her daughter and you are still asking money from her?"
The judge reprimanded Ebadi for speaking out against Islam.
Pub Date: 1/28/98