The harsh sentences come amid the recent arrests of more than a dozen student activists, the government closure of the popular Hammihan newspaper, and pressure on Iran's Labour News Agency to stop its activities, in another sweeping crackdown on the Islamic Republic's civil society.
Delaram Ali, who is a member of the "One Million Signatures for Equality Campaign", was sentenced to 34 months in prison plus ten lashes on Jul. 1. A day later, Alieh Eghdamdoust, another women activist, received a sentence of 40 months and 20 lashes.
Their advocacy campaign was launched to change the discriminatory laws against women in Iran's constitution.
"There is no precedent for such ruthless sentences against women. The punishments do not fit the alleged crimes," Nasrin Sotoodeh, Delaram's lawyer, told IPS by telephone from Tehran.
"These ladies are facing these sentences because of participation in a peaceful gathering, which is basically permitted by Iran's constitution. Article 27 states that people have the right to peacefully gather unless they carry guns or violate Islamic laws. The government must provide proof that these women have violated the law."
Some of the main grievances of the campaign are equal inheritance rights (women currently receive half of what men do), the elimination of polygamy and fair custody rights. "In all the women's protests to date, they peacefully convened to change such laws," added Sotoodeh, who represents many women rights activists in Iran.
The pressure on women activists increased dramatically when government security agents and police violently put an end to a peaceful protest in Tehran in June 2006. Dozens of participants were arrested and released afterwards on bail.
The second round of confrontation occurred when security agents arrested more than 30 women who had gathered in front of Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Court to support five women on trial inside the courthouse on Mar. 4, 2007 for participating in the protest rally.
Four of the women in that trial ended up being sentenced to one to three years in prison. They have filed an appeal.
"Delaram Ali's arm was hurt and had to be put in a cast for two months, when she was attacked by female police officers. We filed a lawsuit against the police. It has been a year now, and although we understand the case investigator has asked the police to attend a briefing session to provide information about the incident, they have not honoured this request," Sotoodeh said.
"The last update is that the case investigator has declared that if a [police] representative does not appear before the court, the court will be forced to issue a verdict in their absence. While these women's complaints about their beatings [by the police] have not been processed, one by one they have received heavy sentences, and are exposed to further violence," she said.
The campaign against discriminatory laws in Iran has caught Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's attention, indicating that the women's voices are reaching high-ranking ayatollahs.
"In our country... some activist women, and some men, have been trying to play around with Islamic rule in order to match international conventions relating to women," Khamenei said during a speech last Thursday to commemorate National Women's Day according to his official website and the state-run television. "This is wrong."
However, he emphasised that "some of the women issues which exist in religious jurisprudence are not the final word and it is possible to make new interpretations through research by a skillful jurist." The supreme leader has absolute power over all state matters.
Despite all their achievements since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women still endure tight restrictions under the constitution, such as requiring a male guardian's permission to work or travel abroad. Women are not allowed to become judges or run for president, and a man's court testimony is considered twice as valid as a woman's.
Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, another activist in the women's movement, who was sentenced to five years in prison last May but is currently free on bail pending appeal, believes that women's quest for equality raises critical questions about the validity of a constitution based on Sharia, or Islamic Law.
"The hardliners want to control the women's movement at the domestic and international levels. In many of these cases, harsh sentences, repeated summons or interrogations, and legal and illegal threats are designed to stop the women's movement," Davoodi told IPS. "These sentences by the hardliners are intended to intimidate civil society and prevent the growth of independent social movements."
"In recent years, the women's movement has acted as a catalyst to refuel student and labour movements which had been silenced. The latest crackdown against women is an effort to pacify the civil society and intimidate other activists such as students, labour leaders, journalists and activists."
In an interview with IPS, Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, editor of Farzaneh, a quarterly publication dedicated to women's issues, and director of the NGO Training Centre in Tehran, said that "increased police brutality over the past few months, paired with harsh sentences, clearly convey the message that public gatherings and protests will no longer be tolerated."
Abbasogholizadeh, who was one of the 33 women imprisoned last March, believes that the hardliners' confrontations with activists reflect their fear that such demands for change are a strategy to overthrow the Islamic regime.
"A faction of the hardliners identifies our peaceful activities as tactics for a so-called 'soft overthrow' of the regime. This paranoia has inflicted additional pressure on civil society. They do not realise that women's demand are basic necessities and impossible to ignore," she said. "Compared to two years ago, all public resources have been removed from civil society activists, especially women, and have been handed to religious propaganda and charity organisations."
"The hardliners have a plan for extensive suppression, beginning with pressuring independent papers. Therefore, it is safe to say that the prison sentences for those women must be viewed within the larger picture: authorities who believe in suppression of civil society have gained momentum over the more moderate factions who do think that the Islamic government should control or halt these types of activities."