Women should voice demands about their rights during the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world to avoid being short-changed by post-revolutionary governments, Iranian Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said.
Ebadi, a practicing Muslim, also expressed hope that Arab men and women would learn from Iran's 1979 revolution, when the overthrow of the shah led to the establishment of an Islamic republic which imposed sharia-inspired laws many women regard as restrictive of their rights.
"I think it is too early to talk of an Arab Spring, which should be used when democracy has been established and people can determine their own destiny and are equal and free. And we cannot forget half of society -- the women," Ebadi, a human and women's rights activist, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"If women cannot gain equality and the right to set their own destiny then that is not a real revolution and won't lead to democracy.
"Our experience in Iran's 1979 revolution proves this. We saw that people got rid of a dictator but instead of democracy he was replaced by religious despotism and many of the laws on polygamy, men's power of divorce ... and stoning were passed."
Since long-time leaders were toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, many -- not least in the West -- have fretted that their departure will leave the door open for Islamist groups to take power.
In Tunisia, some women have expressed concern over the victory of the Islamist party Ennahda in elections last month, though its leaders have said they will not alter laws that guarantee women equal rights to men in divorce, marriage and inheritance.
"DO YOU SUPPORT EQUAL INHERITANCE?"
Unless Arab women speak up soon, they risk being sidelined by the region's new governments, Ebadi said.
"Women should raise their egalitarian demands and the people should put forth their civic demands early on and oblige groups that are seeking power to answer," said Ebadi, a defense lawyer for Iranian dissidents who has lived outside Iran since 2009.
"These issues should be raised early, otherwise after a party reaches power it may be too late."
Egyptian feminist Nawal al-Saadawi has called for women to move fast to secure their rights as the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood targets large support in a parliamentary election later this month, following Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
"In Iran, the error committed by feminists and political groups was to put off the egalitarian demands of women until after the overthrow of the shah... But the women's problems were not resolved and things even got worse after the regime changed," Ebadi said.
"Pushing for transparency is the best way for this. Feminist groups should directly ask parties 'Do you support polygamy, yes or no?' ... Or ask "Do you support equal inheritance for men and women?' So that people would know a party's stand on rights issues before they take power," Ebadi said.
The leader of Libya's National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdel Jalil caused consternation last month when he took to the podium at a celebration of the country's "liberation" and said polygamy would no longer be outlawed.
Ebadi rejected charges by some Islamists that demanding women's rights and more modern laws was part of a Western-inspired attack on Islam. Equally she said Islam was compatible with women's rights.
"I believe that if Islam is interpreted and applied correctly we can have totally egalitarian laws for women and strike punishments such as stoning and cutting hands from out of
law books," she said.
Ebadi was Iran's first woman judge but lost that job following the Islamic revolution because the country's new leaders said women were too emotional to be judges.
She became a human rights lawyer but, after suffering harassment, she left the country in 2009.
"It's no good if a dictator goes and he is replaced by another. I hope Arabs who have risen up in revolutions learn from Iran's experience."
(Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Robert Woodward)