BEIRUT, Lebanon - 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 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.

During her 15 days in prison, "I tried to convince them that asking for our rights had nothing to do with the enemy," Abbasgholizadeh told the Associated Press by telephone 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 last 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.

"By tightening the noose on us," she said, "they are trying to warn us that they will not tolerate even the mildest criticism."

Iranian authorities are reluctant to answer specific questions about the treatment of women. Several officials and lawmakers approached by the AP refused to be interviewed.

But Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei recently pointed a finger at female activists when he said 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 divorcee with a fringe of chestnut hair peeking from under her shawl. Her story highlights her change of fortune since the days when 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 promoting women's rights.

Ahmadinejad's government has curbed Web access, shut almost all liberal newspapers, and put activists under surveillance.

Abbasgholizadeh and others have fought 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 divorcees full custody of their children and entitle them to only half the inheritance a man can receive.

Ahmadinejad's government has now turned its crackdown to colleges. It is drafting a law to limit female 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, arguing that they put a strain on limited - and sexually segregated - dormitory and transportation facilities.

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.