Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo and the Sixth Majles

A Woman in Her Own Right

by Ziba Mir-Hosseini
published in MER233

On February 23, 2004, two days after the conservative victory in the elections for the Seventh Majles, for which the Guardian Council banned over 2,000 reformist candidates, including some 80 current deputies, the reformist-dominated Sixth Majles accepted the resignation of Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo.

Protesting the mass disqualification of their candidates, reformist deputies had staged a 26-day sit-in, asked for a postponement of the elections and written an open letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warning him of the grave consequences of undermining the “republican” element in the Islamic Republic. Finally, 124 of them had announced their resignations. All had been to no avail: student groups and the general public had showed little interest in the protesting MPs, the Guardian Council had not budged and reformist groups in the Majles and government had failed to agree on a complete election boycott. In an open letter of February 14, the Office for Consolidation of Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), the largest student organization, had already announced an election boycott, asking for a referendum. The Islamic Iran Participation Front and Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, the two radical reformist groups that had borne the brunt of the Guardian Council’s bans, had withdrawn from the elections. But the clerical left, the Militant Clerics’ Association, had engineered a last-minute coalition with two moderate reformist groups, Hambastegi and Kargozaran-e Sazandegi, producing a list of candidates for Tehran under the label Coalition for Iran.

When the Majles reconvened after a two-week election recess, some reformist deputies were determined to continue their protest and to go ahead with their resignations, which had to be approved individually in open session broadcast live on Majles Radio. Haqiqatjoo was chosen to be first to have her case debated. Anticipating a conservative attack, a group of reformist deputies, men and women, occupied the front row, to form a “buffer” to protect her as she read out her resignation speech. When journalists asked why she had been chosen, a prominent reformist deputy replied: “Ladies first!” Another commented: “The Majles had one ‘real man,’ and we wanted ‘him’ to go and leave us all mahram to each other!” [1] Of the 200 deputies present, 168 voted, 124 of them in favor. [2]

The jokes and the choice say something not only about gender biases in the Sixth Majles, but also about what Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo came to stand for as the assembly came to a close four years after it was elected with a mandate for reform. Yet there was also political expediency in the choice. The protesting MPs knew that a woman’s resignation would have greater public impact, but also that Haqiqatjoo was someone who never minced her words and would say what many of them did not dare. With three months left, and with all their efforts to bring reform frustrated one by one by the ruling theocracy, the protesting deputies chose her to speak to the nation on their behalf. She did not disappoint them. Explaining why reform from within the system is no longer possible, she drew on religious language, imagery and idioms, and appealed to revolutionary ideals. Nowhere did she criticize Ayatollah Khomeini; rather, she invoked the icon of the revolution to argue for reforms and change.

“I Can No Longer Keep My Oath”

She started by greeting Imam Hossein, whose martyrdom was commemorated that month (February 2004 coincided with the Islamic month of Moharram), and asking God to regard her as among the true followers of his path. She then situated herself in the political landscape of the Islamic Republic. Born in 1968 in the poorer, southern part of Tehran, she is a doctoral student in psychology, and a researcher and instructor at Tehran University. She is also a member of the Islamic Students’ Association of Tarbiyat Modarres University and has served two terms on the national council of the Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat. Finally, she is a member of the political bureau of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (whose candidates were almost all barred from the elections). “I was ten years old when the Islamic Revolution was victorious, and I took part in demonstrations full of hope and fervor,” she continued, “but alas, after 25 years, I now witness a fundamental departure of the rulers from the ideals of the revolution and Imam [Khomeini].”

She went on to analyze what has gone wrong in the Islamic Republic. The idea of religious government as advocated at the time of the revolution by its founder bore no resemblance to the medieval church in Europe. But the Islamic Republic that was supposed to combine Islam with democracy was diverted from its course by religious obscurantism and bad governance. In the third decade, those who understood the causes (the reformists), inspired by the founder’s teachings, tried to modify the power structure within the limits of the constitution. They wanted to defend the Islamic Republic, to present a merciful image of Islam and to prove that Islam is compatible with human rights and good governance. But their opponents, those who shield their absolute power behind an aura of sanctity, defined the ceiling of freedom. “In the eyes of the power-drunk, any criticism of institutions under the Leader’s control became a great crime against national security.” That is why they resisted and sabotaged the attempts of the Sixth Majles, whose “crime” was simply to seek to give legal force to those ignored elements of the constitution that guarantee citizens’ rights to freedom of speech and free elections. The reformists wanted to bring transparency and accountability into the political arena, but their attempts were eventually rendered impotent by the unelected institutions that now hold the reins of power in the Islamic Republic. To frustrate reform and to silence the reformists, their opponents resorted to unethical and non-Islamic methods -- violence, intimidation and repression -- and created one political crisis after another: the serial assassination of intellectuals, attacks on the universities, mass closure of publications, prosecution of journalists and students, and so on. The February election, Haqiqatjoo concluded, was the last straw.

By conducting sham elections for the Seventh Majles, the power-drunk opponents of the popular vote have turned their backs on all the achievements of the revolution. With this appointed (farmayeshi) Majles, they seek to erase republicanism and freedom from the political face of this country forever.... With a 26-day sit-in we warned the heads of the system that a rogue group are slaughtering the nation’s security and the people’s right to sovereignty.... They want people to be unable to choose their representatives directly, republicanism to cease and the Islam of the Taliban to take primacy over “pure Mohammadan Islam.”

She then read the oath she took when sworn in as MP in 2000, requiring her to remain faithful to Islam and the constitution, to defend the independence and the interests of the country, and to serve the people.

As I informed you, and you know, since the possibility of keeping my oath has been taken from me and I have been deprived of [the ability to] defend your legal rights, it is no longer a source of pride for me to stay in this house and see the deviation from the Imam’s ideal, the nation and the constitution. Therefore, by my resignation, I declare my protest at the incorrect, illegal and non-religious conduct of the appointed bodies in recent years, which has reached its peak in the February 22 elections.

She asked her colleagues in the Majles to accept her resignation, and concluded by daring the Guardian Council to tell the people, via the media, the grounds on which she was disqualified from the elections, so that they could see the extent to which the Council had deteriorated into a tool for safeguarding the conservatives’ interests.

The Guardian Council ignored her challenge. There are few reformist newspapers left, and none dared to publish her speech in its entirety. [3] Reformist websites and online magazines, which have tried to replace the vibrant press that played such a key role during the 2000 elections before also being closed down in the fall of 2004, gave full coverage to Haqiqatjoo’s resignation. One published the speech together with a minute-by-minute account of the session. [4] Another entitled its report: “Silence in the Face of the Creation of an Appointed Majles is Haram: The Resignation of Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo, the Brave Tehran Deputy.” [5]

“Lion-Woman”

While some have seen Haqiqatjoo’s resignation as signifying the collapse of reformist dreams in Iran, there are other, more complex readings of the event. Powerful though her resignation speech was, the way it has been received and celebrated reveals a cultural politics of transition in gender and society.

On the reformist websites, women have celebrated Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo’s politics of honesty and integrity in poetry and prose. They pun on her name Haqiqatjoo (“Truth/Justice Seeker”) and praise her as a “lion woman” (shirzan) -- a traditional Persian term for a prominent and brave woman, roughly equivalent to javanmard for men. They allude to her life circumstances, link past and present, and address her baby daughter Sara, telling her that she is too little to appreciate what her mother did today, and warning her what the future holds for her in the patriarchal society that women like her mother are struggling to change.

In a poetic essay, “One Day You Will,” the writer describes the legacy of pain that woman have inherited and their yearning for an elusive freedom, and how she as a woman voted for the Sixth Majles filled with that yearning. She continues, “Today is another day -- though I am still a woman and have to ‘prove’ that I exist.... I am proud that it was a woman who was first not to allow my rights and yours to be trampled on.... It was a woman who was first not to agree to bargain with people’s rights...it was a woman who honored my vote.” [6]

In another piece, “For Sara, Who Has a Truth/Justice Seeker Mother, Haqiqatjoo,” the writer addresses the baby girl: “You know, whenever a girl is born in this land, her mother’s heart sinks. The mothers of this land give birth to girls whose life is worth half that of boys.” Then she tells Sara not to believe the nursery rhyme her playmates will soon sing to her: “‘Girls are mice, run like rabbits; boys are lions, cut like swords.’ The lion-woman who is your mother has silenced this myth forever, and has made the women of this land realize that there is honor in giving birth to a girl -- a girl like your mother.” [7]

A Dutiful Daughter

The way Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo captured the public imagination with her resignation from the Sixth Majles contrasts intriguingly with Fa’ezeh Hashemi’s election to the fifth parliamentary assembly in 1996. The contrast is highly revealing of the extent to which Iranian political culture has changed over the intervening eight years, and of the challenges ahead for women in the male-centered world of Iranian politics.

Fa’ezeh Hashemi entered the Fifth Majles with much fanfare. As the daughter of then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, her name was on the candidate list of the Kargozaran-e Sazandegi party, which had just emerged under her father’s patronage. In the presidential elections of 1997, she and her party joined the coalition that brought Mohammad Khatami to office -- though not to power. This was the beginning of the reformist movement, and Fa’ezeh joined in wholeheartedly. It was rumored that her father encouraged her to enter politics, as she was unhappy in her marriage and suffering from depression. Whatever the case, her entry was of benefit to her and also to the women’s movement in Iran. She founded Zan, the first (and, so far, only) women’s daily newspaper, stood up to her colleagues in the conservative-dominated Fifth Majles and sided with the reformists on every issue. Yet when she stood for the Sixth Majles in 2000, she failed to get enough votes; she was rejected, not because of her own politics, but because she chose not to distance herself from those of her father. The conservatives had his name on their list of candidates for Tehran, and hoped to have him installed as Majles speaker. In the event, and to the great shame of his backers and himself, Hashemi-Rafsanjani finished last in the poll, and eventually withdrew. Though he had supported the election of President Khatami, for the reformist press of the time he came to embody the patriarchal and patrimonial style of politics that they were challenging. Fa’ezeh also disappeared from the political scene. Her family links, that had brought her into prominence in 1996, caused her fall in 2000, when the reformist movement and press were at their peak. [8]

Not Afraid to Be Called Feminist

By contrast, Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo’s election in 2000 attracted little attention. Her name was not known outside the student groups that supported her and two other candidates who entered the Sixth Majles as their representatives. As the youngest female deputy, she soon established herself as a relentless advocate of reform and democracy, not just women’s issues. Her speeches in the Majles and outside aroused conservative anger. In 2001, after a speech in Qazvin during the anniversary of the revolution, she was arrested and received a 20-month prison sentence for “misinterpreting” the words of Ayatollah Khomeini and for insulting the Leader and the Guardian Council. On appeal, she was cleared of the first charge, and her sentence was reduced to ten months and suspended. Meanwhile she has another case pending, arising from a speech in a public Majles session, in which she revealed what students had told her about the latest violent attack on a dormitory during the June 2003 student protests: as the militia beat them and threw them out of the windows, they praised the Supreme Leader.

In her second year as deputy, she married a parliamentary journalist, and in November 2003 she became a mother. At first, she showed little interest in the issue of women’s rights. She opposed the formation of the first ever Women’s Bloc, but later joined it along with a number of male colleagues, and made some of the most important statements and interventions in defense of women’s rights. In the first year, she made headlines when she spoke in a Majles open session to protest about the arrest of a woman journalist who was dragged from her home by security police. In a sharp, sarcastic speech, she asked the authorities, “Where is the ‘cry of Islam’ when a Muslim woman’s chador is pulled off by the police?” She upbraided Khatami for not choosing a female minister; and she ran into several altercations with her colleagues when questioning government ministers for not having women in decision-making posts. She has no qualms in calling herself a feminist -- a term that women in politics have previously tried to avoid. Since her resignation, when asked about her reaction to being called “the one man of the Sixth Majles,” she says: “I am very much against such a statement. I always tell my friends that I am a feminist, and such a remark is not a compliment to me but an insult; of course, I say this jokingly as I know those who said it meant it as praise. The reality is that patriarchy is the culture that dominates our society.” [9]

What shaped Haqiqatjoo’s career as an MP was her involvement with Islamic student groups and their transformation since the early 1990s. Freeing themselves from the straitjacket of Islamic ideology, these student groups are a force and voice for democratic reform. They became one of the first targets of the conservative backlash in July 1999 when, following a peaceful demonstration at Tehran University against the closure of a reformist newspaper, the paramilitary forces attacked a student dormitory. The event ignited a chain of protests in other universities, and the first mass demonstrations since the revolution, which were violently suppressed. The subsequent treatment of the students and Khatami’s failure to intervene on their behalf initiated a rift, and eventually a break between the students and the reformists in government. The student groups began to demand constitutional reforms and a “proper republic” in which people’s votes and the right to choose their government are no longer mediated through unelected and theocratic bodies. In effect, they want an end to the dual sovereignty that has enabled unelected institutions to frustrate efforts by the people’s representatives to deliver the reforms for which they were elected.

The Balance Sheet

The Sixth Majles was a turning point for women and the politics of gender. Like Haqiqatjoo, other women deputies became public figures. Elaheh Koula’i frequently commented and gave interviews on international affairs and relations with the West, especially the United States, and negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Jamileh Kadivar was reporter for the Article 90 Commission, dealing with human rights abuses. Soheila Jelowdarzadeh, a representative of workers’ movements and veteran of the previous Majles, was on the Majles Speaker’s Board. The 13 woman deputies, all aligned with the reformists, also challenged the unwritten rules that had defined the gender space and politics of the five previous parliaments: the chador (mandatory for all women politicians), special seating in the assembly and a curtained-off dining area. Some of the new women deputies appeared in a more informal headscarf and coat. Conservative members objected and demanded their dismissal, but the women argued that they had campaigned in this dress and people had voted for them knowing this. There remained a row of assigned women’s seats in the assembly, but in the dining room they did away with the curtain, and moved to a table in a corner. When women joined in a protest sit-in, men did not know how to make room for them, but by the end all seemed at ease with each other.

A priority for some of these women was to redress the gender inequalities in law and society, one of their election promises, and unlike in previous parliaments, they had little difficulty in persuading their male colleagues to vote for such bills. But then they faced the hurdle of the Guardian Council, which rejected every single bill related to women and the family on the grounds of incompatibility with the shari‘a. Women deputies introduced 33 bills, [10] 16 of which eventually became law after intervention by the Discretionary Council, but only after being emptied of their progressive elements. Among them were: removing the condition that required a woman to be married and accompanied by her husband before getting a scholarship to study abroad; amending articles of the civil code to increase the minimum marriage age for girls from 9 to 13; and increasing from 2 to 7 the age up to which mothers have custody rights of sons (it remained at 7 for girls). Most important among the 17 other bills are: the proposal that Iran join the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) passed by the UN General Assembly in 1979 (now under consideration by the Discretionary Council); a proposal to create a Majles Commission to address issues relating to family, youth and women; and a proposal to give the right of residence and nationality to non-Iranian spouses of Iranian women (to address the problem of Iranian women married to Afghan refugees who do not want to leave the country when their husbands return).

The fate of these bills is now in the hands of the Seventh Majles and its conservative majority. Ten of its 12 women MPs are supported by the Zainab Society, which is funded by the Leader’s office and had supplied women MPs in the Fourth and Fifth Majles but did not put forward its better-known figures for this election in fear of a public backlash. Two women are Majles veterans (Nafiseh Fayyazbakhsh and Nayereh Akhavan-Bitaraf), and know how to deal with the media, but the less experienced ones have already received adverse publicity for their remarks. For instance, when Fatemeh Aliya spoke of polygamy as a blessing for women, and boasted about the Zainab Society’s source of funding, she got wide coverage on the websites.

The women of the Seventh Majles have defined themselves by criticizing the women of the previous one for introducing bills defying the “teachings of Islam,” such as joining CEDAW or sending female students to study abroad. When the Fourth Economic, Social and Cultural Plan (containing the reformists’ policies for the next five years), approved by the Sixth Majles, was recalled by the Seventh, among the revisions was elimination of the pledge to maintain “gender justice,” and none of the new women deputies raised any objection.

The Sixth Majles failed to make political power accountable, as Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo says in her resignation speech, but it went a long way toward demystifying the way the elite play power games in religious language and use the shari‘a instrumentally to justify autocratic rule and patriarchal culture. It has also brought home to reformists that their vision of Islam and democratic society cannot be realized without addressing the core problems of power relations, among which is that of gender inequality. The heated exchanges between the reformist deputies and the members of the Guardian Council that followed the introduction of bills such as the proposal to join CEDAW or banning torture shed light not only on the retrograde nature of the arguments put forward by their opponents but also on the distance between their rhetoric and practice.

The Importance of Being Fatherless

Apart from Haqiqatjoo, the Guardian Council disqualified two other women deputies (Elaheh Koula’i and Sharbanoo Amani-Anganeh) from standing in 2004. Others withdrew or stood for election unsuccessfully, and only one (Mehrangiz Morovvati) was reelected. Among those who withdrew was Fatemeh Rake‘i, who declared that she felt insulted not to have been disqualified. Rake‘i is a poet. In her homage to Haqiqatjoo, “For Sara Tahavori [Haqiqatjoo’s daughter],” she concludes by telling her that when she grows up she will learn about the cruel world of politics, and will hear of her mother’s name, which will make her identification card a document she can be proud of. “But what is not written in your mom’s ID card is the secret that, like the Prophet, she grew up without a father, and for this the Jaheliyat never believed her.” [11] Jaheliyat, the pre-Islamic era, here suggests the pre-reform era in the Islamic Republic when the power elite, whose vested interests were threatened, resisted the reforms and denied their truth and justice.

Author’s Note: Research for this paper was part of a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation; the paper was written during a fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. I am grateful to Richard Tapper for his comments on earlier drafts.

Endnotes

[1] In Persian, “Majles yek mard dasht, ke khastim zudtar beravad ta hameh ba-ham mahram bashim.” The joke implies that the reformist deputies are all “women,” and uncomfortable with the presence of the lone “man” -- Haqiqatjoo.
[2] For an account of this session, see Zahra Ebrahim, “Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo, The First!” Zanan 107 (Esfand 1382/March 2004). [Persian]
[3] The judiciary closed Sharq for ten days for printing the text of the deputies’ open letter to the Leader on February 17, 2004.
[4] This website was www.emrooz.ws, which replaced the paper Sobh-e Emrooz.
[5] This headline appeared on www.rooydad.com, the website of the Participation Front.
[6] Narges Mahdavi, Rooydad News, April 25, 2003. The site is no longer available. In an October 2004 crackdown on reformist sites, a number of Rooydad’s writers and technicians were arrested and the site was closed down. When it reappeared, its archives were gone and it now carries only brief news items.
[7] Mona Sabeti, Rooydad News, April 25, 2003.
[8] See Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “The Rise and Fall of Fa’ezeh Hashemi: Women in Iranian Elections,” Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).
[9] Shahrvand, March 26, 2004. Accessible online at www.shahrvand.com.
[10] Many more than the Fifth Majles, which had set a record both for the number of female deputies (14) and the bills introduced by them (21).
[11] Posted on www.emrooz.ws in February 2004. This site, too, has been banned.

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