All the President's Women

by Nazanin Shahrokni
published in MER253

Raising eyebrows all around, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on August 16 that he would nominate at least three women to be ministers in the new cabinet that, unresolved controversy notwithstanding, he will head as president of Iran. It was a step unprecedented in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic, whose backers in the conservative clergy regard the concept of women in high office as contrary to God’s will. And it was Ahmadinejad, of all people, who broke this barrier? His political opponents among reformists and feminists were, if anything, more suspicious of his intentions than the conservative clergy. But Ahmadinejad was true to his word, and later that week, he proposed that Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, Fatemeh Ajorloo and Soosan Keshavarz become the ministers of health, social welfare and education, respectively. Dastjerdi was approved by the Majles, the legislature of the Islamic Republic, and is now on the job.

It misses the point to scrutinize these nominations for evidence of budding “pro-woman” or sneakily downplayed “anti-woman” tendencies in the Iranian president. He is rather showing just how narrow is the political base that he and his allies, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the security apparatus, plan to rest on in the aftermath of the disputed June presidential election. Dastjerdi and the two other nominees have ties to the Revolutionary Guard, created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini because he did not trust the regular army, and the Basij, the “peoples’ adjunct” of the Guard founded during the Iran-Iraq war. And all three women are members of the hardline Islamist women’s organizations around the Basij, which have been agitating for promotion of women to ministerial rank. With the appointment of Dastjerdi and the nomination of Ajorloo and Keshavarz, Ahmadinejad is in a sense declaring his independence of the clergy and the traditional conservatives, but revealing his dependence on the most authoritarian sectors of the lay establishment in Iran.

And yet, the implications of these measures of political consolidation for women’s rights are ambiguous: The woman nominees and the organizations from which they hail are undoubtedly conservative and, by the lights of many Iranian feminists, “anti-woman” in their attitudes. The record, particularly that of Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, nonetheless shows some success in improving the status of women and promoting certain women’s rights. Meanwhile, the debates around these nominations have brought women’s issues to the fore in ways that Ahmadinejad likely did not foresee. The irony, then, is that concrete improvements in Iranian women’s lives may be achieved despite the general increased repression.

Not a Republic of Mullahs

Ahmadinejad is not known to be a friend of greater personal and political freedoms for Iranian women, but has sometimes sought to appear as such, perhaps to make a fresh appeal to women voters. During his initial campaign for the presidency, in 2005, he dissembled in response to repeated questions about his stance. Asked about bad hejabi (laxity in women’s “Islamic” dress), for instance, he looked into the camera and said: “Why do you humiliate people?... Do you really think the country’s biggest problem right now is the kind of dress a young woman wears?” But the fears about Ahmadinejad proved to be well founded. Less than a year into his first term, there was a noticeable uptick in the state’s efforts to banish bad hejabi from the streets. There is dispute over who exactly was behind this “culture of modesty” campaign, but the police and the Basij were clearly under orders to restore stricter standards of veiling in public, amidst calls for further Islamization of the public space. [1] Dastjerdi is considered to be the mastermind of one such proposal, for gender-segregated health care facilities.

As president, Ahmadinejad has generally stuck to the line that Islam holds the female sex in high esteem, saying at a May 2006 press conference in Jakarta: “Women are the crowns of men’s heads.” Yet his sentiment that “women are cherished in Iran” has been applied selectively, at best, by his administration. Since 2005, several women’s organizations and publications have been shut down, including Zanan, the reputable feminist monthly founded in 1992. Women activists, for example, those working for revision of the personal status clauses in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, have been subject to arrest and imprisonment.

Against this background, Ahmadinejad’s naming of three female nominees for his cabinet seemed not only out of character, but also out of step with political reality in the Islamic Republic. There were no women heading ministries under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor Mohammad Khatami, the self-described reformist who rode a wave of support from women, particularly younger, well-educated women, to victory in 1997 and 2001.

At the start of Khatami’s second term, many turned hopeful eyes his way, anticipating that he would include women on his list of cabinet nominees. One hundred sixty-three reformist members of the Sixth Majles signed an official letter expressing this expectation. On the list that Khatami finally submitted to the parliament, however, there were no women. Khatami explained that he was not willing to risk angering conservative clerics, who might issue fatwas instructing citizens not to pay taxes to his “un-Islamic” government. He tried to mollify the reformists by appointing a woman, Masoumeh Ebtekar, as his vice president and head of the Department of the Environment, both non-ministerial positions.

When Ahmadinejad announced his nominees, the clergy made their distress known in private meetings and through their tribunes in mosques and in elected office. Mohammad Taqi Rahbar, leader of the Clerics’ Faction in the Majles, worried openly about “a new challenge between Ahmadinejad and the clerics.” Rahbar was referring to a spat in the first year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency over whether to allow women to attend soccer matches. In response to agitation from women fans, Ahmadinejad had reversed the ban that was in place and demanded that a special section be reserved for women, so as to create a “healthier atmosphere” at stadiums. The high-ranking clerics were irked, to say the least, that they had not been consulted about the reversal of the ban. The controversy came to an end only when Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, intervened to ask Ahmadinejad to retract his statements.

In August, however, the Leader did not intervene. He refrained from coming out in support of the president, but also did not object when conservative women officials reported his privately favorable comments. So this time Ahmadinejad did not back down. He insisted on having his choice of ministers even when the clerics publicly opposed his decisions. “This is a rightful demand on women’s part,” he declared, implying there was no need even to consult the clergy. It was a provocative remark from a champion of the same Islamic Revolution that established velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudents).

Khamenei’s tacit approval, however, had the desired effect. The uproar in the conservative-dominated parliament quieted down, and in the end 175 out of 286 MPs voted Dastjerdi in as the first female minister to serve in the Islamic Republic. Along with a male candidate for the Energy Ministry, the two other woman nominees were rejected, ostensibly due to “lack of experience.”

Thus partly rebuffed, Ahmadinejad used his executive authority to appoint a woman, Nasrin Soltankhah, as vice president for science and technology. He has also broached the idea of elevating the headship of the Presidential Center for Women and Family Affairs to vice presidential rank, in which case he would need to introduce another female vice president. As for the two ministries that remained vacant, he proposed the names of Fatemeh Aliya and Zohreh Elahian, both conservative MPs. Both women nonetheless withdrew from consideration so as not to offend the clerics.

Rahbar, head of the Clerics’ Faction, frowned upon what Ahmadinejad had done, stating, “The president’s behavior regarding this issue conveys a sense of obstinacy.” Indeed, with Khamenei’s backing, Ahmadinejad seems to be quite willing to antagonize the conservative clergy. Having lost much of the support that helped him in 2005, among the rural poor and recent urban migrants, he now appears to be concentrating on and responding to the demands of one sector of his base, those groups that feel left behind by the dimming of revolutionary fervor and relative cultural opening in Iran since the end of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. These groups are the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij and their ideological fellows.

His women nominees are a case in point. While in school, Fatemeh Ajorloo belonged to the Students’ Basij of Azad University. Nasrin Soltankhah is a member of the Professors’ Basij and was backed in her parliamentary campaign by Basijis. Several of the women, including the new minister of health, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, are associated with the conservative Zeinab Society.

A Presidential Gift

Many argue that Ahmadinejad nominated women to appear somehow responsive to the hundreds of thousands of women who protested the procedural irregularities in the June 9 election. It is an unlikely story, since no feminists and reformists rallied to his defense during his scuffle with the clergy, many refusing even to comment lest the nominations divert attention from the scandal of the election itself. As Rafat Bayat, a former conservative MP, says: “I doubt that, in nominating female ministers, Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to attract the 16 million people who voted for his opponents.”

There has, of course, been a long-standing demand from women’s movements that women be appointed to high political office. Prior to the June election, 42 women’s groups and 700 individual activists from across a wide spectrum, secular and liberal on one end and religious on the other, formed a coalition called the Convergence of Women with the aim of pressing the presidential candidates to announce their plans for the advancement of Iranian women’s status. Could Ahmadinejad be trying to alleviate the pressure on the government from these women and their international supporters? Not likely. In fact, he was the only presidential candidate who refrained from participating in Rakhshan Banietemad’s documentary, We Are Half of Iran’s Population, about the Convergence and its program.

The introduction of women ministers seems to be less of a response and more of a reaction to such coalitions. Conservative and religious women’s organizations, which are hooked into state institutions and lobby for change from the inside, were far more influential. The Zeinab Society is one such organization.

Founded in 1987, the Zeinab Society is one of the 14 factions comprising the Front of the Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership, a right-wing coalition that has representation in the Majles and is often described as “traditionalist.” The Society has 90 offices across the country: 22 in Tehran, 62 in other cities and eight in the women’s seminary at Qom and other centers of religious study. According to the Society’s website, the seminary office is the most active. Its internal reports reveal an organization interested in enhancing knowledge of religious and ethical concepts and practices among women, with a focus on the disadvantaged and unemployed, housewives, high school and university students, and war widows. The Society presents religion courses, organizes educational tours and offers unemployment benefits. Like the Sisters’ Basij, it emphasizes that “women should not just be passive observers of the political, religious and current affairs of their society.” Thus, while the Society’s activities may seem apolitical, its board members are prominent in the public sphere. Maryam Behroozi, the Society’s president, is probably the most vocal. She has a seminary degree, served in the first four post-revolutionary parliaments and has always been daring in her political pronouncements. She was the only woman from the conservative camp to congratulate the human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi on her 2003 Nobel Peace Prize and brave the criticism that followed. She has also actively pursued a place for women in the upper echelon of state institutions.

Behroozi says that she paid a personal visit to Khatami to express this wish on behalf of the Zeinab Society. It was her conservative sisters, as well as reformist and feminist women, who were disappointed when Khatami failed to name a woman minister. In 2004, several months before the election in which Ahmadinejad first ran, Behroozi was interviewed demanding that the next president of Iran appoint at least four women to his cabinet. [2] When Ahmadinejad won, she went to see him with women colleagues and repeated the request. In the Majles, meanwhile, Zohreh Elahian presented a bill helping to remove the barriers to women occupying top state jobs. Ahmadinejad did not comply during his first term, but the conservative women did not give in.

The August 2009 nominations of women, Behroozi claims, came as no surprise to her. Prior to the June election, members of the Zeinab Society, along with the Council of Principalist Women, a like-minded group, met with Ahmadinejad again specifically to discuss the place of women in his administration. When they suggested that he appoint women ministers, Behroozi recalls, “Mr. Ahmadinejad smiled.” After the balloting, the delegation of women offered him a list of names. Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi was on it.

In 2005, Ahmadinejad was widely perceived to have won on the strength of his pledge to “bring the oil money to people’s dining room tables” -- the chicken-in-every-pot politics employed by many a right-wing populist to woo the disadvantaged. But the president’s accomplishments in the economic realm so far are nothing to boast about and he cannot rely on the working classes to back him amidst the ongoing post-election turmoil. His base in the Revolutionary Guard, Basij and related groups has backed him to the hilt and will continue to do so to protect the privileges they have accumulated. [3] Now the president’s base is flexing its newfound muscle in various domains, including women’s rights. Whereas four years previously Ahmadinejad was able to ignore their requests, in 2009 the ideologically right-wing women, from their relatively secure position in the polity and because of an increase in their bargaining power, were able to push him to act. To the extent that the more liberal, secular organizations played a role, it may have been to provoke a reaction. As one conservative commentator writes, “Why should Shirin Ebadi, with her Western approach and attitude, be the one who claims the credit for the promotion of women’s rights, and the Islamic system the one that falls into a passive or defensive mode?” 

The Gray Area

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the most serious challenge to Ahmadinejad’s women nominees has come from the best-known feminists and reformists. “If women activists insist on having women in policymaking positions, it is because they want them to understand women’s needs and improve their situation,” says Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo, a former reformist MP who is now a research fellow at Harvard University. She doubted that Ahmadinejad’s women nominees would do anything to better women’s status, “because [they] have extremely traditionalistic approaches to women.” Shadi Sadr, a leading feminist lawyer, describes Ahmadinejad’s appointees as “yes men” and, along with other feminists, worries that they will propound “anti-woman” legislation. Known to be a fervent follower of the Supreme Leader, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi did not accept the nomination for minister of health until she paid a visit to Khamenei’s office and was assured that he had not issued any statement against the appointment of women ministers. She has also come under particular scrutiny for her advocacy of segregated health care facilities and her opposition to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Dastjerdi’s record, nonetheless, makes her difficult to pigeonhole: She was born in 1959, entered Tehran Medical School at the age of 16 and graduated with a degree in gynecology in 1988. As a doctor she has directed Arash Maternity Hospital, located in a low-income neighborhood in northeast Tehran. Between the years of 1994 to 2001, she was on the managerial board of the Family Planning Association of the Islamic Republic of Iran, during which time the population growth rate fell to 1.3 percent. As an academician she is on the faculty at Tehran Medical School and was on the Ministry of Health’s Council for Professional and Medical Training in the 1990s. As a politician she has served in the Fourth and the Fifth Majleses. She was one of three women selected by the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council in 1987 to form the Women’s Social and Cultural Council, which later became a major conservative policymaking institution. She has also sat on the board of the Zeinab Society for several terms.

Far from a passive adherent to a hardline conservative men’s agenda, Dastjerdi is often up front about her opinions on women’s rights, which at times clash with those of her male counterparts. In 1993, Dastjerdi stood in front of an assembly full of male MPs to speak emphatically for women’s right to ministerial positions:

I doubt that anyone believes that men are born ministers…. In an Islamic society where women can simultaneously maintain their chastity and work alongside   men, sometimes even harder than men…why shouldn’t we make use of women at the ministerial level?... Considering how male ministers have performed so far, it seems that the situation could not worsen! [4]

In the Fifth Majles, Dastjerdi was head of the Commission for Women, Youth and Family Affairs. She blocked several men from joining the Commission because of their hardline views. “If you want to turn the Women’s Commission into the Anti-Women’s Commission, go ahead and vote for them!” she told the Commission’s presiding board. In her capacity as an MP, she was also influential in the passage of bills on the establishment of special Civil Courts assigned to family matters, which require the presence of female advisory judges, amendment of the child custody law, which gives the court the power to place restrictions on the father’s right to custody and remove custody from him under circumstances the court considers harmful to the child, adjustment of dowries for inflation, and pensions for dependent children of deceased women. These reforms, although dismissed as “insufficient” and “minor” by some feminists, were moves in the direction of advancing women’s rights.

In 1997, Dastjerdi was interviewed by Elaine Sciolino in the privacy of her Tehran home. The New York Times reporter was surprised to find that Dastjerdi believed that women should serve as judges as they had done under the Shah; that the right of unilateral divorce for men should be curtailed; that the state should establish shelters for battered women; and that non-Muslim female visitors to Iran should be allowed to wear hats instead of headscarves. [5] Nonetheless, when it comes to Iranian women, she and her conservative colleagues actively support the strict controls on women’s dress through the “culture of modesty” campaigns.

Clearly, opinions about the rights of women and their status in society do not always track with opinions about the reformist-conservative conflict, velayat-e faqih and other controversial issues in Iranian politics. Conservative women who voted for Ahmadinejad in 2005 and 2009 do not necessarily hold stereotypically conservative opinions across the board. Second, and more important, there is no fixed agenda for what the rights and interests of Iranian women are. Defending her proposal on the sex-segregated hospitals, Dastjerdi argues that she aims only to provide women with greater comfort and privacy. The proponents of this proposal contend, as well, that a patient has the right to be treated by a doctor of the same sex. They worry that some women might be unwilling to be examined by a man and thus put their own health at risk. Hossein Ali Shahriari, a member of the Health Commission of the Majles, states that the proposal aims to eliminate these situations. While some women find the idea of gender-segregated clinics discriminatory and offensive, others think they will actually expand access to health care for women. Figuring out which position is “pro-woman” and which “anti” is a tricky business.

Reforms of the Anti-Reformists?

Mohammad Taqi Rahbar complained of Ahmadinejad, “The insistence of the president upon nominating women may create cognitive spasms in the Parliament, seminaries and society.” He was right.

The nominations spurred a series of debates about interpretation of the Qur’an, hadith and sunna, as well as Ayatollah Khomeini’s own statements about women’s role in an Islamic society. Once a marker of difference between reformists and conservatives, the question of women’s status is now bringing out fissures in the conservative firmament itself. For the first time since the revolution, the issue of appointing women ministers appeared on Iranian state TV and percolated through society.

The debates are not limited to religion. For some, the question revolves around something deeper, what they call “natural” gender roles. The concern is that women who are active in public life will be unable to serve as the foundation of the family. This concern transcends the reformist-conservative divide; even Mohammad Khatami on occasion fretted about the effects of women’s employment. Others, like Hojjat-ol-Islam Salman Zaker of the Principalists’ Faction in the Majles, do not consider women capable of doing jobs traditionally performed by men. But even supposing that women are capable, Zaker says, they cannot serve. “Due to the specific culture of Iran, men will not readily obey women,” leading to debilitating interruptions of the chain of command at ministries.

Surprisingly, even those who are not against the act of appointing women ministers draw upon the concept of “natural” feminine attributes of women to argue that women are better suited to some ministries than others. Ironically, there is no consensus upon which ministries are best. Both Ahmadinejad and Rafat Bayat, the former conservative MP, posit that women’s “motherly care and supervision” and “nurturing capacities” qualify them most for the Ministry of Education. Esfandiar Ekhtiari, representing the Zoroastrian minority in Parliament, finds the Ministry of Education to be “the worst option for women” -- too big a job, he says. His suggestion is to start by “offering women the vice presidential position of cultural heritage, tourism and handicrafts.”

Not every faction in Iran that has taken up the question of women’s rights during the period of ferment over Ahmadinejad’s ministerial nominations has done so out of genuine concern for women. Nevertheless, the conflicts among those who claim to speak on behalf of women have enriched Iranian public life and -- quite possibly -- boosted the chances of concrete improvements in women’s lives and life opportunities.

What all this suggests is that, ironically, reform may come at the hands of anti-reformists. It all depends on two factors: first, how vigorously international organizations press the Iranian government on violations of women’s rights, and more important, how consistently the secular and liberal activists try to form coalitions with more conservative civil society organizations, like the Zeinab Society and the Council of Principalist Women. One such coalition was formed in 2008, during Ahmadinejad’s first term, when all of these women joined forces to block passage of Clause 23 of the notorious family bill, which would have facilitated polygamy by canceling the requirement that a man obtain the agreement of a judge and his first wife before taking a second. The progress of the quest for reform and democracy may indeed be necessary for advancement of women’s rights in Iran across the board, but the retrogression of that political project with the consolidation of the hardliners’ power will not necessarily lead to a degradation of women’s rights and status.

Endnotes

[1] See Azam Khatam, “The Islamic Republic’s Failed Quest for the Spotless City,” Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009); and Fatemeh Sadeghi, “Foot Soldiers of the Islamic Republic’s ‘Culture of Modesty,’” Middle East Report (Spring 250).

[2] Abrar, November 7, 2004.

[3] See Kaveh Ehsani, Arang Keshavarzian and Norma Claire Moruzzi, “Tehran, June 2009,” Middle East Report Online, June 28, 2009.

[4] Abdollah Ganji, “Hypothetical Reasons Behind the Selection of Women as Proposed Ministers,” Charqad, August 24, 2009.

[5] New York Times, May 4, 1997.

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