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Iranian Women Weigh Khatami's Legacy On Gender Issues

By Bill Samii and Fatemeh Aman, RFE

The presidency of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami ended on 3 August, when his successor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad was installed. Khatami's landslide election victory on 23 May 1997 owed a great deal to support from female voters. Women make up about half of Iran's eligible voters, and Khatami actively courted their backing. As he leaves office, observers are debating how much he managed to achieve for Iranian women.

Protest by Iranian women in Tehran (June 2005)

Khatami appeared to recognize this constituency's backing when, following his election, he appointed a woman, Masumeh Ebtekar, as his vice president for environmental protection and appointed Zahra Shojai as his women's affairs adviser. Despite the demands of women in 2001, when he was re-elected, Khatami did not select any women for his cabinet, although he chose Zahra Rahnavard as his senior adviser on cultural affairs.

Khatami's attitude on gender issues was summarized in a 4 July 2005 statement in Tehran, when he said, "We should have a comprehensive view of the role of women and before anything else, should not regard women as second-class citizens," Fars News Agency reported. "We should all believe that both men and women have the capability to be active in all fields, and I emphasize, in all fields."

Farideh Ghayrat, a Tehran-based lawyer and the spokeswoman for the Association for the Defense of Prisoners Rights, told Radio Farda in May that the political atmosphere is more open now than it was eight years ago. Ghayrat credited Khatami with creating an environment that encourages women to participate.

However, she continued, this trend has stopped short of any significant improvement in the legal arena. "Legally, there has been no change [in the condition of women]," she said. "We cannot say that women now, according to the law, have more competence in taking responsibilities. Women still have trouble with ordinary laws, not to speak of running for office."

Marzieh Mortazi-Langarudi, a reformist women's rights activist, told Radio Farda that female activism has been on the rise during the Khatami presidency. She added that women now have more confidence to fight for their rights. Moreover, Mortazi-Langarudi told Radio Farda, religious laws that created an authoritarian atmosphere and tied a woman's fate to her gender and physique are being challenged, and this is an important step.

"In general, the women's movement grew relatively well during the reformists' [leadership]," Mortazi Langarudi said. "I think women's most urgent claim has been equality in human rights and gender rights. Steps have been taken. Women have more self-confidence in seeking their rights. I think that during [the reign of] Khatami, there was no stagnation. Stagnation was before Khatami, when no one could challenge the laws that appeared holy."

Women serve in the legislature, and they are eligible to serve in municipal councils. However, no females serve in the Assembly of Experts, an elected body that is restricted to clergymen. In the last two presidential elections, women have registered as candidates, but have not passed through the vetting process. That is because the law uses a vague Arabic term -- rejal -- that is interpreted in such a way that the chief executive must be a man.

Mahnaz Afkhami, who served as deputy minister of women affairs before the 1979 Islamic revolution, told Radio Farda that "what is really important is not simply whether a woman can achieve a high post, but rather what the position of that woman is on the women's issues and women's rights." Afkhami suggested that when the basic principles of democracy and human rights are not respected, the presence of a few women in the presidential race is irrelevant. "If you are seeking democracy and equality, such political games would not make any change," Afkhami said.

Khatami spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh defended the president's efforts during a meeting of deputy governors and governors-general for women's affairs in Tehran in early May. "We had not claimed that we would be able to bring about sexual justice," he said, according to "Etemad" on 4 May. "Nobody should expect us to bring about that kind of sexual justice in a matter of 10 or 15 years. What Khatami's government did in a democratic society was to turn the issue of sexual justice into an issue of the day, rather than allowing it to be confined to intellectual circles, to the extent that today no politician can easily ignore that issue."

Copyright (c) 2005 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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