By Elaheh Koolaee (Source: The Middle East Institute)
Women have played a crucial role in the Iranian struggle for democracy. They have played an important role not only in the victory of the Islamic Revolution, but also in the developments that have occurred since. The reform period was one of progress in women's rights, including in the public sphere. However, in the post-reform period, there has been a strong challenge not just to further progress in women's rights but to preserve the gains that previously had been achieved.
The Reformist Period
The mass participation of women in different aspects of politics laid the groundwork for the reformist movement, the impressive electoral victory of President Muhammad Khatami, and a new empowerment of civil society. They challenged the stereotype of Iranian women as subservient, passive creatures. Reformists in the government and the Parliament tried to respond to women's demands. Reformist parliamentarians were articulate, committed advocates for reform. Female MPs formed a special faction and tried hard to remove some of the obstacles to women's progress. Assisted by reform-minded men, they succeeded in amending some articles of civil law that were against women rights.
The Iranian Revolution at 30
The reformist parliament tried to change women's legal status by focusing on laws related to issues such as inheritance, divorce, child custody, and insurance. The reformist government ratified and the parliament approved the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, the Guardian Council rejected CEDAW, interpreting it as in contradiction with Islamic values. The women's faction presented a plan to reform some parts of the civil code in a package later in that period.
One of the most important achievements of Iranian women after the victory of the Islamic Revolution was their large presence in the public sphere. According to the traditional thinking to which the conservatives adhere, women must stay at home and essentially perform household duties and raise children while men work to earn money and manage the family. But the late leader of Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, stressed the necessity of women's participation in all social activities, and encouraged them to take part in socio-political developments. He focused on the domestic roles of women and their family duties, but did not ignore their role in social tasks.
One of the first initiatives of the new government was changing the name of "The Center for Women's Participation Affairs" in the President's Office to "The Center of Women's and Family Affairs." For the new president of this office, Nasrin Soltankhah, women's NGOs had lost their importance. Her counterparts in the Seventh Parliament (2004-2008) had been accusatory towards the previous president of the Center for helping women improve their capacities and activities. The government decreased the budget for women's affairs, and put its appropriations and allocation under the auspices of the Center. This Center has focused exclusively on women who are managing their families without men, and has changed the course of its activities profoundly.
The Seventh Parliament omitted "gender justice" in the process of amending the "Fourth Development Plan," which reformists had passed. Very soon it became clear that there would not be room for women in the board of the Parliament and the presidency of commissions and committees of the Parliament. President Ahmadinejad said that he does not accept a gender quota, and that he perceives it as a violation of justice and human rights. Some female representatives subsequently passed the plan of "house holders insurance" that remained from the Sixth Parliament (1996-2000). The Cultural Commission of the Parliament has worked seriously on the plan for matters of dress, especially in relation to women. Large propaganda programs promoting the hijab were put forth to persuade all women to put on the chador. Many conservatives claim Khatami's cultural policies have ruined Islamic norms in Iran. However the Seventh Parliament has finished some of remaining plans from the Sixth Parliament too. They a passed the bill on conditional abortion that permitted the operation to save the life of mother in very specific cases.
One of the serious problems facing Iranian women relates to those who marry foreigners. According to Articles 964 and 976 of Iran's Civil Law, an Iranian woman who marries a foreigner may not transfer her citizenship to her husband and children, though an Iranian man who marries a foreigner may transfer his citizenship to his wife and children. Although the reformist parliament sought to change this, the Conservatives reaffirmed it.
One of the considerable achievements of Iranian women after the Islamic Revolution has been the large-scale presence of women in the public sphere. Nevertheless, because of many socio-cultural obstacles, many women have been unable to obtain jobs commensurate with their education. Conservatives have attempted to return women to their homes, and have focused on dividing the private sphere and public sphere between women and men again. They have implemented a new gender quota plan to limit the number of girls who are admitted to universities. They have put in place a region-based university application system whereby a girl must have the permission of her father or husband to attend university in another city!
The "Family Bill" represents another major setback for women's rights. This proposed legislation would facilitate a man's remarriage by no longer making it necessary for him to gain the permission of his first wife. Although as a result of a huge protest by many women activists - from right and left and religious and non-religious quarters - the original bill was modified, the issue is not yet settled.
Nobody can stop the process of social change. Iranian women have used the educational opportunities afforded by the Islamic Republic to gain the knowledge and skills with which to better their situation and that of their families. Many structures and institutions must be changed according to women's needs and demands. As is the case in all countries where traditional norms are deeply ingrained, women in Iran face stiff resistance from the conservatives. Yet, recent experience has shown that Iranian women have learned how to challenge and have succeeded in removing some of these
obstacles. They, like many of
their counterparts throughout the world, continue their struggle.
1. Mohammad Hossein Hafezian, "Political Participation of Women and the Islamic Revolution of Iran," Discourse, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2002), p. 52.
2. Elaheh Koolaee, "Women in Public Sphere, a Case Study of Islamic Republic of Iran," Journal of Faculty of Law & Political Science, Tehran University, No. 61 (Fall 2001), pp. 228- 232.
3. Elaheh Koolaee, "A Glance at Women's Faction Performance in 6th Parliament," Shargh, Nos. 215, 223 (2002), p. 3.
4. Ashraf Gramizadegan, "6th Parliament and Women Rights," Reyhaneh, (Journal of the Center for Iranian Participation Affairs), No. 6 (2004), pp. 219-255.
5. "One Month with Women in the Parliament," Zanan (Monthly Women Magazine), (August 2006), pp. 20-23.
6. "One Month with Women in the Parliament," Zanan (October 2003), p. 21.
7. "Omit the Gender, Justice and its Reflections," Reyhaneh, No. 8 (2005), pp. 177-188.
8. "One Month with Women in the Parliament," Zanan (June 2003), p. 30.
"One Month with Women in the Parliament," Zanan (June
2004), pp. 27-32.
10. "One Month with Women in the Parliament," Zanan (January 2003).
11. "One Month with Women in the Parliament," Zanan (August 2006), pp. 27-33.
12. Elaheh Koolaee, "Gender Quota against Iranian Women," Aeen, No. 10 (2007), pp. 54-57.
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