Analysis by Sara Farhang
TEHRAN, Sep 2 (IPS) - The Iranian Parliament will begin voting on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nominations for 21 cabinet positions on Wednesday. What makes this process unique is the inclusion of three women for ministerial posts, a fact that Ahmadinejad also pointed to during the three-day parliamentary debates on his nominations, which started on Aug. 30.
This is the first time that women have been proposed for cabinet posts in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic.
The three nominations include current conservative MP Fatemeh Ajorloo as the minister of social welfare, Dr. Marzieh Dastjerdi as the minister of health, and Susan Keshavarz as the minister of education.
The nominations have come under attack by some conservatives. One of the strongest denunciations came from Fatemeh Rajabi, a staunch supporter of Ahmadinejad. Rajabi viewed the nominations as a step toward pushing "the harmful goals of feminists and secularists".
Clerics too have voiced their opposition to the nominations. In an interview with the Farda News site, Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, head of the clerics' faction in Parliament and an MP from Isfahan, said that at least two clerics from Qom opposed the nomination of women to ministerial positions, urging Ahmadinejad to reconsider.
"Only the approval of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can change the negative opinion of the Ayatollahs in Qom, forcing members of parliament to vote in favour of the nominations," Rahbar said.
If Khamenei does not speak in support of these nominations, according to Rahbar, the opinion of the clerics in Qom will set the tone on the issue.
The Friday Prayer leader of Mashad, Ayatollah Alam Alhadi, has said that the "nominations only please immoral feminists".
Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai-Nejad, the Friday Prayer Leader of Isfahan, has argued against the nominations on religious grounds, saying that "women who are ministers will have to be in regular contact with men and their male deputies, and will not be able to adhere fully to their religious obligations."
But conservatives aren't the only ones opposed to these nominations. Given Ahmadinejad's poor record on women's rights, many women's rights activists have also expressed reservations. Ahmadinejad had earlier announced three criteria for the selection of his cabinet members, including a spirit of cooperation and commitment to the government's agenda.
Based on this statement, many women's rights activists, who have been fighting for equality, believe that the conservative women nominees will continue Ahmadinejad's restrictive policies toward women, promoting policies that push women out of the social realm and into their homes.
According to Parvin Ardalan, a women's rights activist and a member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, the least that Ahmadinejad could do for women would be to nominate them as ministers. But she is not hopeful about the nominations, saying that "the demands of women in society have increased. These nominations stand to only benefit the women in the Cabinet."
Some women's rights activists believe that Ahmadinejad's move to nominate women as ministers is in line with his reputation of co-opting the agendas of opponents and is intended to deflect the criticism that has followed the elections and his contested presidency.
Ardalan is not hopeful about the intentions behind the nominations either.
"The conservative government will take advantage of populist strategies for its own political agenda. The government has introduced these women to parliament as ministers - an act which has faced criticism by clerics. If the Parliament does not approve the nominations or even if it does, in both cases Ahmadinejad is the victor, and he will be able to play the role of a hero," she said.
Another issue of concern is the qualifications of the nominees. Keshavarz and Ajorloo have both been criticised for lack of management experience in the areas where they have been nominated.
Keshavarz comes to the post of education minister with a year's experience as the deputy minister of education for children with mental disabilities, while Ajorloo does not have any management experience, except for in the Basij militia. Parliamentarians have also attacked both Ajorloo and Keshavarz for their lack of management experience.
Mahboube Hosseinzadeh, a journalist and women's rights activist, is concerned about the nominations for the ministry of health and the ministry of social welfare.
"Ahmadinejad has nominated two women for posts in ministries which in the last four years have faced the highest level of criticism," she said.
"Certainly the selection of female ministers for two ministries which are fraught with problems, and which just happen to have the most direct relations and contact with the public, will lead to serious discussions on whether women are indeed qualified and ready to take on higher management posts."
The demand to nominate women to ministerial posts has been expressed by a segment of the women's movement in Iran for some time.
The discussion on this issue came to the fore during the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, who nominated Masoumeh Ebtekar as his vice president and head of the department of the environment. In his second term, Khatami was faced with a formal demand by women's rights activists to nominate women to cabinet positions. He was not able to meet the demand.
The issue of female ministers also arose in the last presidential elections, the results of which are still disputed. Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist candidate for president, was the first to propose the idea as part of his campaign platform.
The three candidates standing against Ahmadinejad were all committed to adopting programmes designed to advance women's rights and to reform laws that discriminate against women.
Ahmadinejad was the only one who did not commit to advancing women's rights as part of his election platform. This lack of commitment, according to many women's rights activists, is in line with his regressive policies on women.
One of the first things that Ahmadinejad did as president in his first term was to change the name of the Centre on Women's Participation to the Centre on Women and Families. His policies on women have followed a similar path, which work to reinforce the concept of women as mothers and wives first and foremost.
Additionally, several policies implemented during Ahmadinejad's presidency especially targeted women. The Social Safety programme targeted women for arrest on the street for inappropriate Islamic dress or hejab.
During this same period, policies were adopted to restrict women's access to higher education by placing quotas limiting the entrance of women into university and forcing women to attend university in their home cities. A controversial bill opposed by women's rights activists sought to ease restrictions on polygamy.
Women's rights advocates were also targeted during Ahmadinejad's first term as president, with dozens arrested for publicly demanding equal rights.
Given this background, there is little cause for joy among women's rights activists with respect to the nominations.
Still, Ardalan is hopeful on one issue. "If the argument on women as ministers is heightened, the conflict among conservatives on women's issues and women's rights will also come to a fore, increasing debate in this respect," she said.
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