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Women's Gains at Risk in Iran's New Parliament

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Iran's new parliament, sworn in two weeks ago, has nine female legislators, down from 13 in the previous body. Women throughout the country are watching this mix of mostly conservative legislators' approach to women's rights.

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Woman views poster for conservative party

(WOMENSENEWS)--"Well, the ladies agree; the gentlemen agree out of fear of their wives. Therefore, this bill has passed!"

For almost four years this was how Mehdi Karrubi, president of the Iranian parliament, would announce the passage of a bill related to women's rights by the reformist legislature.

Thirteen female parliamentarians in the 270-member legislature endured the remarks every time they managed to pass a bill establishing additional women's rights in Iran.

But now that their term officially ended on May 27 and a new parliament sworn in--the seventh in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran--women around the country fear that the famous statement will be seldom heard. They also wonder how long the legacy of the last parliament will last.

Immediately after the opening of the parliament four years ago, female legislators formed an active women's caucus, which pushed through the appointment of Shahrbanou Amani, a female legislator for the northwest city Orumieh, as the secretary of the parliament. In the position, Amani read bills before voting, gave suggestions about bills and arranged speaking times for parliamentarians.

A week after forming, the caucus managed to submit a bill aimed at eradicating inequalities in the inheritance laws affecting widows. The bill passed just before the end of the last term. In the past, a widow was entitled only to "movable" property such as the building, but not the actual land. Under the proposed law, a widow would be entitled to all non-movable property in the will, including land. The bill must still be approved by the Guardian Council.

Marzieh Mortazi-Langhroudi, a women's rights activist, fears the Guardian Council will most likely find that the provision is against Sharia, or Islamic law.

"I can forsee that the Guardian Council will reject it," Mortazi-Langhroudi said.


Only Nine Women Elected

Nine women managed to be elected last January after a campaign season that saw the Guardian Council, a constitutional body whose members are appointed by the Leader of the Revolution, disqualify 49 percent of the 827 parliamentary candidates. Eight of the nine female legislators are conservative and one is independent.

The Guardian Council did not explain its actions, but its election criteria allow non-belief in Islam, non-belief in the constitution or immorality as grounds for disqualification.

During the January parliamentary elections, many women protested the lack of reformist candidates and the Guardian Council's failure to ratify women's rights bills by refusing to vote.

"I didn't vote this time, because there was no candidate left that I could vote for," says Ayna Yaghoubi, a 21-year-old theater major at the Free Islamic University at the University of Tehran. She adds that even if she had voted, no female member of parliament "could have done anything under this system!"


Reshaping the Struggle

With reformist legislators a distinct minority in parliament, the power struggle will be reshaped between the pragmatist--more centrist-- and fundamentalist wings within the conservatives.

Activist Marzieh Mortazi-Langhroudi says the incoming parliament is polarized over reform and women's rights.

"The pole representing the centrist university-educated members believes in reforms. Most of them are educated abroad and their motto is to build an Islamic Japan," says Mortazi-Langhroudi, explaining that this model emphasizes economic development above political reform.

"The other pole represents a military-style, ultraconservative ideology. We must wait and see how these two poles interact with each other. If the former group seizes power without fear of pressure from the religious circles, the country will be pushed toward some kind of modernism. As such, this group should not oppose establishing equal rights for the women."

Elahe Koulaee, who served in the last parliament but was disqualified during the second round of voting, says the newly-elected conservative female legislators will emphasize the traditional role of women as housekeepers and mothers.

"This will eventually come in conflict with women's ever-increasing demands and the modern roles they are seeking," says Koulaee.


Conservative Female Representatives

Fatemeh Aliya is a previously unknown candidate from Tehran elected to parliament representing the Developers of Islamic Iran party, a group of non-clerical conservatives.

Now lobbying to become secretary of the parliament, she says Iranian woman have multiple responsibilities as Muslims.

"We will try to grow women according to the framework specified by God. We see a woman as carrying three kinds of individual, family and social duties. If fulfilling her social duty causes an interruption in her individual and family obligations, this shall constitute oppression to the woman."

How female legislators dress is viewed as one indication of how women's issues will be received in the new parliament.

In the last parliament, three female legislators dared to appear on the floor of the parliament without wearing the black chador--the full top-to-bottom cover--a mandatory, yet unwritten, requirement for women in any high position within the government.

These women instead wore pants covered by a mantua, a dark-colored long dress with long sleeves, and a headdress to cover their hair. For example, Elahe Koulaee, a legislator from Tehran, was known by her blue mantua and headdress.

Over the past four years, male legislators began to accept this style of dressing. Now, the new parliament has opened with female conservative legislators wearing the traditional black chador.

Some candidates say they were disqualified from running because of fears that they would continue to break ranks with tradition and shun the chador.

"The plan was to prevent women who did not believe in wearing the black chador from entering the parliament," said Koulaee.

But other legislators like Aliya, reject Koulaee's perception.

"This election was not about chador or non-chador issues," said Aliya. "I believe the female voters investigated the candidates and, at the end of the day, they voted for those whom they believed were more active and akin to women issues."


Negotiating Societal Demands

Aliya says that the incoming parliament will not question gender-bias laws that are rooted in the Sharia.

"If understood properly and as explained in Koran, these laws are for the good of men and women," she said. Applying God's laws is "not disadvantageous to women."

Nevertheless, Aliya believes that even in the incoming parliament, a women's caucus will be formed. A proponent of polygamy in cases of divorced women, she anticipates that female legislators will push for bills to expand the development of cultural, athletic and recreational facilities for women and provide support for female heads of households.

Mortazi-Langhroudi says that the new largely conservative parliament will have to adjust to advances within Iranian society where many wives are breadwinners and have managed to negotiate certain equities with their husbands.

"The requirements of a modern society will impose new reforms upon the conservatives," she says.

Shadi Sadr is a newspaper columnist in Iran and editor of the Web site: Womeniniran.org.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.




 
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