(WOMENSENEWS)– When Iran’s vice-president, Massoumeh Ebtekar, plans to travel to an international conference on climate change, she has to get a written note from her husband granting her legal permission to leave the country.

If she died in a car crash, her life would be worth half that of a man’s in financial compensation.

Such laws are a clear violation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known widely as CEDAW, and would have to be repealed if Iran’s reformist parliament got its way. But an appointed body of conservatives vetoed adoption of the U.N. convention on August 12, saying it violated Iranian and Islamic Sharia law.

The veto came as no surprise to reformist members of parliament, which approved the CEDAW on June 23. “It was predictable that they would reject it,” said Elaheh Koulaiee, one of 14 female members of parliament. “We could expect it after the propaganda that was issued.”

Powerful conservative voices in the clergy had attacked the convention as a violation of Islamic Sharia law and seminary students and clerics condemned the parliament in protests held in the theological center of Qom earlier this month.

“This is just like other stereotyped western slogans like support for human rights, democracy, political prisoners and, very recently, the war on terrorism,” Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “All these plots are meant to undermine Islam,” he said.

Reformists Rally Behind U.N. Convention

With parliamentary elections approaching in February next year, some analysts said both sides used the vote on the U.N. convention to rally their supporters.

By approving the U.N. convention in parliament, the reformists were sending a clear signal to their supporters and their conservative opponents that the role of women in society will remain at the heart of the debate about the future of Iran.

Referring to the reformists, one Tehran analyst, who asked not to be named said, “The representatives in the Majlis (parliament) are trying to push the envelope. They knew the U.N. convention would be rejected but they wanted to say this is who we are and this is what we stand for.”

As women’s roles evolve in Iran, the country’s laws and the conservative clerics who enforce them have come under increasing scrutiny. Reformists in parliament and government have argued that discriminatory legislation has no basis in the Islamic faith and that the clerical establishment must adapt to changing times.

Legal experts and female members of parliament say the Shia faith that prevails in Iran has always allowed for fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, in which senior clerics give new interpretations to Sharia law, allowing for contemporary conditions or circumstances not described in the Koran.

They cite decisions and writings from the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said it was permissible to play chess and eat sturgeon, reversing long-held prohibitions.

Islam Does Not “Dictate Discrimination”

“Islam can apply to all times and all circumstances and we are convinced that religion does not dictate any discrimination against women,” Koulaiee, a professor at Tehran University’s faculty of political science, said in an interview.

Before the Guardian Council veto, reformist Member of Parliament Fatemeh Rakeie argued that adopting the U.N. convention would help dispel Iran’s negative image abroad and allow the country to be exposed to the experiences of other Islamic countries struggling with similar issues.

Although it has no enforcement mechanisms, the U.N. convention encourages states to guarantee equal rights to women without exception. In an attempt to address the objections of conservatives, the parliament supported the U.N. convention with two conditions: that no provision violating Islam would be valid and that Iran would not abide by the arbitration of disagreements through the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Gap between Clerics, Rising Expectations

Reformist activists say the polarized debate in parliament and the vitriol in some hard-line media reflect the growing gap between Iranian women’s rising expectations and the conservative clerics who dominate the judiciary.

If the clerical leadership fails to respond to women’s concerns, a new generation could become increasingly radical in their demands, Koulaiee said.

The reformist government, led by President Mohammad Khatami, has tried to encourage a constructive discussion on women’s rights and other issues, but Iran lacks a network of non-governmental organizations that could open up a meaningful dialogue with the conservative clergy.

“We need strong social institutions and nongovernmental organizations to meet with the clergy and engage in fruitful discussions. To make clear the nature of the situation, that there are drastic changes under way in society,” Koulaiee said.

At the moment, 14 female members of parliament in Iran’s 272-member parliament are struggling to promote awareness of discriminatory laws and practices, she said. “We can’t do everything by ourselves. There are only 14 of us.”

Conservative clergy, who control the judiciary and dominate appointed bodies that vet all legislation, cited international lobbying as evidence that the U.N. convention was being used to undermine the country’s theocratic system. The European Union has demanded that Iran sign the U.N. convention as a condition for progress on a trade and cooperation agreement currently under negotiation.

Europe Must Apply Pressure Delicately

European Union lobbying helped force Iran recently to suspend the practice of stoning women accused of adultery. But western governments have to tread a delicate line given the country’s history of colonial exploitation and imperial meddling.

The European Union lobbying has provoked a backlash among more hard-line elements harboring deep distrust of international human-rights accords and monitoring efforts. U.N. human rights experts were allowed to visit Iran in February for the first time in seven years.

Given the intransigence of the judiciary and some conservative clergy, reformists have had to turn to international treaties and conventions as a way of shedding light on the mistreatment of women in the workplace and at home.

“I think many people who are against the convention have not read it; the majority of them have not read it. They think it is against Islamic norms and ideas . . . But we know Islam is against any kind of discrimination against women,” Koulaiee said.

Most reformist activists remain optimistic that time is on their side and social change is already under way, with rising literacy rates and women securing unprecedented access to university education.

“The huge resistance in front of these kind of changes is only natural. It’s important that we build confidence,” Koulaiee said. “The trend is clear. The process is inevitable.”

Dan De Luce was a correspondent for Reuters in Belgrade and Sarajevo during and after the conflict in former Yugoslavia. He reports from Tehran for The Guardian and The Observer.

Photo: Vice chairwoman of Majlis Women Fraction Akram Mosavari-Manesh (L), Vice chairwoman of Majlis Cultural Commission and a member of the Women Fraction Fatemeh Rakeie (C) and member of Cultural and Social Council of Women Zahra Ayatollahi (R) attend a panel discussion on the UN Convention on Discrimination Against Women Saturday. SF/217 Photo by IRNA Photographer: Mehdi Mir-Afzali.

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