Two women in Tehran walk past campaign poster

(WOMENSENEWS)–Female voters have played a decisive role in shaping Iran’s politics in the past seven years. But today, many will be staying away from an election they consider a sham.

With more than 2,000 mostly moderate candidates banned last month from standing in the parliamentary election, the theocraticleadership has been accused of trying to rig the outcome in advance. The ban was imposed by the unelected clerics and Islamic lawyers who sit on the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets all legislation. Over a third of parliament has resigned in protest, and the reformists have promised to boycott the election.

The blacklist has reinforced skepticism among an electorate that had high expectations after the last parliamentary elections were held in 2000. In that vote, reformists won a resounding majority, with crucial help from female voters. Many who supported the reformists believed that real democratic and social change was on the horizon.

Among those elected at that time were 11 female parliamentarians who were determined to stake out a place for women in the political arena and to push for changes in discriminatory laws. But over the past four years, reformist initiatives have been vetoed at every turn by the Guardian Council and the conservative judiciary has sought to stifle critical newspapers and dissidents.

Believing their votes were flouted by the clerical regime, few women–and few voters from any demographic group–turned out to vote in local elections last February. Many voters felt let down by the reformists, in particular President Mohammad Khatami, for avoiding confrontations with the theocratic leadership.

“Participation of women in this election will follow the general rate of all people,” Fariba Davoudi Mohajer, a journalist in Tehran who covers women’s issues told Women’s eNews. “I believe it will be a very low turnout, especially in Tehran and bigger cities. Women see they have no say.”

Taking Stock

Despite their disappointment, female activists are not bowing out of the political process. Taking stock of the past four years, they are looking for alternatives to formal politics and continuing with their drive to end discrimination against women in Iran.

Although their efforts to grant equal rights to women in inheritance, divorce and other laws mostly failed, female parliamentarians broke new ground and helped attract more women into the policy-making world.

“From my perspective, I take a critical angle. But the truth is we have achieved a lot,” said Farideh Mashini, head of the Institute for Women’s Studies and Research in Tehran.

Mashini listed a series of minor victories that were hard fought. The reformist parliamentarians managed to win the right for single women to study abroad, to raise the legal age for marriage from 9 to 13 for girls (though they had proposed 15), to defeat an attempt to limit the percentage of female students entering university and to improve custody provisions for divorced mothers.

The female parliamentarians also made inroads into the patriarchal attitudes and habits of their fellow lawmakers, including those in their own faction. In the main reformist party, the Participation Front, male parliamentarians were inclined to ignore the views of their female counterparts and to suggest that women’s issues should be given a lower priority.

But female legislators insisted on being heard and argued successfully for a party committee of both men and women charged with examining women’s issues.

“In any political party, they think politics is a male dominion,” Mashini said. “They don’t consider or look for the presence of women in this field. Many of them make decisions for women without consulting them.”

Iranian women in government and parliament seeking positions of authority have often been caught in a kind of catch-22 in which their male colleagues refuse to promote them on grounds they lack management experience, she said.

After his election, President Khatami came under heavy lobbying in and outside the reformist camp not to appoint women as cabinet ministers, disappointing many of the women who had voted him into office.

In previous parliaments, most of the women who served were linked to political families in the theocratic establishment and never questioned the discriminatory laws and customs enforced by the hard-line judiciary.

The current parliament, the sixth since the 1979 revolution that toppled the monarchy, was different. Genuinely independent women lawmakers emerged, refusing to adopt a subservient attitude though they adhered to the obligatory Islamic dress code that requires women to cover their hair and the shape of their bodies.

In the outgoing parliament, or majles, female parliamentarian Elahe Koulaiee, an expert in Soviet history, often grilled Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi at committee hearings with incisive questions about Iran’s foreign policy. And, Fatemah Haqiqat-Jou, the youngest female parliamentarian who was elected four years ago at the age of 31, lambasted the conservatives with cutting eloquence on the floor of the parliament.

Now Haqiqat-Jou, like dozens of other outspoken reformists, faces a possible prison sentence when her immunity expires after her term ends in three months. She was convicted previously for remarks that were deemed offensive to the supreme leader and the Guardian Council.

From the Bottom Up

With the doors to parliament closed for female activists and the whole reformist coalition, the focus for activists is expected to shift to grassroots politics, Mashini said. “If we get blocked, we just recover and find another way.”

She says that women formerly involved in party politics may turn to education, civic projects and nongovernmental organizations as a way of promoting social and democratic reform outside the theocracy’s “system.”

“They’re looking for other methods,” Mashini added. “You can see this among the students at universities. They think differently and their approach is opposed to joining political action,”

For journalist Davoudi-Mohajer, deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes–not legislation–represent the real barrier to progress. She said too many women accept their inferior status out of ignorance and, until they are made aware of their rights, well-drafted laws will be of little use.

“If you improve awareness, demands will consequently increase and laws will automatically change,” Davoudi-Mohajer said. “We need a change from the bottom up, because changes from the top down will not help. Even if you approve laws against discrimination, as long as women are afraid and accustomed to being beaten up and being raised with this growing up, it is not going to work.”

This mindset is evidenced by the work of the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who has led by example and always placed more faith in concrete legal action in the courts and civic projects in society than in partisan politics.

A New Vision

Some more secular-minded women activists have never had confidence in the reformist vision. They say a theocracy that enshrines Islamic Sharia law and places ultimate authority in the hands of unelected clerics can never provide equality for women. Instead, they favor a secular, liberal democratic model without an official, state role for Islam, a concept that is deemed blasphemous by the current regime.

In her account of Iran’s century-long struggle for democracy, “Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution,” the American historian Nikki Keddie writes that women’s activists have shown they can put aside their philosophical differences to work towards a common goal of overturning blatant discrimination.

In an alliance that combines the secular and the sacred, Ebadi and other human rights lawyers and writers have allied themselves with moderate clerics to argue that women’s rights are compatible with Islam.

This diverse alliance, which includes a significant number of traditionally-educated clerics, means that “the Iranian women’s movement is beginning to have an impact beyond Iran’s borders in addition to the transformations it is bringing in Iran,” according to Keddie.

Dan de Luce is a correspondent based in Tehran, Iran.

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