The IranianPuma jersey


email us

NamehNegar Persian word processor

Sehaty Foreign Exchange

    News & views

Iran Faces Turning Point
Gaining power, women are winning one change at a time

San Jose Mercury News
Washington Bureau
October 25, 1999

QOM, Iran -- On the women's side of the prayer hall, under the giant golden dome where the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is entombed beside his son, Fatima pulls her chador over her head and searches for a sympathetic face.

``I am divorced and without money,'' she said softly and with dignity. ``I was living with my aunt, but she asked me to leave. I have nowhere to go.''

Fatima is a striking woman, even with her face and figure shrouded in black. But in Iran, where there are few opportunities for mature women to attract men, it takes more than good looks to get or keep a husband. Thousands of divorced Iranian women are like Fatima: penniless and homeless, forced to prowl shrines such as Khomeini's tomb to beg for charity.

But now women have gained a degree of political power in the Iran of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and they've begun making their mark on society by winning changes in some of the laws that affect them. The country's child-custody and divorce laws are among the first they are tackling.

According to Zahra Shojaie, Khatami's adviser for women's affairs, women in Iran already could divorce their husbands under certain conditions -- impotence and infertility being two -- but she and other women in parliament are working to expand such rights, with some notable successes.

Shojaie is one of two women in the president's Cabinet -- the first ever to hold such positions in Iran. The other, Massoomeh Ebtekar, is minister for the environment.

``And Khatami has given us the duty of identifying any legal issue relating to women that is a problem, and furnishing him with a solution,'' she said.

Providing for divorcees

So women in Iran now can demand compensation from their former husbands after divorce. And if a man is destitute, Shojaie said, the state must provide for her.

``This has actually caused a decrease in the divorce rate,'' she said, ``and many men were annoyed because this law was in favor of women.''

Some Iranian men were even more annoyed at Shojaie's success in revising child-custody laws. Islamic law mandates that a father is financially responsible for his children, but that also meant fathers were more likely to be granted custody of children 7 and older.

``Before just a few months ago, it was the father that would get the children,'' Shojaie said. New laws allow the courts to decide who is best able to care for the children, ``and the preference now is with the mother,'' she said.

Not everyone believes it will be that easy to change the minds of Iran's male judges or to enforce the new laws.

``We know women don't always understand or know how to use their rights,'' Shojaie said. ``To be more precise, men are not always aware of women's rights. And there are men who are aware, but don't observe them.''

Shojaie said the government's budget now includes -- with Khatami's blessing -- money to fund an affirmative-action plan for female heads of households in Iran, giving them preferential treatment in hiring and in housing.

Since Iran's 1979 revolution, the literacy rate for women has grown, ``and now 54 percent of university students are girls,'' Shojaie said.

Mehrangiz Kaar, a lawyer who is also an outspoken critic of Iran's powerful conservative clerics, thinks too many laws still discriminate against women. ``In family life, in political life and in getting a job, women are not equal with men,'' she said.

Improved status

But Kaar concedes the status of women has improved.

``Women are now members of the city council in Tehran,'' she said, ``and there they don't need to be religious scholars to get elected. But in parliament, it's different. Their ideology still has to be right'' to be approved for office by the conservative Council of Guardians, which has veto power over laws it deems a threat to Islam or the state.

Women can vote in Iran and have served in the Majlis, or parliament, since the 1979 revolution. ``But their numbers (in government) have increased three times since Khatami came to power,'' Shojaie said.

Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is one of 14 women who sit in Iran's 270-member parliament. Although she is the daughter of one of the country's most prominent clerics, she has ideas that rile conservatives in the government.

Limiting authority

As a member of the influential Executives of Construction Party, Hashemi is committed to ``trying to limit the authority of the conservatives.''

``We believe in moderation,'' she said. ``And we wanted to challenge the conservative ideas that they have brought.''

Tall and confident, Hashemi, 37, is one of the youngest parliamentarians and she rejects any suggestion that it is only women from prominent families who serve in government.

``There are 14 women in the Majlis, and most of them are just ordinary people. It will definitely help if you come from a well-known family or have money, but on the other hand, we have daughters and wives of many officials who could never be elected to parliament.''

Hashemi is also president of the Islamic Countries' Women Sports Solidarity Council and has dedicated herself to promoting female athletes and encouraging participation in sports by women who wear the hijab, the prescribed Islamic style of dress.

There are many sports that women who wear the hijab can play, including skiing and archery, she said.

``Others, such as swimming and volleyball, we can practice without men around,'' Hashemi said. ``We have shown that sports and Islam are absolutely compatible.''

For the next generation

No one doubts that women in Iran will continue to gain power and status, Hashemi said, ``but considering the problems that women have, and considering that for centuries there has been domination of men over women, it will take time.''

Hashemi said one philosophy guides her and many of Iran's most powerful women.

``Everything can't be accomplished at once,'' she said. ``We're working to deliver a better society to the next generation of women.''


 MIS Internet Services

Web Site Design by
Multimedia Internet Services, Inc

 GPG Internet server

Internet server by
Global Publishing Group.