Iran Faces Turning Point
Gaining power, women are winning one change at a time
BY JOYCE M. DAVIS
San Jose Mercury News
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
``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
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,''
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,''
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
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.
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.
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
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
Hashemi said one philosophy guides her and many of Iran's most powerful
``Everything can't be accomplished at once,'' she said. ``We're working
to deliver a better society to the next generation of women.''