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Women against women
Women in Iran's 7th parliament

November 5, 2004

Parliament, or Majlis, in post-revolutionary Iran has been, for the most part, a conservative force with an exception of the sixth Majlis which formed three years after Khatami's election in 1997. The sixth Majlis (2000-2004) reflected the vote of 84% of the voting population and was comprised of reformists (dovom khordadis).

Women of the sixth Majlis made history by standing up for women's issues or at least discussing them in Parliament. Jamileh Kadivar and Elahe Kulayi were the two outstanding female reformists in the sixth Majlis who pursued women's issues despite the opposition of the powerful right wing in the country.

This was manifested in their struggle to bring Majlis to pass the bill on Iran joining the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). There are twelve women in the seventh Majlis, but they exert no political power and actually represent the far right despite their occasional reformist rhetoric.

The women in the seventh Majlis are against the bill on Iran joining CEDAW, which the female reformists in the sixth Majlis had fought for vigorously. So far, the women in the seventh Majlis have exhibited conservative, right wing tendencies setting them apart from their counterparts in the preceding parliament.

The CEDAW, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it clearly defines the grounds for discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

By accepting the Convention, the Iranian state would commit to undertake a series of measures that would end discrimination against women in all forms. The state would have to incorporate the principle of equality for women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women, and ensure the elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by any persons, organizations or enterprises.

The seventh Majlis is not a popular one as reflected in the declining voter participation in the parliamentary elections earlier this year. After the political defeat of Khatami's reform agenda, the Parliament members who won their seats due to the official exclusion of the reformist candidates by the judiciary branch of the government implemented a new strategy.

The conservative parties, such as Abad-garan-e Eslami and Jameh Zeynab, made their lesser-known members candidates for the parliament. These candidates, who have not been in the forefront of politics up to this election, used reformist rhetoric in a desperate attempt to win popularity in the eyes of the public. But it did not take long for their true loyalties to emerge.

Once elected to Parliament, the female MPs segregated their lunch space from men and reverted back to traditional gender segregation in the parliament, a symbolic gesture showing their commitment to the ultra religious faction in the government. In another instance, which made headlines in Iran's national media, Fatemeh Alia (MP from Tehran) said that one symptom of Western influence which should be confronted in Islamic Iran is a debate on "legal rights."

She proposed that people should instead think about their religious duties, not "legal rights" in order to reach prosperity as a nation. She argued that the concept of law is an imported concept from the West and therefore should be eliminated from public discussions in the country.

If we think of the reformist movement as one distinguished by its ceaseless efforts to establish an independent judiciary branch and create an atmosphere of respect for law in the country, then Alia and her colleagues are vehemently against reformism and its social and political aims. These instances reveal the true loyalties of female MPs in the current Majlis, despite their initial attempt to portray themselves as "reformists".

Female MPs in this Majlis are overwhelmingly opposed to having Iran join the CEDAW based on religious grounds. Nafiseh Fayaz-bakhsh (MP from Tehran), who holds a Ph.D in Islamic theology, is against the convention because of her religious beliefs. She, along with Rafat Bayat (MP from Zanjan), argues that the convention rules and regulations are "Western" and Iran, as an Islamic country, cannot submit to Western definitions of women's rights.

This position is supported by Fatemeh Rahbar (MP from Tehran), who is in favor of filtering the Internet for the same reason. Fatemeh Alia has stepped further by supporting polygamy- in direct contrast to rules in CEDAW- as beneficial to women since it alleviates women's economic difficulties.

Laleh Eftekhari (MP from Tehran), who is a member of Zeynab, a conservative state-run organization which polices women in public spaces in regards to the Islamic dress-code, is also against CEDAW. The three independent MPs, Effat Shariati-Koohbani (Mashad), Hajar Tahriri (Rasht) and Fatemeh Ajarlou (Karaj) also follow the above mentioned position on CEDAW.

The other female MPs have not voiced their position on CEDAW, but are expected to follow their female colleagues closely. Elham Amin-Zadeh holds a Ph.D in International Law from University of Glasgow in England. Her distinct educational level coupled with her multilingual skills qualifies her for membership in foreign relations and national security commission in Parliament.

Amin-Zadeh is well versed in international law and more inclined to support CEDAW, but is not expected to withstand the pressure from the powerful conservative faction in Parliament. Mehrangiz Morovati (MP from Khalkhal), the only MP from the last Majlis, has remained silent on the issue. Nayereh Akhavan-Bitaraf (MP from Isfahan) has followed her husband's lead on issues. Her husband, Hassan Kamran, a longtime MP since the fourth Majlis, has repeatedly voiced his opposition to the reformers.

As reflected in their position on CEDAW, the female members of the seventh parliament are leaning more towards the right wing political power in Iran. They are unable or unwilling to improve women's conditions - a task in which female MPs of the sixth Majlis stood for staunchly.

On International Women's Day, March 8, in 2000, female MPs of the sixth Majlis debated the necessity of chador (a long cloth covering the whole female body except the face) and argued that a scarf and a long dress should suffice in order to fulfill the criteria of the Islamic modest dress code enforced in Iran.

Today, female MPs wear chadors and insist that all female reporters dress the same or be denied entry to Parliament. Recently the seventh Majlis rejected a bill which was an extension of the sixth Majlis preparatory work to join CEDAW that argued for equality for men and women. The female MPs in this Majlis have set the clock back to the time when the right wing and conservative Akhounds enjoyed absolute power without any resistance.

Elham Gheytanchi is a sociologist in Santa Monica, California.

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