Thursday, June 11, 2009

Women And Politics In Iran

The Iranian elections have made several newspapers write about the role of women's rights in Iran. Such pieces are not enough to make an uninformed reader into an informed one. Discussing the obligatory dress code for women may stand as short-hand for the lack of women's rights, of course. But I would have liked to read a piece which discusses the unequal treatment of women in families, in law, at work and in education more than these articles allowed. This is because I have learned that many in the West are not informed on those questions.

Here are some quotes from the articles, to get us going. First the Wall Street Journal:

In this election, the three candidates challenging President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure has included a crackdown on women's-rights activists, have tried to set themselves apart from the incumbent by focusing on female voters.

"Iranian women can be a major force and now candidates are realizing our support can deliver them victory and credibility," says Elahe Koulaee, a professor of political science at Tehran University and a former parliament member.

The top reform contender, Mir Hossein Mousavi, broke the taboo of mixing personal life with politics by campaigning with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, an artist and scholar who has been dubbed Iran's Michelle Obama by local media.

Presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric, has said he is against forcing women to wear the Islamic veil. He recently debated with his team the number of cabinet posts women should fill. Mr. Karroubi's top advisers lobbied for the foreign ministry, speculating that when relations with the U.S. normalize, the new foreign minister could shake hands with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.


Last year, Mr. Ahmadinejad's government introduced two bills that would impose a tax on a woman's dowry and make it easier for a man to practice polygamy. The bills were dropped after an uproar and pressure from women's-rights activists who marched to the parliament by the tens of thousands, demanding to meet with lawmakers.

The BBC:

For women backing Mr Mousavi, or the other reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, they know equality has limits. It is an issue of rights: the right to study what they choose; to have a say if their husband wants to take a second wife; to do jobs they are qualified for.

"I'm a graduate from one of our country's best universities," Sara tells me in Isfahan in a quiet voice tinged with palpable frustration. "But I still can't do everything I want. I can't say everything I want."

Many young Iranians attend University and 65% of them are women.

Trained as an architect, Sara has found she is allowed to design buildings, but supervising her projects on site can be difficult, and sometimes its forbidden.

Finally, Reuters:

"Whoever comes to power has to respond to the demands of the women's rights movement," said rights campaigner Sussan Tahmasebi. "We are no longer invisible."

Activists say women in Iran are subject to discrimination that makes them second-class citizens in divorce, inheritance, child custody, legal matters and other aspects of life.

Under Ahmadinejad, there was an attempt to push women back into the "private sphere and promote them as mothers and wives," Tahmasebi said.

Iran says women in the country are better treated than in the West, where it says they are often seen as sex symbols.

Iranian women are able to hold most jobs and, unlike in Saudi Arabia across the Gulf, they can vote and drive.

But activists say dozens of campaigners have been detained since they launched a campaign in 2006 to try and collect one million signatures on a petition demanding greater women's rights. Most of them were released after a few days or weeks.

The president of Iran is of course not the ultimate holder of political power and I doubt that the Islamic clerics who do hold that power would let very large changes take place in the rights of women. It's also true that the vast majority of Iran's women are probably not in a position to even think about their general rights to a job or such, given that what happens to them is determined by the culture in their local villages and the will of their families.