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Analysis: Despite Short-Term Reversals, Iranian Women's Status Likely To Improve

  • Bill Samii

Iran's female student population is growing rapidly A United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR) rapporteur recently concluded a visit to Iran, and at her final news conference she spoke out against the shortcomings of that country's legal system in terms of gender issues.

The next few years are likely to prove challenging for those who want to change the legal system, but it appears that gender politics are in transition and improvements are likely to emerge in the long run.

The UNHCHR's rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Erturk, urged the Iranian government on 6 February to approve the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Radio Farda reported.

A proposal that Iran join CEDAW is just one of 33 bills addressing gender issues that were introduced by female legislators in the 6th parliament (2000-04), Ziba Mir-Hosseini wrote in the winter 2004 issue of "Middle East Report" (http://www.merip.org/mer/mer233/mir-hosseini.html). The Guardians Council rejected all of them, but 16 became law after being watered down by the Expediency Council. The proposal that Iran join CEDAW -- along with 16 other bills -- is now up to the conservative-dominated 7th parliament, Mir-Hosseini wrote.

Short-Term Setbacks?

Mir-Hosseini went on to suggest that the outlook is not good. Ten of 12 female legislators are members of the Zeinab Society, which is funded by the Supreme Leader's Office. Moreover, these women have criticized their female predecessors for introducing legislation that allegedly went against the teachings of Islam. This criticism included CEDAW.

Erturk met with women's groups, nongovernmental organizations, scholars, the media, and state representatives during her one-week visit to Iran, which began on 30 January.

Giti Purfazel, a lawyer and women's rights activists in Iran, met with Erturk. Purfazel told Radio Farda that the UN official appeared to have a genuine interest in learning about the situation in Iran. She noted that women have fewer legal rights than men and that they face physical violence at home, but there is little they can do about this.

"For example, if a woman goes to court and says, 'I have no feelings toward my husband,' or, 'Because of his abuses at home, I have no feelings for him and want to separate from him,' they will not support this. The woman must really convince the court of this and convincing the court is very difficult." Purfazel said. "A man, because of Law 1133, can divorce his wife at any time. A woman does not have this legal right." Purfazel compared the current legal system with one that existed 1,400 years ago, and she said people cannot live this way. Addressing the issue of polygamy, Purfazel said, "Today's woman cannot think the way a woman thought 200 years ago, 300 years ago, therefore she cannot tolerate a rival wife."

Purfazel also told Radio Farda that Erturk wanted to know about punishments for women, including stoning. Purfazel referred to legal punishments and the physical punishment that women suffer at home. She also noted that the blood money (diyeh) one must pay for killing a woman is half the amount for killing a man. The same principle applies to witnesses. A woman's testimony is only half as valid as a man's. In some cases, Purfazel told Radio Farda, a woman's testimony is ignored if a man's testimony is not available to back it up.

Transforming A 'Patriarchal Society'

According to Mir-Hosseini in "Middle East Report," women like former Tehran parliamentary representative Fatimeh Haqiqatjoo are struggling to change Iran's "patriarchal society." Iranian women have inherited a "legacy of pain," she wrote, and they yearn for "an elusive freedom." Haqiqatjoo has criticized hard-line excesses in her speeches, condemned the president for not appointing female cabinet members, and urged government ministers to place women in senior positions.

There were 13 women in the 6th parliament, and they were very public figures. Mir-Hosseini argued that they successfully challenged existing parliamentary conventions, such as wearing the all-encompassing chador, sitting in an area that kept them separate from male colleagues, and eating in a curtained off portion of the dining hall.

The next parliamentary elections are not scheduled to take place until spring 2008, and conservative domination of the legislature indicates that the course of gender issues in Iran remains troubled in the short term.

The impetus of the demographic changes that are taking place in the country, however, strongly suggests that the situation will improve in the long run. After all, approximately two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, and more than half the country's university students are female. If and when they become politically active, these educated and youthful women could seek to effect substantive legal reforms.
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