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Iran: Women Call For Change

Prague, 27 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A senior member of the Iranian Mission to the United Nations has appealed for a change in what she called a "wrong attitude" towards women.

Forouzandeh Vadiati issued her appeal late last week in New York, before the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, which deals with women's issues.

Vadiati said that since moderate President Mohammed Khatami came to power in Iran in May of last year, ample opportunities have been provided for women's participation in political and social affairs. But she said she believes international efforts to guarantee women's rights will not be realized fully without what she called "a critical revision in traditional outlooks toward women."

An RFE/RL correspondent spoke with Dr. Haleh Vaziri, an Iranian women's studies expert and private consultant on women's issues and activism, and asked her view on the Iranian Mission's statement.

Vaziri, who is based in Washington, suggested that the comments may have been directed at Iran's internal situation as much as at international realities:

"I think the statement is clever and recognizes that patriarchy (that is, male dominance) has existed in Iran and that women have fought an uphill battle against it .... And so it is necessary not just to overturn political attitudes, to change laws, or undo restrictions on women but, in fact, societal attitudes also have to change. And I don't think Iran is unique in this regard."

Vaziri said that, in her view as well as her experience, change really comes through women's persistence, perseverance and activism. Still, she acknowledged the government plays a key role in how fast and far-reaching such change will be. Vaziri said she is optimistic that the tide is turning in favor of the women of Iran and their goals. And she cited four key reasons why the government is finding it harder and harder to ignore women's issues and concerns.

"First, women were the foot-soldiers of the Iranian Revolution and have paid the price for this government. Secondly, during the Iran-Iraq War, women suddenly became heads of households and took the place of men in the workplace so that after the war ended --10 years ago-- the government couldn't simply say, 'thank you for your service now please go home and wash the dishes.' And then, of course more recently, (President) Khatami has made direct appeals to women. (Finally,) women have remained active despite laws implemented by the Islamic Republic --and not just laws, but a general atmosphere which has sought to restrict their place in political and social life."

One area that remains open to women is the right to vote, and Iran's women are using it. They exercised the vote to put Khatami into the presidency. Women voters also made Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the second-biggest voter-getter nationwide in legislative elections of 1996. Faezeh Hashemi's success is due partly to the fact that she stands as a symbol of both past and future. Vaziri said Hashemi is joined by a whole new generation of women who are calling for change.

"There are other women within Iran's society and in particular lawyers, rights activists, poets, all of whom are contributing to the debate on women and significantly, they are (saying,) 'there are other ways to interpret Islam and if you wish to have a conversation about the faith you have to include us.' By saying that I don't mean to imply that the women of Iran are enjoying some great wave of liberation. That's not true either. But I think we can be cautiously optimistic by virtue of the women and their activities themselves --and their courage-- and not count them out."

Parvin Darbai, head of a U.S.-based educational foundation trying to educate Muslim women about their rights, is not as optimistic. She told RFE/RL from Los Angeles that the situation for women in Iran is not only n-o-t better, but in some cases is even worse.

"If women don't have the personal freedom of what to wear, where to go, what profession to choose, and whom to marry or to divorce, what is getting better? It's just the same old thing. Maybe they are now giving (women) more freedom in some sports, which has to be done underground anyway because women should not be seen by anyone."

Darbai cited a law recently passed in Iran that states women should be seen only by women doctors as one example of the increasing restrictions on women's personal and public rights.

Vaziri says the women of Iran, perhaps more so than women in other Muslim societies, have recently been isolated, by virtue of Iran's international isolation. But she adds that the women of Iran are neither impervious nor oblivious to trends around the world, in particular democratization and increasing concern with the nature of civil society.