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Iran: Players or Pawns?

2 September 2009
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a man of many labels; Iran's ‘everyman' crusading for the nation's downtrodden, champion of the Muslim world, self-fashioned historian with an amnesic grasp of 20th century events and, most recently, vote rigger of questionable skill. To date however, Ahmadinejad's reputation has not been readily associated with women's rights. His recent decision to nominate three female cabinet ministers has consequently aroused surprise and suspicion in many camps.

Little is known about these women. What is clear, however, is that all three possess impeccable hardliner credentials. Take Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, Ahmadinejad's candidate for Minister of Health. A qualified gynecologist who served as a member of parliament from 1992 to 2000, she submitted a short-lived proposal for gender-segregated hospitals in putative accordance with Sharia law. The nominee for Minister of Welfare and Social Justice, Fatemeh Ajorlou, is a 43 year old Phd student in psychology who has spoken out against abortion as well as recent allegations of rape in Iran's prisons, and is additionally renowned for her connection to a government corruption scandal last year. The last candidate, nominated for Minister of Education, is notable for her lack of notability; with a PhD in education and philosophy, Susan Keshavarz's year long service as a deputy in the Education Ministry appears to be her lone political credential.

The nomination of these women has been met with mixed emotion from Iran's women's rights activists. Some have suggested that no matter what their ideological leaning, the possibility of having three women cabinet ministers marks an important first in the Islamic Republic's thirty year history. Though reformist president Mohammad Khatami appointed several women - including Zahra Rahnavard - as his special advisors, women have not assumed a cabinet position in Iran since the fall of the Shah.  

The vociferous response of clerics such as Grand Ayatollahs Safi Golpaygani and  Makarem Shirazi - who see mixed gender public settings as contrary to Sharia law and are suspicious of women's decision making capacities- is testament to extant barriers to women's political equality in Iran.

However, Ahmadinejad's justification for his decisions does not seem to have challenged existing stereotypes of women's political competence. Rather than pointing to the women in question's abilities, the president has merely argued that women have a "God-given gift" to bring peace and harmony and that male cabinet ministers will be more well-mannered in the presence of women. Surely if Iranian women are to achieve the political respect that many are demanding, these platitudes should be the first casualties of a policy for genuine change.

Busting the myth of feminine incompetence is complicated by the fact that the women selected by Ahmadinejad - particularly Ajorlou and Keshavarz - are neither distinguished nor seasoned politicians. Parallels with Sarah Palin's disastrous foray into federal politics abound, and the task of convincing Iran's most conservative corners of women's decision making abilities may be jeopardized by these candidate's distinct lack of experience - if, that is, their nomination receives parliamentary approval.

It's a big if.  Indeed, precedent indicates that Ahmadinejad may have conceived of the proposal in full confidence that it would be still-born; the nominations seem akin to Ahmadinejad's 2006 decision to reverse the ban on women attending football matches, a move that was denounced with great fanfare among clerics and conservative parliamentarians. The ban was never lifted.  

As a member of Iran's hardliner establishment himself, Ahmadinejad cannot be blind to the controversy that his nominations will incite. Rather than stemming from genuine commitment to women's rights, it seems more likely that Ahmadinejad is seeking to distract from the political controversy that his government is mired in - without ultimately changing how the country is run. As Parvin Ardalan of the One Million Signatures Campaign told Rooz magazine in an interview, " [these nominations are] an attempt to gain popularity and legitimacy among women rather than respecting the demands of the women's rights movement". This task is of greater urgency now, not only because of the contested election, but because many of Ahmadinejad's proposed male cabinet ministers have attracted heavy criticism for their scanty qualifications.

The appointment of these women thus fits into a broader picture of a nomination process largely based on loyalty to the president rather than merit. Young and inexperienced by ministerial standards, these women will owe Ahmadinejad a huge political debt if approved for their posts. Even in the improbable scenario that they ever assume their roles in the cabinet, it seems likely that their efforts will be focused on advancing Ahmadinejad's interests rather than those of Iranian women.

Name supplied and withheld by request

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