An Examination of Policies Related to Women During the First Four Years of Ahmadinejad’s Presidency
From Discrimination to Discrimination
By: Mahboube Hosseinzadeh
Thursday 26 November 2009
Change for Equality- “Women…women are the crown on our heads” was the first sentence that Mahmoud Ahmadinnejad uttered sarcastically on the afternoon of June 24th, 2005, as one of the two candidates who were admitted to the second stage of the presidential elections, in response to the question of a female, foreign journalist about his future policies for Iranian women. In a small and hot car exhibition in eastern Tehran, where the atmosphere was made even more unbearable because of the smell of smoke and wild rue [to ward off the evil eye], Ahmadinejad uttered some more clichés about women, which made it clear that he did not have a specific plan in this respect.
But after becoming president, in his first action with respect to women’s issues, on September 24th, 2005, he changed the name of “the Center for Women’s Participation”, which was the only governmental center under the control of the president solely dedicated to addressing women’s issues, to “the Center for Women’s and Family Affairs”. The name change was a prelude to the policies of the ninth presidency in women’s affairs and reinforced the impression that in line with the president’s ideology policies related to women were to be devised within the framework of family and motherhood. After that, the “Compulsory Reduction of Women’s Work Hours Plan” was introduced under the pretext of supporting women. However, it was pretty obvious that in a country where the employment rate of women even according to the most optimistic analysis is only 14% while 64% of university admissions are women, this plan will lead to the exclusion of even more women from the workplace.
A few months later, just before International Women’s Day, a group of women’s rights activists and Iranian women, decided to break the ban on women in the stadium and tried to attend the soccer match between Iran and Costa Rica, on March 1st, 2005. This group, had successfully managed to defeat the Islamic Republic’s ban and enter the soccer stadiums a to watch the games on June 8th, 2004, before the presidential election. This time though, police officers prevented the group of 45 women from entering the stadium by forcing them into a minibus and driving around in nearby streets before releasing them in Azadi Square to return to their homes.
On March 8th, 2006, International Women’s Day, women’s activists from different groups as well as other Iranian women gathered in Daneshjou Park, Tehran, to speak about equal rights, peace, justice and freedom in commemoration of this day. The peaceful gathering of the women was met with an assault by security and law enforcement officers after just 15 minutes, and few of the men and women at the gathering were safe from baton charges. These events should be contrasted with the situation before Ahmadinejad’s presidency, when on June 12th, 2005, thousands of women gathered at the entrance of Tehran University to protest against the violation of women’s rights in the constitution. In the declarations issued at this gathering, women’s rights activists and defenders of equal rights emphasized peaceful and non-violent methods in the pursuit of equal rights, without specifying exactly which articles they wished to have changed. The holding of this peaceful protest in a public space was hailed by different women’s groups and NGOs as a milestone in women’s activism and was named Women’s Solidarity Day.
The pain from the security forces’ baton charges on March 8, 2006, worsened when Iran’s state television on the same night showed reports of women’s gatherings in other countries without saying a word about the suppression of the peaceful gathering of Iranian women. This was met with widespread protests from international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which demanded in their statements that both the government and the security forces answer for their behavior.
Less than a year into Ahmadinejad’s presidency, on April 22, 2006 the first groups of morality police were deployed on city streets. This occurred despite Ahmadinejad’s claims during his presidential campaign that he would not reprimand citizens for their way of dress and their hair styles. He had said: “youth with any hair style or clothes are our beloved ones and the resources of our country.” Although, at the start of this plan, Commander Talayi, the Tehran Police Chief, emphasized that the mission of the morality police was not violent repression, rather they were focused on educational efforts designed to promote morality rooted in Iranian and Islamic culture and intent on encouraging people to observe and adhere to social norms and values. The purpose of the plan was rather to prevent behavior that might threaten social security and it was absolutely not related to ensuring proper “Hijab” or women’s observance of the Islamic dress code. The police would not intrude on people’s privacy, he claimed. However, the only thing that these Morality Police units did was to react to Iranian women’s covering and clothing based upon their own personal tastes*. And, with the end of Talayi’s term as police chief and a new police chief harsh treatment and arrests of women because of poor observance of Hejab or mandatory Islamic cover, replaced the previous warnings and reminders.
Two days after the establishment of the Morality Police, on April 24th, 2006 and a few hours before the president’s interview with the media, the official government news agency released the news of Ahmadinejad’s letter to the president of the Physical Education Organization, which requested that women be permitted to attend soccer matches held at Azadi Stadium. Although Ahmadinejad’s deputy maintained the following day that women could only be allowed to the stadiums with their families if this plan were to be approved, some clerics such as Ayatollah Lankarani and a group of scholars in Qom reacted rapidly and protested against the presence of women in the stadiums. These objections were echoed through op-ed pieces in the conservative dailies Keyhan and Islamic Republic. Finally, on May 8, 2006, Ahmadinejad succumbed to the pressure without putting up any resistance, and announced that out of respect for the clerics, he would rescind his order, the result being that the presence of women in public places and sports arenas was prohibited simply because of they were women.
On May 29, 2006, Dr. Tabibzadeh Nouri, who took over the presidency of the Center for Women’s and Family Affairs following the short stint of Nasrin Soltankhah as the Center’s head, talked about the policies that she would adopt as the head of the Center and the Advisor to the President on women’s affairs. Just days before this meeting, reports of an investigation into the Center for Women’s Participation during the Khatami presidency had been made public. One of the charges against Zahra Shojayi, the president of the Center during Khatami’s term as president, was that she had insistend that Iran ratify the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), “despite the explicit opposition of some authorities, Friday prayer leaders and clerics and the honorable members of the Guardian Council. The report claimed that Shojayi’s efforts in this respect were astonishing and relied on letters she sent to clerics as proof of her efforts. The report served as a pretext to ask Tabibzadeh about her policies intent on reducing discrimination against women and addressing inequality as well as whether she intended to change discriminatory laws against women. Tabibzadeh said in response, “I do not deny the legal vacuum in the provision of human rights and that there should be reconsideration of these gaps. But the answer is not to ratify the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women or the Beijing Convention. As long as I am alive and serving as the head of this Center, I will not allow the ratification of any of these agreements and international conventions because we can solve our problems through Islam and the rulings of Grand Ayatollahs and there is no reason for us to follow the failed models of the West.” However, she emphasized, "we currently have a committee at the Center charged with the task of moving us toward the rights accorded to women by Islam but denied to them because incorrect traditions and norms”. It should be noted that this committee never published a report until the end of Tabibzadeh’s tenure in office.
After Tabibzadeh’s views and comments at the press conference were published in news outlets and on the internet, the public relations center of the Center for Women’s and Family Affairs issued a 2948-word response and asked for it to be published. The response corrected some of Tabibzadeh’s claims during the press conference and outlined strategies which were not mentioned in that meeting. The response claimed that journalists had lied in the quotations they attributed to Tabibzadeh and at times even had printed quotations which were the exact opposite of what she had in fact said during the press conference. The most notable point in this response explained that Tabibzadeh believed that motherhood was the most suitable role for women: “we believe that consistency, coherence and peace in the family are the responsibilities of women and if a woman has mental and physical balance and good physical health, she will be able to hold the family together and foster its tranquility and success. Preserving the family and thinking about it are the responsibilities of women, and our women understand the meaning of their roles. Therefore they prefer their roles as mothers and the creation of peace of mind and peace for the family, rather than working outside the home. If the government of the Islamic Republic provided acceptable facilities for families, many women who work [outside the home] simply to have an income and help the family finances would not enter the job market.” Tabibzadeh chose to emphasize this role for women, despite the fact that she herself was a university professor, a dentist and the president of the Center for Women’s and Family Affairs. During her three year tenure as the Head of the Center for Women and Families, Tabibzadeh never invited critics or journalists with a critical approach to speak with her or interview her, and she left all official letters requesting interviews unanswered so that she would not have to respond to the simple question as to how she can manage to carry out her roles as mother and wife while holding three jobs, and why did she not chose to stay home and busy herself with housework instead?
Despite the closure of public spaces, women’s movement activists decided once again on June 22, 2006, on the verge of the hundredth anniversary of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, to gather peacefully in Haft-e-Tir Square in Tehran to press for their demands for change of discriminatory laws. A similar protest has been carried out the previous year on June 22, 2005, in front of Tehran University prior to the election of Ahmadinejad as president. The statement issued by these activists, stated that: “we women together, with one heart and one voice, protested last year on June 22, objecting to all laws that violate women’s rights, but our demands have been left unanswered. Therefore, we are gathering on June 22 of this year to announce and pursue our demands, including a ban on polygamy, abolishing the unilateral right to divorce for men, according joint custody rights to women, equal rights in marriage (such as the unconditional right to employment and married women’s independent citizenship and...), changing the legal age of responsibility for women to 18 years old, equal value placed on women’s testimony in court, equal compensation payments to women for bodily injury or death (dieh), and the abolition of temporary work contracts and other discriminatory laws.” This gathering was ended violently when police attacked peaceful protesters and proceeded to arrest of seventy people. This development served as a prelude for women’s rights activists to think about other peaceful methods for pushing for their demands of legal equality and this was how the One Million Signatures Campaign for Changing Discriminatory Laws was formally founded, on August 27, 2006. The Campaign was officially launched behind the doors of Raad Hall which were forcibly closed by security guards and police officers on the participants who had shown up for a seminar during which the launch of the Campaign was to be announced. The founders of the Campaign believed that if they talked to citizens on the streets and informed them about discriminatory laws, even women in more distant cities and villages would become familiar with their rights as well as with the discriminatory laws, and therefore the demand for change in laws would transform into a widespread one and could be presented to the government and parliament. As a result, society would move toward justice and equality and greater development.
On March 4, 2007, thirty three women’s rights activists were arrested during a peaceful protest in front of the Revolutionary Courts. The protest was planned in objection to the trial of five women’s rights activists charged with organizing the June 12, 2006 protest in Haft-e Tir Square, where 70 persons were arrested. Twenty-nine protesters as well as four of the women on trial, Parvin Ardalan, Shahla Entesari, Sussan Tahmasebi and Nousin Khorasani, were all arrested in this crackdown, indicating that the government’s manner of dealing with peaceful protests had entered a new phase.
In this period, the approach of Ahmadinejad’s government took on a more serious tone. With the change of Tehran police chief, more extensive efforts to curtail the public presence of women were put in place within the context of the “Social Safety Program.” The program focused on restricting the right of freedom of women in their attire, justified through ensuring public safety. The first component of this plan, according to Commander Radan, Tehran’s senior police commander, dealt with women only and started on April 21st, 2007. In his first press conference in 2007, he claimed that improper covering included wearing short trousers, using short scarves as well as short and tight upper garments that might reveal one’s body shape. He stated that women with improper covering would destroy social peace of mind. However, the examples of improper covering he gave were not the only ones to be targeted. The chief of the Moral Security Police announced that long upper garments with slits were considered fashionable by some women, but would provoke a serious response. Wearing boots over pants in the cold days of winter would be considered a display of beauty contrary to Islam! In implementing this plan, many women encountered harsh reactions from police officers based on the officers’ tastes, and were arrested and transferred to detention centers. Their families had to bring long over-coats for them and they were released only on condition that they committed to “correct” their appearance. A range of similar cases and even some where women were beaten led even Ayatollah Hashemi-Shahroudi, head of the judiciary, to claim that, “taking youth and women to police stations not only has no benefits, but also can damage society.” However the public persecutor of Tehran later claimed that since some of the women arrested as a result of the Social Safety Program were from other provinces, they would be sent into internal exile in their hometowns.
However, the way in which the government dealt with women was not limited to their dress. In autumn of 2007, there were rumors about the implementation of gender quotas in the universities against women. According to this plan, a 40% quota increasing the presence of male students in universities in the field of medical sciences was being considered. This would prevent many female students from entering university in these subjects while 40% of male students would enter with no competition. Meetings and protests took place and finally, the head of the University Entrance and Examination Organization announced that at least 30% of female and male students would enter in those subjects by way of the usual competitions or the national university entrance exam.
2007-8 was the final year of the tenure of the seventh parliament. From the early months, women’s demands were discussed at the highest level. The proposal considered by this parliament included the following: a directive put forth by the judiciary intent on forcing insurance companies to pay equal compensation for bodily injury or death (dieh or blood money) to women and men; legislation which would allow women to inherit land from their deceased husbands, which was quickly approved after support for the law was expressed at the highest levels of government; and the passage of a special law allowing children the right to draw upon the pensions of their deceased mothers, included in the Social Security Act (encompassing both the Social Security Organization and the rest of the retirement funds). Despite all these issues, announcement of the details of a bill called the Family Protection Bill provoked a more open and serious reaction from women. According to article 23 of this bill, which was discussed by the Cultural Committee of the Parliament on August 26th, 2007, men were allowed to take second or additional wives without the consent of the first wife, on the condition that the man be financially capable of supporting a second wife and the court’s approval. This article which was viewed as detrimental to women’s rights was added to the bill put forth by the Judiciary by the Executive branch—an act that was deemed as illegal and unprecedented by observers. The protests against this bill were so widespread that the seventh parliament, on the pretext of having other important legislation to deal with, did not discuss the Family Protection Bill.
During this year, despite all the bills, plans and programs of the ninth government to restrict the presence of women in public and social spaces and despite the arrest of 40 members of the One Million Signatures Campaign at different times, for the first time after the revolution of 1979, candidates for Parliament talked about and promised to change laws discriminating against women, so that even the twelfth election manifesto of the “United Front of Principles” running for the eighth parliamentary elections paid particular attention to proposals for strengthening family ties, eliminating discrimination against women by revising the relevant laws, and proposing legislation to fill the vacuum in the law with a view to ensuring the religious rights of women in family and society. Furthermore, the Assembly of Reformist Women proposed efforts to eliminate legal discrimination and gender inequalities; gender planning at all levels of decision making, and the establishment of a perspective that would take into account gender in public affairs, as part of their manifesto for the eighth parliament and in a detailed document they examined the status of women in the country and offered solutions for improving women’s conditions and overcoming the deficiencies of the existing situation.
The last year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency coincided with the beginning of work of the 8th parliament. In spite of all the promises, the 8th parliament began its activities by including the Family Protection Bill in its legislative program, and the mere announcement of the approval of the bill in its entirety, without any amendments, by the Parliament’s Law and Justice Committee was enough to provoke another protest against this bill, by women’s rights activists. Along with other events during the ninth presidency, this led activist women from different sectors and backgrounds to form a united and broad-ranging coalition in order to prevent the approval of the Family Protection Bill. This time the it wasn’t women’s rights activists alone who were protesting. Rather social activists, political groups and some Grand Ayatollahs and the Friday prayer leader of Qom expressed their opposition to the Bill publicly. All this took place at the same time as several of Ahmadinejad’s ministers supported the bill, including article 23, while Ahmadinejad also took no action to revoke the bill despite the request of the judiciary that the bill be revoked on account of the illegal amendments and alterations that had been made to it by the Executive branch. This refusal occurred despite the fact that in the first year of his presidency he had revoked the order permitting women to attend sports stadiums to watch sports events freely two weeks after he had issued the order, stating that the withdrawal of the proposal was done out of respect for religious figures who had expressed opposition.
In this regard, a number of members of the Parliament—not a small number, indeed—did not react at all to the opposition to the bill, even as activists began discussing their demands directly with Parliamentarians. During the course of public protest it was made public that some of the male members of Parliament in fact had more than one wife. On the other hand women in cities throughout the country, coordinating with the women of the capital, prepared leaflets and published the telephone numbers of members of Parliament. The leaflets were distributed broadly and the public was urged to contact their MPs to express their opposition to the Bill. These protests eventually led Larijani, president of the Parliament, to order that the bill be removed from the parliamentary agenda and be referred back to the Law and Justice Commission for further review. This order took place on the same day that women’s rights activists had gone to the Parliament to meet with MPs. Larijani’s action was nonetheless met with protests from Fatemeh Alia, a conservative female MP and a number of her female colleagues all also from the “Principlist” party, as well as some of the members of the Law Commission. Fatemeh Alia labeled a number of groups of women who had been present in parliament “a handful of mudslingers” and explained, “legislators, even when faced with the creation of an intimidating atmosphere and mudslinging by a handful of atheists, a group of people who receive prizes from foreigners, will never shrink from doing their legislative duty.” These declarations and the strong support of the government and Minister of Justice for the bill as proposed occurred at the same time as the parliamentary Law and Justice Commission, after a week of consideration, had permanently removed articles 23 and 25 from the bill.
A few days before Parliament was due to consider the bill publicly, I took advantage of an opportunity that presented itself outside a press conference, as the president was in the midst of a throng of about two hundred managers and employees from the different education sectors, to ask Ahmadinejad why these articles had been added to the bill in an illegal manner. Ahmadinejad however insisted that these articles had been added to the bill in order to give a legal framework to second (i.e. additional) marriages and in this way additional marriages would become more difficult, although I know myself that this action is an illegal one. When I asked him, as president, to state definitively and unequivocally his opinion regarding polygamy to the women of the country, that is to say one half of the population, he said, “for ninety percent of the men in this country, even a first wife is too much”. Ahmadinejad gave this answer at a time of increased pressure on independent media, specifically for voicing criticism against the president. As such, the statement he made in this respect was not printed. There was no time for ask another question, namely whether, when the president insulted ninety percent of Iranian men by saying that they do not even deserve a single spouse, who are the other ten percent, for whom, in order to set their minds at rest, he had added an article to the bill, illegally and in a manner exceeding his authorities, so that it would be easier for them to contract an additional marriage? Who are these ten percent that the president should for their benefit ignore the protests of even Grand Ayatollahs?
During the last year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the scope of the “Social Safety Program” was extended and stricter attention was paid to women’s clothing, and finally measures were announced against examples of “bad attire” for the year 1388 (March 2009-March 2010). The Interior Ministry was made responsible for the execution of the Program as approved by the High Council for Cultural Revolution, and for the control and detention of inappropriately-dressed individuals, those engaged in anti-social behavior or committing similar offences. The rough and abusive way in which members of the security forces dealt with a number of women, provoking greater sensitivity and criticism among the public and the media about the Program, led the president in the last months of his presidency to write a letter to the Interior Minister, Sadegh Mahsouli, requesting that he honor the dignity of citizens in implementing the Social Safety Program. However Commander Radan, head of the Tehran security forces and responsible for carrying out the Program in Tehran the capital city, in interviews following the publication of the president’s letter repeatedly declared that the behavior of the security forces in this area was acceptable and had passed muster, and that they had been less active in this domain than the rest of the cultural apparatuses. Radan’s successive declarations meant that differences between the government and the security forces over the execution of this Program came to light, and in this regard Ahmadi-Moghaddam, commander of the security forces was forced to react, and in a short interview with a news agency announced that, “there is no dispute between the government and the security forces.” Some political analysts were of the opinion that the government’s delay in implementing this Program was simply an election tactic, but if this was the case then why was it that during the last two years of the implementation of this Program and while it was met with repeated protests, even from the judiciary, “Ahmadinejad paid no attention to the freedom of attire for women and the presence of women in public places, so much so that he did not consider women to be equal with men, but rather ornamental objects, contemptible because of their sex and on account of their clothing liable to be taken into custody and put in the detention centers of the security forces”.
Despite all the efforts that have gone on during Ahmadinejad’s presidency to marginalize women, to exclude them from public spaces and to keep them at home, the movement seeking equality and an end to legal and social discrimination has attained such credibility that three of the presidential candidates, for the first time since the victory of the revolution, outlined programs in their election platforms intent on addressing discrimination against women. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the only candidate who made no promise to women and who issued no detailed statement concerning the ending of discrimination against them. Indeed, aside from outlining some of the measures already taken in his term of presidency, in his Fourth National 5-Year Development Plan he eliminated the words “gender justice” which had been included as part of previous plans. At the time when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, unlike the other candidates, remained silent about his plans for women, the behavior of his adviser, that is to say, the president of the Center for Women’s and Family Affairs, was curious. Her management of this center in the previous three years had led to a fall in its budget, and yet she managed to hold two press conferences in the weeks leading to the elections. These two press conferences, which were held during the same week, excluded journalists from media outlets critical of the government. Ms. Tabibzadeh the Head of the Center for Women and Families did not present a report about the activities of the center at her press conferences, instead she set about criticizing the One Million Signatures Campaign and the second term of office of the previous president, Mohammad Khatami. She explained that discrimination against women on the grounds of gender on the part of Ahmadinejad’s government was correct and in accordance with social needs. She also labeled the One Million Signatures Campaign, “the Million Signatures Campaign for the Defense of Shirin Ebadi”. She described Shirin Ebadi as a woman who is a devoted supporter of Baha’ism and who received the Nobel Peace Prize so that while benefiting from the protection of foreigners, she could work under cover and under the direction of foreign governments so she could spend money on causes opposing the Islamic system and Islamic values. She stated that when thousands of Palestinian and Gazan women and children were attacked with white phosphorus, the defenders of women’s rights were nowhere to be found and Shirin Ebadi had vanished off the face of the earth. And of course her criticism also included attacks against the wife of one of the reformist presidential candidates as well as Zahra Shoajiee the President of the Center for Women’s and Family Affairs during the Khatami period (Tabibzadeh’s Predecessor).
And women four years ago were the crowns on our heads and mothers were not yet in mourning for their children, husbands, fathers and brothers…
* As Islamic covering is mandatory in Iran by law, there is no predefined form of Islamic dress, so morality police stop women on the streets for poor observance of Islamic Hejab based on their personal tastes and understanding of an appropriate form of Islamic Hejab should be.
— This article only considers a number of the measures taken by Ahmadinejad’s government in issues relating to women. It does not consider the measures taken by the intelligence and security forces during his presidency in order to limit and stop the activities of women’s rights activists and those human rights defenders working to bring about equality. These measures include arrest, detention, suspended and actual jail sentences, threats, exclusion from university study, bans on leaving the country, the closure of non-governmental organizations active in women’s issues, the closure of Zanan (“Women”) magazine, and so on.
— In this article, use has also been made of the archives of the newspaper Etemad and of the Iranian Students News Agency.
This article was translated by the Translation Team of the Campaign in California.