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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 13:36 GMT
Iran's disappointed women
By Miranda Eeles
BBC correspondent in Tehran

Women with posters of Khatami
Women voters were key to Khatami's success
Many women in Iran say they will stay away from the polls, disappointed with the reform movement they played a key role in launching.

Women played a huge role in bringing reformist President Mohammad Khatami to power in 1997.

They were also instrumental in the parliamentary election in 2000 which gave the reformists a sweeping majority in parliament.

Elaheh Koulaie is a busy woman. She has four children, teaches politics at Tehran University, and is a member of the Iranian parliament - the Majlis. Or was.

Earlier this month she, along with more than 120 other MPs, handed in her resignation in protest at the hardline Guardian Council's ban on more than 2000 pro-reform candidates, herself included, from standing in the next parliamentary elections.

"I wanted to serve my people and country as a university teacher and to use my theoretical knowledge for improving the situation of our country and to play a very sensitive and critical role in peace, stability and growth of the region. I wanted to do this and they prevented me."

'Half a man'

Ms Koulaie, one of 13 female MPs in the current Majlis, is a member of the largest reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front.

The Participation Front, with most of its members on the black list, is boycotting the poll, claiming it will not take part in an election which is not free and fair.

Women who see they have no share in authority, and that power goes from one group to another every four years without benefiting the people will see no point in taking part in this election
Fariba Davoudi-Mohajer
Many women had pinned their hopes on people like Ms Koulaie, believing that the reformists could improve their position in a society where equality between the sexes is somewhat lacking.

Women still have fewer rights in divorce, inheritance and child custody cases and are worth half the value of men in a court of law.

But many of the bills passed to end discrimination against women were vetoed by the conservative dominated Guardian Council, a watchdog body charged with ensuring all legislation is in line with Sharia.

Changing perceptions

Ms Koulaie believes the changes they managed to make, however small they might seem, are significant.

"Parliament is like society. It has all the peculiarities of society. So like women outside in society, we have confronted ordinary obstacles. This behaviour was normal because of the culture, the historical perceptions, about women's role, about the abilities and capacities of women. We try to change this perception. We have been victorious, I think in many things."

I'm not going to vote because I am against the Islamic Republic altogether. I think it is a big lie and in no way should be supported by the people in the elections
As evidence that women have profited from the reformists in power, some cite the fact that there were 60% more female candidates in the 2003 local council elections.

Before, politics was seen as an exclusively male domain.

Fakhrolsadat Mohtashamipour, who used to run women's affairs at the Interior Ministry, says women have responded massively to the reform movement.

"In the local elections, the number of seats for women has doubled. And day by day, the number of women NGOs is increasing. This is not a sign of hopelessness. This is a sign of hope."

Ebbing away

Both Ms Koulaie and Ms Mohtashamipour believe progress can be achieved within the system through a slow process of reform. But such optimism is losing supporters in their thousands.

Campaign posters
Some still have faith in politics to effect change, but many do not
Businesswoman Nazila Noebashari runs a transportation company in Iran. She acknowledges that the reformist parliament under President Khatami did a good job for women. The problem she says is the system.

"Whoever is there, with the best of intentions, they will get nowhere because of the way the system works. When you have 12 unknown people in the Guardian Council vetoing everything the parliament passes, you realise it's the system itself that is failing. It's a mockery of a parliamentary system."

Ms Noebashari, like millions of other Iranian women, voted twice for President Khatami, impressed by his promises of reform and his publicly stated respect for women.

Now, with so many reformists banned from standing, and with their inability to achieve anything in the face of entrenched conservative power, she is debating whether to vote at all.

Protest vote

"The prospect of hardliners in the parliament is not very appealing. But is my vote worth it? If I decide not to vote, it will be as a protest. It's not indifference towards the elections. It's basically me treating the poll like a referendum - that I don't believe in the system."

Ms Noebashari's views are echoed on the streets. Leila is a 22-year-old accounting student.

"I'm not going to vote because I am against the Islamic Republic altogether. I think it is a big lie and in no way should be supported by the people in the elections."

Journalist Fariba Davoudi-Mohajer believes voter participation, especially amongst women will be low.

"Women who see they have no share in authority, and that power goes from one group to another every four years without benefiting the people will see no point in taking part in this election. "

Women made up 63% of university entrants last year, but their subsequent employment rate was only 11%. Ms Davoudi-Mohajer says the main problem facing women is not only economic and political, but also cultural.

"It is clear that the power structure is male dominated - including political parties, lawmakers and the government. We cannot expect real change to happen when only men, with their chauvinistic attitudes are in power. As long as women do not hold senior and middle management positions in society, nothing will change."


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