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'I was Iran's last woman minister'

Mahnaz Afkhami at a UN meeting in 1975

By Nikki Jecks
BBC World Service

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has announced he intends to appoint Iran's first women cabinet ministers since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mahnaz Afkhami was one of the last two women to take part in an Iranian government before the revolution.

Under the autocratic regime of the pro-Western Shah, she served as Minister of Women's Affairs between 1976 and 1978.

After the revolution, she went into exile and now lives in America.

"I was one of the first groups that were charged with 'corruption on earth' and 'warring with God'; I was on the blacklist and so I had to live in exile," she told the BBC's World Today programme.

But she had a luckier fate than her other former female cabinet colleague - Farrokhroo Parsa.

"She was executed. She happened to be in Iran at the time, and she was executed," she says.

Farrokhroo Parsa, who had previously been Minister of Education, had been out of office for eight years when the revolution happened.

Prostitution was the code word for activism during the early part of the revolution
Mahnaz Afkhami

But like Mahnaz Afkhami, even out of office, she remained an outspoken campaigner for women's rights in Iran.

It was a position that did not sit well with the new Islamic Republic's more conservative elements.

"The women who participated in the revolution, and they did in large numbers, many of them were actually pushing for more rights, they were pushing for more freedoms, pushing for more equality," Mahnaz Afkhami explains.

"That was why the disappointment was so great when the revolution ended up taking away the rights that they had already gained."


After the Iranian revolution in 1979, many of the secular rights that women had being afforded under the Shah were abolished or rolled back.

An order was passed that laws that were in contravention of religious (or sharia) rules had to be revoked.

Islamic polygamy was instituted and, most visibly, the hijab head covering became mandatory in all public spaces.

Divorced fathers got automatic custody of older children, and a ban was introduced on appointment of women as judges.

Forrokhroo Parsa
Forrokhroo was a vocal proponent for gender equality in Iran

Mass protests took place to stop the roll-back of rights - but women who took part in the protests, like Mrs Parsa, were seen as a threat by the Islamic Republic.

She was charged with prostitution and executed by firing squad on 8 May, 1980.

According to Ms Afkhami, the revolutionary spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomenei viewed all political participation by women as tantamount to prostitution.

"Prostitution was the code word for activism during the early part of the revolution," says Ms Afkhami.

Three decades on, she says the role of women in the country has continued to be a source of internal conflict.

"For the last 30 years the women's situation has been at the centre of dialogue in the country... their role, their position, what they wear, how they act.

"The amount of energy, time, resources that the Islamic Republic has spent simply on getting women's scarves pulled to the right place and make-up off their faces, and the kind of energy that has been spent to keep men and women separate has been extraordinary."

New generation

Despite the last three decade, Ms Afkhami is convinced however that Iranian women will eventually triumph.

Mahnaz Afkhami with members of an Iranian women's group in 1975
I have no doubt that women are going to win...history is moving in a different direction
Mahnaz Afkhami

"I have no doubt that women are going to win, simply for the fact that the archaic ideology of the Islamic Republic is in effect, against history," Ms Afkhami believes.

"History is moving in a different direction...people are aware of what's happening around them, people are interacting with each other and their aspirations are somewhere else."

But it is far from likely that the women named by Mr Ahmadinejad as potential cabinet ministers will be pushing an agenda favoured by Ms Afkhami.

Fatima Ajorlou, his choice for welfare and social security minister, and Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, health, and Sousan Keshavarz, education, are all considered to be hardline conservatives.

Their nominations will have to be approved by parliament before they can take office.

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