Contrary to social and economic spheres where specialization and know-how constitute sufficient criteria for women’s participation, involvement in the political sphere necessitates the allegiance to the regime and to its leadership. Yet, Islamist women’s participation in the political sphere follows the general trend of social and economic spheres. Indeed, despite the sweeping victory of traditionalists in the fourth Majlis elections, convened in 1992, the number of women doubled to reach a total of nine (or 3.3%). In addition to their numerical increase, they were also more educated than their predecessors, some were active as professionals prior to their election, and their average age was lower (46 years as opposed to 55 for the previous women deputies). Moreover, for the first time, four women were elected from the provinces: Akhtar Dirakhshandih (high-school teacher) from Bakhtaran, Fakhrtaj Amirshaqaqi (BA in French language and literature), and Fatimeh Humayun-muqadam (BA in planning and educational management) from Tabriz, and Bibi Qudsiyyeh ‘Alavi (MD gynaecologist, and surgeon) from Mashhad. The five women elected from Tehran were candidates of the traditionalist/conservative right and included Maryam Behruzi (elementary, religious education), Nafiseh Fayyazbakhsh (MA in Islamic philosophy), Parvin Salihi (MA in mother and child health), Marziyyeh Vahid-Dastjirdi (MD gynaecologist), and Munireh Nawbakht (MA in Islamic philosophy).
The airing of demands by the female population, the flourishing of debates on the condition of women in women’s press, and the activities of the Office of Women’s Affairs and the Social-Cultural Council of Women, encouraged some women deputies of the fourth Majlis to address these issues, although not without reservations. Some, more sensitive to women’s problems, presented amendments to articles of personal status law and prepared motions ‘to fill the gaps’, accusing judicial authorities of ‘the nonexecution of the existent laws beneficial to women.’50 Nonetheless, because they either adhered to the dominant ideology or did not want to be marginalized in the Majlis, they refrained from criticizing the traditionalist viewpoints which dominated the fourth Majlis.
One example is particularly revealing. Influenced by the activities of the Office for Women’s Affairs which had opened branches in the executive to evaluate and eventually meet the problems of active women, Nafiseh Fayyazbakhsh and Munireh Nawbakht presented a motion in January 1993 to create the Special Commission of Women’s Affairs. Several male deputies, who refused to admit that women encountered specific problems, spoke against the motion. They argued that Islamic laws granted full rights to women, that women and men shared the same problems, and that if such a motion were passed it would divide Muslims. Faced with this opposition, the women deputies, with one exception, preferred to allow some of their male colleagues who approved this motion to stand in their defence. This decision led to an opponent deputy stating ironically that ‘because women [deputies] preferred to delegate their power to men in the discussions relevant to this motion, they would also prefer that the men take care of them.’51 Maryam Behruzi was the only woman who dared to make a speech, but instead of promoting the motion, she deferred, affirming that ‘Islam has been sufficiently attentive to women’s rights... We are fundamentally against the Western type of defence of women’s rights... We do not wish for women to rise up against men. Following Islam, we believe that men are protectors of women...52 The few initiatives of women members of the fourth Majlis to improve the condition of women by amending laws thus remained unfruitful. Moreover, their political ideology did not correspond to the growing dissatisfaction of women with the existing laws and the increasing social and economic activities of women.53 These circumstances triggered an unprecedented mobilization of gender-conscious Islamist women in the March-April 1996 legislative elections for the fifth Majlis. Many of the candidates were known to the female population for defending women’s rights and promoting the status of women. Often highly educated and vocal, they represent the new generation of Islamist women technocrats whose ongoing interaction with the Islamist state and an emerging civil society has led them to perceive politics as a potent and necessary activity towards the acquisition of women’s rights. During the electoral campaign, they disassociated
themselves from the previous women parliamentarians by criticizing their lack of determination to tackle women’s problems. By so doing, they were responding to the demands aired by the female population who seek change in the civil code, a better access to women to employment opportunities, a better employment legislation, and the reform of laws to promote women’s status in both the private and the public spheres.54
Fatimeh Rafsanjani, the President’s older daughter, the founder of Women’s Solidarity Association, and the head of the Office of Women’s Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thus maintained that ‘the fourth Majlis was not really preoccupied with women’s problems’. She also contended that ‘women’s rights are annihilated by the civil code, the courts and the society’, and that ‘women’s social, educational and cultural problems cannot be resolved as long as the number of conscious and active women remains slim in the Majlis’. She also pleaded that ‘half the seats of the Islamic Majlis should be occupied by these women’.55 Faizeh, her younger sister, while running for the elections, maintained that ‘the fifth Majlis should resolve problems confronting women by revising the civil code and facilitating their access to key posts in the administrative and political institutions’. She argued that if women are given equal opportunities, they are capable of running for the presidential elections.56 Suhayla Jiludarzadeh, who for years has served as the director of the employment and social and economic affairs committee in the Social and Cultural Council of women, and who was elected from Tehran, affirms: A woman deputy should be particularly aware of the shortcomings and problems women are facing. As a woman, she should have an inner determination to promote their status. For this very reason, I believe that half of the deputies should be made up of thoughtful and specialist women who are aware of women’s sufferings. In countries where women’s rights are respected, a growing number of women are elected to the parliaments ...57 Throughout the country, 305 women, of whom the majority ran as independent candidates were mostly refused qualification by the Council of Guardians (Shura-i Nigahban).
In Tehran, of a total of 419 candidates qualified by the Council of Guardians, 50 or 12% were women, among whom only 13 or 26% ran as candidates of the four major factions, namely the Representatives of the Reconstruction of Iran (RRI, modern right, close to President Rafsanjani), the Society of Combatant Clergy of Tehran (SCCT, traditionalist right, close to Khaminehï and Natiq-Nuri, president of the fourth and fifth Majlis and the candidate of the traditionalist right for the forthcoming presidential elections), the Coalition of the Line of Imam Groups (CLIG, Islamist left, close to Musavi, the former Prime Minister), and the Society for the Defence of the Values of the Islamic Revolution (SDVIR, traditionalist centre, led by Ray Shahri).58 These factions contained some candidates, yet among the ten women elected to the Majlis, Fatimeh Ramizanzadeh was the only joint candidate of three factions (RRI, CLIG, and SDVIR); Marziyyeh Vahid Dastjirdi, Nafiseh Fayyazbakhsh and Munireh Nawbakht were candidates of SCCT, and Faizeh Rafsanjani and Suhayla Jiludarzadeh were candidates of the RRI. Provincial candidates ran as independents, though some were endorsed by the leading factions. This was particularly the case of Marziyyeh Siddiqi, elected from Mashhad (the second largest city), who was supported by the four factions. Marziyyeh Dabbagh from Hamedan, Shahrbanu Amani-Angineh from Urumiyyeh, and Bibi Qodsiyyeh ‘Alavi from Mashhad were elected as independents. It should be noted that two other women, namely Nayyireh Akhavan-Bitaraf from Isfahan (the third largest city) and Ilaheh Rastgu from Malayir were elected during the first round, and Pishgahifard from Isfahan won the second largest number of votes, but the elections were nullified by the council of Guardians for no valid reason. A total number of eight constituencies with several women candidates saw their elections cancelled. As a result, the ten women elected constitute 4% of the total deputies.
Although Islamist women’s representation in the parliament remains slim, the five newly elected women are more vocal, much younger (with an average age of 37.2), and more experienced in women’s issues than their predecessors. In addition to their political attitude, which is overwhelmingly modern and moderate, another characteristic which they share is their passage from social to political activity.
Shahrbanu Amani-Angineh, a student in Public Management who encountered enormous problems with the traditionalists during her campaign,59 has been in charge of women’s mutual aid and social affairs in Western Azarbayjan; Marziyyeh Siddiqi, who has an MA in engineering from the United States, is one of the founders of the Office of Women’s Affairs; Fatimeh Ramizanzadeh, who is an MD and a gynaecologist-surgeon, has been in charge of family planning, public health and medical education in the Ministry of Public Health; and Suhayla Jiludarzadeh, who has an MA in engineering, has had important responsibilities in the Social-Cultural Council of Women and the Office of Women’s Affairs. From a working-class background, she has been active in promoting the conditions of workers and is the only woman whose position is endorsed by the powerful Islamic Workers’ Association.
Faizeh Rafsanjani, who has a BA in political science and physical science, is the founder and the president of the Islamic Countries’ Solidarity Sport Council, the vice-president of the National Olympic Committee, and a member of the Islamic Republic’s High Council for Women’s Sport. In her own words, the reasons which triggered her interest in women’s sports are that ‘sporting activities have tremendous impact on women and prepare them for social activities. It offers them the courage they need to get involved in the country’s affairs’. She has recently gained extensive popularity among women, especially the youth, for courageously defending women’s outdoor cycling. In fact, her forthright views run contrary to the traditionalists whose opposition has politicized the issue: Women’s outdoor cycling is neither illegal nor illicit ... It has become a political issue because it was proposed during the legislative elections, and those who opposed it bestowed a political dimension on it. After all, their opposition was beneficial to outdoor cycling for now there is a significant demand for it.60 The increased participation of the young people in the fifth Majlis elections61 was advantageous to these vocal women because ‘for the younger generation, the younger a deputy, the better she understands their problems.’62 Faizeh Rafsanjani acknowledged the importance of the young people’s support for her candidacy when she said that ‘my efforts to promote women’s sporting activities led the younger generation to vote for me’. She is the only deputy who recognizes the specific problems faced by young people, and claims to have conceived of a programme to improve their condition. In her view, ‘despite the serious problems of young people, no one talks about them. There is no commission in the Majlis to think about these issues’. Through her analysis, she implicitly acknowledges the failure of the power elite to revolutionize and islamize this new generation: Our younger generation was born after the revolution and is devoid of revolutionary mentality. They were annexed to the revolution after its victory. Although courses are taught at schools on the revolution, they are not palpable for pupils and students who do not normally appreciate courses at school anyway ... Western cultural invasion is a very serious threat to our youth who are its main targets. If the younger generation, who are the future of our country, are not raised to proper values, how can they run this country in the future? To solve the problems of our youths, we should make them believe that they are important for this country. For if they increase their self-standing, they will no longer consume drugs, or watch satellite programmes or listen to rap music and the like. We cannot force them by means of laws and limitations. Not only will these laws fail to solve problems, but they will increase them. Since the revolution our social problems are increasing incessantly because they [the authorities] have wanted to solve them through intimidation. Well, coercion and violence have had negative results.63 With regard to her perception on women and women’s issues, she believes — contrary to her sister Fatimeh, and to Suhayla Jiludarzadeh, who are in favour of a system of quota for women — that: Women should attain scientific, technical, economic, political, social and cultural status which they deserve by themselves. The quota will have no positive results. On the contrary, it will make everybody distrust women. Yet a woman who obtains a post owing to her proficiency will undoubtedly leave a positive impact on society’s perception on women. With reference to the persistent social and cultural barriers that hamper the progress of women, some of which are created by women themselves, she argues that cultural change in their mentality will follow with the increase in women’s participation in the decision-making posts:
Women themselves often do not trust other women... Well, I believe that active women are highly competent. They are more motivated and can work more efficiently for women than men. One of our major impediments is that despite the existence of a sufficient number of women professionals, there is a lack of women’s representation in key posts where macro politics and planning are decided ... Thus, if we manage to appoint women specialists to relevant key posts, they can better defend women’s rights’.64 Fatimeh Ramizanzadeh intends to ‘reform laws in view of protecting women’s rights in the family, at work and in society, and to erase men’s erroneous belief that they are superior to women’.65 Marziyyeh Siddiqi maintains that women’s education and awareness should be promoted, cultural programmes should be devised to eliminate false impressions of women, laws should be reformed to promote women’s status and to solve women’s problems.66 Siddiqi, who is also the director of an international transportation company, agrees that the airing of demands by the female population in the past few years has influenced women deputies of the new Majlis who are now ‘far more vocal, courageous and determined’ than their predecessors. She also detects a changing mentality among the male deputies, whom she maintains have come to accept that women have specific problems: Women deputies now have more courage and determination to talk about shortcomings. An example of this courage is that for the first time we all stood as candidates for various responsibilities in the Majlis. For the first time in the Islamic Republic, several of us were elected members of permanent commissions: reporters, secretaries, vice presidents; whereas in the past a woman would have not dared to present her candidacy, and even if she did she would not have been elected ... But now we consider ourselves equal to men, and men vote for us because they trust our competence.67