Will Iran Get to Have Three Women Ministers?

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s landmark decision to nominate three women for cabinet posts in his second administration bodes well for his post-election promise to usher in a “new era” in Iran.

The choice of three females for top ministerial positions will be interpreted by critics as a ploy by Ahmadinejad to compensate for any perceived legitimacy deficit caused by the controversial presidential elections of June.  It is also a clear sign that the government noticed the masses of Iranian women mobilized by his reformist challengers, chiefly Mir Hossain Mousavi, whose wife, Zahra Rahnavard, played a key role in bringing attention to women’s issues during the campaigns.

The hardline credentials of two of the nominees — Fatemeh Ajorlou and Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi — have led many Iranian feminists to dismiss the significance of the appointments.  Some have pointed to Ajorlou’s poor record on women’s rights as a parliamentary deputy.

But such negative assessments miss the point that these women potential ministers — regardless of their background or loyalties — will represent a qualitative leap forward with respect to women’s rights in Iran.

Compared to the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who limited himself to token sub-ministerial posts for women, Ahmadinejad’s nomination of three women (the third has not yet been chosen) is bold.  His supporters say the decision puts him on track to fulfill his post-election promise of “national unity”.

Still, many women, particularly in urban areas, backed other candidates in the election to show their dissatisfaction with Iran’s political status quo.  Ahmadinejad may have an uphill battle if he intends to win over this half of the Iranian people.

For one thing, he faces a conservative-led parliament, or Majlis, that has already played a key role in forcing Ahmadinejad to cancel his choice of vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, because of the latter’s past Israel-friendly remarks.

Ahmadinejad may have had no choice but to select sufficiently hardline women who would be acceptable to the majority faction in Majlis, a bloc known as the Principalists.  No matter who he chooses as the third woman, it is believed some Principalists will try to reduce the three nominees to two, or even one.

In Ahmadinejad’s favor, however, is the recent parliamentary initiative to ban the law on stoning adulterous women to death.  The mood in the Majlis may be sufficiently progressive to accommodate Ahmadinejad’s historic nominations — a move that will appeal to many ordinary Iranian women.

The Majlis speaker, Ali Larijani, prides himself on being an enlightened member of Iran’s Islamist intelligentsia.  Larijani may have pre-approved the women’s nomination during a joint committee formed to oversee the cabinet’s makeup.

In fact, Ajorlou — nominated for minister of social welfare — may end up much more “pro-women” than she has been so far as a lawmaker.  A wealth of problems confronts millions of Iranian women, some of which pertain to discriminatory laws and some to ingrained practices and traditional behavior.

Ajorlou will have the opportunity to support civil-society groups and organizations focused on women’s issues, such as the centers for battered women.  This would conform with the Islamic constitution that stipulates that “the government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with the Islamic criteria”.

And Dastjerdi, tipped as health minister, could make the issue of women’s health a top priority.  Experts claim this is an area that requires more female-friendly legislation, specifically with respect to family planning.

These steps will depend on the willingness of various branches of the government, such as the judiciary now led by Larijani’s brother, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, who has promised to uphold the rights of all citizens.  Another factor will be the ability of Iranian women’s groups to lobby for changes in several discriminatory laws that are scheduled for reconsideration and potential revision.

Given the failure of reformist ex-president Khatami to elevate the formal position of women in his government, Ahmadinejad’s nomination of three women for cabinet positions ranks as a full-fledged reformist maneuver.  It is clearly a deft move that defies the image of Ahmadinejad as an anti-reform reactionary.

The president’s reformist opponents are now accusing him of “stealing” the reformists’ agenda, this instead of giving credit where many say it is due.

No such credit will be forthcoming to Ahmadinejad if he fails to ensure the parliamentary approval of his female nominees and then stick with them, breaking his habit of changing ministers at whim, as he did during his first term.

The bigger question is whether or not the introduction of female ministers will address the problem of cabinet instability that has dominated the Ahmadinejad government for the past four years.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy.   For his Wikipedia entry, click here.  His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 is now available.  This article was first published by Asia Times on 19 August 2009; ; it is reproduced here for educational purposes.