Interview with leading female reformist MP, Fatemeh Rakei

One of the more pressing issues in Iran today is the rights of women. Iranian women still lack essential rights such as being unable to travel without a husband’s permission, and the fact that their testimony in court is only worth half of a man’s. But since the 1997 election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Iranian women have gained a degree of freedom.

The recent repeal of a ban on unmarried women studying abroad was a significant step and just last month the Iranian parliament passed a bill granting women the right to seek divorce in court - a right women haven’t had since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

While it has yet to be approved by Iran’s conservative Guardian Council, the fact that it was passed by the parliament is a major victory for reformists and women alike. In an interview with IRIN, 47-year-old Fatemeh Rakai, a leading advocate for women, and one of only 13 female members of the 270-seat parliament, talked candidly about some of the changes that have taken place.

QUESTION: How would you describe the current status of women in Iran?

ANSWER: In Islam, if there is any discrimination between men and women in Islam, it is positive. In other words, there is positive discrimination towards women not against them. If you look at the various feminist movements throughout the world, most are aspiring for a position like this.

But while this is the true situation with regard to Islam, unfortunately the reality in my country is different. We see that there is a great gap between what Islam and Imam Khomeini said and the actual position of women in Iran. There is much negative discrimination against women today - both in the field of legislation and their social position. In spite of having a well-developed constitution and what Islam and the teachings of Imam Khomeini say, this negative discrimination exists. As women in parliament now, and as the committee for women, family and youth, we are trying hard to do something within the framework of our constitutional law as well as within the framework of what real Islam gives. By doing this we hope to improve our current position.

Q: How much has that role changed in the past five years?

A: There has been much change regarding the status of women, though this is not enough. In the field of law, in the last few years, from the beginning of the sixth Majlis (Parliament), there have been many laws to promote the situation of women that have been confirmed or pending. The Guardian Council, however, has rejected many of them.

Despite this, there have been many positive laws that have been introduced that have changed the position of women through legislation. For example, there have been laws allowing women to be educated abroad, as well as the legal marrying age for women. There have also been laws discussed on the problems women encounter with regard to divorce. Although we have worked hard for such laws, some of them took several months or even a year for ratification. Fortunately these laws have now been confirmed.

Some of them went to the Guardian and Expediency Councils and some changes were made. Nonetheless, these laws have proven quite positive in strengthening the position of women. We also have many new laws that will be introduced into the parliament in the near future. Some of them are to promote the economic situation of women.

For example, one positive bill that is coming soon will be to delete bill number 82 of the social security legislation. In other words, in the event of the death of an employed woman, the salary of the deceased will go directly to the children. Other important bills to be introduced will deal with the issue of alimony and child support. These are things that are very important and that the women of this country wanted us to do something about. Such issues demonstrate great progress in legislation.

Q: Is the number of Iranian women working increasing?

While the number has increased, there is much work to be done. Iranian women have been working long before the Islamic Revolution, but the jobs that they were doing were often menial in nature. During that time, the most important positions that women held were in the field of teaching, research, nursing, or even secretarial work.

Such jobs were not satisfying for Iranian women, but after the Islamic Revolution they came to understand their higher position as Imam Khomeini said. However, after some years passed, women saw that there hadn't been any real great change in their social position and sought changes in their social rights.

As women, we maintain that we don’t have any shortcomings, nor are we inferior to men in any field. As young women in this country have routinely demonstrated, when there is equal opportunity not only are they not inferior to their brothers, they are often times superior to them. This is seen in the field of education at entrance examination time. For the past four or five years, the percentage of young women passing the entrance exams has been much higher than among men.

In other words, when there is equal opportunity between the two sexes, we have proven the women can in fact be superior to men. Unfortunately this is not something our men readily accept. However, most Iranian men concede when women are given important jobs they do better than men. They are more committed and responsible.

Although men know this, they allow us to enter only specialised fields. Nonetheless, we have been struggling hard on this. Today there are more women working as heads of hospitals, university deans, as well as mayors or governors. These are important jobs. Such positions did not exist for women prior to the Islamic Revolution.

Q: How important is education for women in Iran? Are there job opportunities for them when they finish?

A: High education for women is very important, but for many of them there are not enough employment opportunities when they finish.

Q: What percentage of women hold high-ranking jobs in the government?

A: While I don’t have any numbers to give you and the numbers remain proportionally quite small, compared to the past few years, the number of women working in high-ranking jobs has increased.

Q: Considering Islamic laws in Iran, how much do you think you can succeed in your political career?

A: The Islam that I believe in is the Islam put forward by Imam Khomeini and President Khatami. Under this there are no preventive institutions hindering the progress of women. There is no discrimination between men and women governing one’s social and political career.

Q: How much do such laws inhibit women in proceeding in their career?

A: There are two things in our society today: that which real Islam says and that which is interpreted by different groups or individuals. For example, we believe that we are Islamic, but we don’t believe in the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. We regard Islam and any other religion as something that comes from the Prophets.

Such teachings provide guidance to find prosperity both in this world and the afterworld. Islam does not force people to live in one way or another, but rather provides a guide to prosperity and happiness. As Ayatollah Khomeini and President Khatami said - and we as reformists say - this is something people are free to accept or not. In the Islam that I know and love, there is no inhibition for women in proceeding in their careers.

Q: As an MP, how do your male counterparts perceive you?

A: Most of the reformists in parliament are men and perceive us women highly. Nonetheless, unfortunately there are still some men - as a result of their bad education - who don’t understand the importance of women in Islam. They sometimes cannot understand us, but they are small in number.

Q: What are the main legal constraints for Iranian women today?

A: In the field of family and civil law, there are some articles that serve as constraints for Iranian women today. An example of that can be seen on the issue of divorce and on matters of custody. The greatest changes should be undertaken in family law, as well as in the area of economics.

Q: Do you think the situation with regard to gender discrimination has improved?

A: Gender discrimination remains a problem in Iran in different areas. Some of it is legal, while others stem from social traditions. Additionally there are some discriminatory polices of some companies operating in Iran. Such policies require laws to bring about change and that is what we are working towards in the parliament. As I mentioned before, some laws have already been adopted to deal with such matters. There have been many new social and economic laws that have improved the status of women. Nonetheless, more laws are needed.

Q: Is domestic violence a major issue in Iran? If so how is it addressed?

A: Domestic violence is still a problem in Iran. Fortunately over the past five years there is less, however, it remains in rural parts of the country and in some of the smaller cities. The shape of the problem differs. For example in some villages there are still men that beat their wives. In the larger urban areas, this might not occur, but there are other ways in which women are not treated justly.

For example, if a husband shouts at his wife - this too is a form of violence. As Islam says, I have a high value as a human being and especially as a woman. According to the teachings of our Prophet Mohammad, women are flowers and anyone who respects them is himself a respectful person. Again, women are very highly valued according to Islam.

Q: How could women in Iran serve as a role model for Afghan women to improve the social and economic conditions in that country?

A: With improved laws, we can offer them to other countries - especially Islamic countries. If reformist women can succeed in this, this can be beneficial in every society throughout the world - among them the women of Afghanistan. This is what we are struggling for here. If we are successful here, we can provide a positive role for the women there and under Islam this is possible. In addition to being mothers, women are the first teachers of any society which is why they are so valued in Islam.