Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Iran's Ahmadinejad pro-woman? Critics skeptical


BEIRUT — After securing one woman on his Cabinet, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pushing for a second, defying opposition from hardline Islamic clerics who say women have no place in leadership positions.

His push for the first female Cabinet members since the 1979 Islamic Revolution may say more about Ahmadinejad's peculiar renegade position in Iran's leadership than any agenda to promote women's rights, say critics, who denounce his female nominees as reflections of his "anti-woman" policies.

The populist leader has shown a willingness to buck traditional powers — even in his own conservative camp — to get his way. In this case, opponents say, he wants to paint himself as a proponent of women after coming under heavy criticism for a heavy crackdown his government has waged against women's rights activists.

Last week, the conservative-dominated parliament approved a woman, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, as health minister in Ahmadinejad's second-term government. Two other women that he nominated for the ministries of education and welfare and social security were rejected, along with a man he nominated for energy minister, after lawmakers criticized them as unqualified.

On Sunday, Ahmadinejad nominated another woman for education minister — conservative lawmaker Fatemeh Alia, who will face a parliament vote for approval on Sept. 15.

The nomination brought quick criticism from Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, a member of the parliament's judiciary committee who also represents senior clerics.

"As a number of religious scholars oppose the nomination of women for ministerial posts, I believe that the administration should not insist on the issue," Rahbar told reporters this week according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency, which is close to conservatives.

He said parliament approved the nomination of Dastjerdi because it wanted to grant Ahmadinejad his goal of having a woman minister in his Cabinet. But he warned that if he insists on more it will not sit well with senior clerics in the holy city of Qom.

Rahbar said "a man can handle managerial affairs much better and can travel to the provinces much easier."

Ahmadinejad is considered a religious hard-liner and has touted a philosophy that a woman's role in is in the home. His government has cracked down hard in particular on rights activists leading a campaign to reverse laws seen as discriminatory against women.

But critics say Ahmadinejad is defying resistance from hard-line clerics in part to improve his image and to show his independent streak, part of what makes him popular among some sectors of the public who are conservative but disenchanted with the longtime powers in the country.

"He's under the impression that this way he will be able to change his reputation in the eyes of women's rights groups around the world as a closed, brutal dictator," said analyst Mohammad Javad Akbarein. "He wants to be seen as a broadminded president."

Ahmadinejad probably expected at least some of his female nominees would be rejected by parliament, but "he went ahead with the selection to portray himself as a man of his word, that he's not easily cowed," Akbarein said.

The president has been willing to anger fellow conservatives with this nominations in the past — usually to give posts to loyalists. He sparked a firestorm of criticism earlier this year when he named a close ally, Esfandiar Mashai, as his top vice president, despite conservative opposition. He was finally forced to reverse the appointment on orders from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but still he moved Mashai to another advisory post.

Parliament had been expected to reject more of Ahmadinejad's 21 Cabinet nominees. But in the end, it turned down only three, in large part because Khamenei intervened and asked lawmakers to approve them to prevent an embarrassing inter-conservative fight at a time when the pro-reform opposition is challenging Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile, activists say the women Ahmadinejad has put forward would do little to promote their cause.

"These women that Mr. Ahmadinejad selected are anti-women," said Beirut-based Iranian activist Aida Qajar. "Their selection is a reflection of his beliefs and thoughts about women's place in society. These women work against the rights of women and have done nothing whatsoever to improve their lot."

In the past, Dastjerdi proposed segregated health care facilities for women and men. She's also against Iran joining the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly.

Supporters of joining CEDAW have demanded for changes in laws that permit death by stoning for women accused of adultery, the practice of polygamy, employment laws that favor men, and family laws that give women only half the inheritance of men and deny divorced women full custody of their children.

Dastjerdi and Fatemeh Ajorlu — Ahmadinejad's first nominee for the education ministry — supported a bill that would allow a man take a second wife without the consent of his first wife. Islam allows men to have up to four wives at a time.

Also, Ajorlu supported an Ahmadinejad order limiting women students to half the places in universities, instead of the 65 percent they previously occupied.

Alia, the new nominee for the education ministry, has also opposed joining CEDAW, which she says "ignores differences between the roles, rights and obligations of men and women in the natural world."

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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