Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Emancipation under the Veils

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Emancipation under the Veils

Article excerpt

Despite the islamic revolution, women have never stopped standing up for their rights. In head-scarves or chadors, they are at the heart of the struggle to modernize society

I'11 go to parliament dressed as I was during my campaign, in an overcoat and a head-scarf. No way will I put on the chador." Elaheh Koula[ddot{i}], a university professor elected to parliament as a representative of Tehran in the February 18, 2000 legislative elections, unleashed a political storm when she made this quasi-revolutionary proclamation. Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979, all women holding official positions have worn the chador, the long, black fabric covering that conceals the entire body from head to toe.

Marzieh Dabagh, an outgoing member of parliament who was not re-elected, reacted to Koula[ddot{i}]'s statements by threatening to "box the ears" of any woman who would dare come to the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) without the traditional chador. The brother of the Guide of the Islamic Republic, Hadi Khamenei, a leading member of the reformist camp, had to step in and cool tempers down, saying that all forms of veils, from the simple head-scarf to the chador, are acceptable.

This debate may seem trite, but it reveals the assertiveness of women in Iranian society, including outside Tebran, where they are seldom seen without the chador. Fatemeh Khatami (no relation to the president) was elected to parliament in Mashhad, not far from the Afghan border, even though she does not wear the chador, an unprecedented event in the provinces.

An educated generation

A symbol of the Islamic order, the obligation to wear the veil has never prevented women from standing up for their rights. At the beginning of the revolution, the government tried to send them back into the home, primarily with offers of early retirement and incentives to work less. But officials soon gave up in the face of resistance (women were accustomed to gentler treatment under the Shah, especially if they belonged to the elite) and the needs of the country, then at war with Iraq. Today, women account for 12 per cent of the work force. Although the figure is the same as in 1979, it is likely to rise as new generations of better-educated women enter the labour market.

For women have taken full advantage of the literacy for all campaign launched after the revolution, especially in the countryside, which had remained backward under the Shah. Today the percentage of girls in school is almost the same as that of boys (nearly 80 per cent).Young women account for 40 per cent of university students and, two years ago, for the first time more girls than boys were admitted to the competitive national entrance examinations. This year, they even make up 58 per cent of the accepted candidates. "Almost all leisure activities are closed to girls," explains lawyer and women's rights advocate Mehranguiz Kar. "So they focus on their studies."

Women are still overwhelmingly underrepresented in political decision-making bodies, but they play a decisive role as voters. "Their turn-out has been outstanding since the May 1997 legislative ballot, which helped elect President Khatami," continues Kar. "The women's vote is a conscious vote. They carefully choose candidates who are in favour of their rights." In February 1999, they made use of their power to vote some 300 women into municipal councils during the first local elections since 1979. In the rather traditional provincial cities and towns, these results reflect a "revolution of mentalities", says Fatemeh Jala[ddot{i}]pour, 2 Tehran municipal council member responsible for women's issues. …

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