Image: Fatemeh Ajorlu
Fatemeh Ajorlu, 43, has been nominated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to serve as welfare and social security minister.
updated 8/27/2009 11:20:52 AM ET 2009-08-27T15:20:52

Women's rights activists say they aren't fooled by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nomination of the first female Cabinet ministers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, calling it a ploy to improve his popularity that will actually hurt the cause of women.

With the nominations of three women for his new government , the hard-line president appears to be seeking to burnish his image at a time when he is under siege from the pro-reform opposition, which claims he won the June presidential election by fraud.

Since coming to power in 2005, Ahmadinejad has cracked down hard on women activists, arresting many involved in a campaign to overturn laws seen as discriminatory to women. Still, he has touted himself as a new, more modern-thinking leader within Iran's hard-line, religiously conservative camp, one that promotes women's rights in an "Islamic context."

Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist with the Washington-based RAND Corp., said Ahmadinejad was trying to siphon support away from opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims he was the true winner in the June election. Mousavi campaigned on a platform of improving women's rights and energized crowds by having his high-powered wife hit the campaign trail with him.

"I don't think the majority of the population, especially those who have been protesters, will necessarily buy" Ahmadinejad's move, Nader said.

The three women are on a list of 21 Cabinet nominees that parliament is due to approve in an Aug. 30 vote. The women would become the first female ministers since Education Minister Farrokhroo Parsay, who served in the 1970s but was executed for corruption shortly after Islamic clerics seized power in the 1979 revolution.

Too inexperienced?
Ahmadinejad already faces a tough fight with lawmakers over his nominees because of political disputes within his own conservative camp, where rivals accuse Ahmadinejad of grabbing too much power and giving key posts to close loyalists. Some lawmakers have dismissed several of Ahmadinejad's nominees as too inexperienced — among them at least one of the women.

While the women's nominations are unlikely to win over anyone in Iran's liberal, pro-reform bloc, Ahmadinejad may be hoping to increase his appeal among conservatives — including the many women in the conservative ranks.

An editorial published last week by the official IRNA news agency lauded Ahmadinejad, saying that while other candidates promised to elevate women to senior government positions, the president has actually delivered.

"Ahmadinejad's action to choose female ministers indicates that the use of women's ability and participation ... needs courage and initiative that shows that perhaps not everyone dares do such a thing," said the editorial, which included supportive quotes from some conservative lawmakers close to the president.

Still, the nominations have also raised some criticism from traditional hard-liners who oppose bringing in women. One of Ahmadinejad's allies, ultra-conservative female writer Fatemeh Rajabi, denounced the nominations as "the goal of feminists and secularists," saying "no pure person would do such a thing."

'Reactionary policy'
Women's rights activists say having female ministers serve under Ahmadinejad would actually be a setback for their movement — because of his motives and the cloud hanging over his presidency due to the election.

"This is just a reactionary policy to try to restore his legitimacy in the eyes of the people," activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh told The Associated Press by telephone from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "Their appointment right now would be a bad thing for women's rights because it's like cheating."

Activists say two of his female nominees — Fatemeh Ajorlu as welfare and social security minister and Susan Keshavarz as education minister — are Ahmadinejad loyalists who lack experience.

They say Ajorlu, a 43-year-old lawmaker, has been a strong proponent of policies that activists view as discriminatory, such as a bill that would have allowed men to take additional wives without permission from their first wife. The bill was eventually rejected by parliament.

"Ajorlu is anti-woman," said Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who researches the situation of women in Iran, at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "She is a staunch supporter of Ahmadinejad and does not have a strong identity for herself."

Ajorlu served as a nurse for the elite Revolutionary Guard in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war and has been a loyal member of the pro-government Basij militia. Hard-liners used both groups to violently crack down on protesters following the disputed presidential election.

Less is known about Keshavarz, who is currently head of the ministry's department of disabled students.

A member of parliament's education committee, Asadollah Abbasi, criticized Keshavarz's lack of experience, saying her appointment shows that "Ahmadinejad doesn't know anything about the Ministry of Education," according to the Iranian Women News Agency.

In contrast to Ajorlu and Keshavarz, activists said they admire Ahmadinejad's nominee for health minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastgerdi, a 50-year-old gynecologist who has served in parliament and taught medicine. She is a conservative who called for the segregation of hospitals by gender several years ago, but activists said she has done a lot of good work for women's health.

"It could be a good decision for Dastgerdi to go to the ministry, but not as part of this government," said Abbasgholizadeh. "It would be a big mistake because she would lose all social capital with women's groups and ordinary people."

At least one member of parliament has raised doubts about whether Dastgerdi would be approved. One of the deputy speakers, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, said she and several of other nominees were not as "efficient" as the outgoing ministers.

More on: Iran

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments