Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Both politics and women’s political activities are radically different under the Islamic Republic of Iran from what they were before the 1979 Revolution. But one fundamental fact has not changed: Politics is still the domain of men, and women who enter the field tend to be related — either by blood or by marriage — to prominent men. Most women politicians are hostages, vulnerable to the political fortunes of men, and only a few have managed to break free. This vulnerability is revealed during parliamentary elections, when in some ways it parallels the vulnerability of the people as a whole, who have been treated as political minors by the theocratic power elite.


The unexpected victory of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential elections changed the battle lines and the rules of the game. It brought about a reformist movement and a free press, which tried, against intense and sometimes violent opposition from part of the clerical establishment, to democratize the Islamic Republic. The 2000 Majles elections, in which the reformists gained a landslide victory, were a further important step in the arduous transition from theocracy to democracy, a process that will doubtless continue for some time to come.
The painful challenges of this time of transition were nowhere more evident than in the case of Fa’ezeh Hashemi. Her rise in the elections of 1996 and fall in those of 2000 can tell us something of how far Iranian society moved in the intervening four years, and can also give us an indication of the challenges that underline the May 2001 presidential election — an election which is likely to turn into a referendum on the future of theocracy in Iran.

The Emergence of the “Reformists”

As the younger daughter of then President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Fa’ezeh entered politics in the course of the 1996 elections for the Fifth Majles. She was the only woman on the list of the Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Servants of Construction). The Kargozaran emerged that year following a disagreement between Rafsanjani and the powerful rightist coalition over the inclusion of five candidates he had nominated for their election list for Tehran. [1] Angered by their rejection, Rafsanjani gave the go-ahead for the formation of a moderate rightist grouping, to run on a platform of “construction,” the motto of Rafsanjani’s two terms as president. He did not know then that this would lay the foundation for a serious challenge to himself. The Servants of Construction included two of Rafsanjani’s protégés who later became the backbone of the “reformist movement”: Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi (then the powerful and popular mayor of Tehran), and Ataollah Mohajerani (who became Khatami’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance).

Fa’ezeh brought excitement and glamor to the 1996 elections. She broke the unwritten dress code for women politicians by wearing — underneath the obligatory (for public figures) chador — jeans and a patterned scarf tied so that her chin was exposed. She promoted women’s sports and advocated women’s rights, identifying herself squarely as a “modernist” in the long-running battle between modernity and tradition. This made her the darling of the “reformists” (as they became known after Khatami’s victory in May 1997) and the target of attacks by their opponents, the “conservatives.” Her pre-election rallies were harassed by the Ansar-e Hezbollah, a newly emerged pressure group rumored to be under “conservative” control. “Ayesheh came by camel and Fa’ezeh is coming by motor-bike (Ayesheh ba shotor, Fa’ezeh ba motor),” they chanted, alluding to the Prophet’s wife who led the Battle of the Camel against Ali, the first Shi‘a Imam. Photographs of her cycling and skating in support of women’s right to participate in sports were circulated as proof of her “Islamically incorrect” ways.

All this seemed to increase Fa’ezeh’s popularity. The public welcomed her. To them she was fresh air in the stale and suffocating world envisioned by the clerics. In the polls, she won the second highest vote in Tehran. It was rumored that she had in fact topped the poll, but the conservative candidate Nateq-Nouri — who was reportedly being groomed to be the next president — was declared the winner: A woman defeating a cleric in the capital would have been an intolerable blow to the deeply rooted patriarchy in the Iranian political system. Within this patriarchal system, Fa’ezeh had to defend women’s rights during her term in parliament.

The Fifth Majles Frustrates Reform

The Fifth Majles had the highest number of women deputies ever (14), yet it proved to have the worst record on women’s rights. [2] Its newly created Women’s Commission, in the name of the defense of women’s rights, proposed two bills that became infamous for their anti-women slant: One stipulated that doctors could only treat patients of the same sex, and the second aimed to prevent the press from printing features on women, and to halt the lively debate on women’s rights. Both bills were part of a concerted effort by the conservatives to frustrate the reforms promised by Khatami, by using his own slogan: “the rule of law.” Fa’ezeh and other reformists in the Majles opposed both bills, but they were in a minority. The two laws were ratified in July 1998, but were so far removed from the reality of Iranian society that it was impossible to implement them.

The following year the Majles introduced another bill to enable the conservative-dominated judiciary to prosecute reformist journalists. The press was now the main battlefield. In July 1998, Fa’ezeh herself had launched Zan, the first-ever women’s newspaper in Iran, but it too fell victim to the struggle. In April 1999, the Revolutionary Court ordered its closure; one pretext was that it had printed part of a Nowruz (Iranian New Year) message to the Iranian people from Farah Pahlavi, the exiled former Empress. The whole text of the message — prefaced by a denunciation — had in fact been printed earlier by a paper supporting the conservatives. Fa’ezeh defended her paper in court, and the reformist press stood up for Zan, but to no avail. Her father remained silent.

Opponents of reform did not hesitate to use naked violence. During autumn 1998, a number of pro-reform intellectuals and writers were brutally murdered in what came to be known as the “serial killings.” A list circulated with the names of 150 intellectuals and writers whose murder was said to be a “religious duty” for guardians of the values of the Revolution. The country was gripped by fear. Then in July 1999, following a peaceful student demonstration against the passing of the press bill and the closure of the reformist paper Salam, uniformed and “plain-clothes” police stormed a Tehran University dormitory. The security services’ unprovoked violence on this occasion infuriated the students. Universities in Tehran, Tabriz and elsewhere saw demonstrations reminiscent of those leading up to the 1978-1979 revolution.

The 2000 Majles Elections

Fa’ezeh Hashemi sided with the reformists during all these upheavals. But in the runup to the February 2000 elections, she lost significant reformist, student and youth support, because she did not distance herself from her father’s decision at the end of 1999 to enter the parliamentary race. The conservatives, having failed for three years to silence the reformists and their press, nominated Rafsanjani as their top candidate. Despite their differences with him, they saw him as their last chance to avoid losing control of the Sixth Majles. The reformist press took up the challenge, making Rafsanjani’s political record — his undemocratic style as Majles speaker (1980-1989) and as president (1989-97), his behind-the-scenes dealings, his vast wealth, his suspected links with the 1998 serial killings — regular topics of their editorials and essays. More daring reformists such as Akbar Ganji, Abbas Abdi and Mohammad Quchani challenged Rafsanjani, who dismissed the journalists’ concerns as “the work of Satan,” to public debate. A full-scale press war ensued between the reformist and conservative papers, with Rafsanjani as the main subject. A dutiful daughter, Fa’ezeh took her father’s side — an act of political suicide that she undertook despite repeated warnings in the reformist press.

Fa’ezeh Hashemi’s place was taken by women such as Jamileh Kadivar, who has established strong links with the reformists. In February 1999, she nominated herself for the City Council in Tehran, and was elected. Her husband Ataollah Mohajerani, Khatami’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance, nurtured a press that was freer for a while than at any time in Iranian history, for which he was impeached in the Majles in spring 1999 — unsuccessfully. [3] Kadivar is a household name. Jamileh’s brother Mohsen, a reformist cleric and student of the silenced Ayatollah Montazeri, wrote a critique of the doctrine of the absolute rule of the jurist (velayat-e motlaqeh-e faqih) from within Shi‘a theology, comparing the unchecked powers of the Vali-ye Faqih with those of absolute monarchs. He was arrested in June 1998 and, following a much-publicized trial in the Special Clerical Court, sentenced to 18 months prison for “insulting the Islamic Republic” and “disturbing minds.”

Just a week before the February 2000 elections, the reformist newspapers, which had assumed the role of political parties, issued a list of 30 candidates, the quota for Tehran. Five women were on this list: Jamileh Kadivar was one of them, but Fa’ezeh Hashemi was not. Jamileh also appeared on the lists of candidates issued by the powerful and pro-reform student network Bureau for Fostering Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), and the Participation Front (Jebheh-e Mosharekat) headed by Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president’s brother; both groups resisted all pressure to include Rafsanjani, the top candidate for the anti-reform camp, on their lists. The Kargozaran did include him and also his daughter Fa’ezeh. In this way, for the first time since the Revolution, the lists produced by political groups became mutually exclusive. In previous elections, some candidates, such as Rafsanjani, would appear on the lists of all political groups.

A high turnout and a landslide reformist victory revealed the extent to which people had trusted the reformist press. In Tehran, 28 of the 30 candidates on the reformist list gained enough votes in the first round to enter Parliament. Jamileh Kadivar polled the second highest vote, after Mohammad Reza Khatami and followed by Ali-Reza Nouri, Abdollah Nouri’s brother. Rafsanjani scraped by, placing thirtieth on the Tehran list. Fa’ezeh did not make it at all. For Rafsanjani, who had ambitions to succeed the current leader (the Vali-ye Faqih, Ayatollah Khamene’i), this was a humiliating experience. It became even more embarrassing when the reformist papers hinted at vote-rigging in some polling stations, and revealed that Fa’ezeh had written a letter to the electoral office asking for her votes to be counted in her father’s name.

Apart from Jamileh Kadivar, the four other women from the press list, along with two others, entered the Sixth Majles for Tehran. They were joined by five more women elected from Dashtestan, Isfahan, Orumiyeh, Mashhad and Shiraz. All 11 women are reformists, belonging to different tendencies, but mostly nominated by the Participation Front. Eleven women is fewer than the 14 in the Fifth Majles; this can largely be attributed to the fact that the reformist lists included few female names. Moreover, none of the women on the conservative lists were elected in 2000. In the Fifth Majles, 10 of the 14 women elected were nominated by different rightist groups, and seven of these later joined the anti-reformist camp.

Reassured and perhaps over-confident after the clearly massive public support for their candidates, the reformist press grew bolder in their confrontation with Rafsanjani, the only conservative candidate elected from a large city. Even his election was challenged: the reformist candidate who had polled thirty-first in Tehran lodged a complaint with the election body. Recounting of the Tehran votes went on for over two months, and as the day approached when the Majles was due to open (June 7), the Council of Guardians — the conservative-dominated supervisory body — still delayed ratifying the result.

Taken aback by the scale of their defeat, the conservatives struck back in full force. They blamed the reformist newspapers for their failure in the polls and seemed determined to take revenge by eliminating them. Several prominent reformist journalists were detained, and in spring 2000, in what has become known as a “creeping coup d’état,” over 20 reformist newspapers and journals were closed down. Deprived of their main platform, the reformists now feared the election results would be cancelled. A crisis more serious than the 1999 student revolt loomed, but was averted through the intervention of the leader, who ordered the Council of Guardians to end the Tehran recount and announce the results.

The Tehran election result was finally announced just a few days before the opening of the Majles. There were some changes: Two reformist candidates were replaced by conservatives and Rafsanjani was promoted from thirtieth place to twentieth. This was a last desperate move aimed at increasing his chance of election as Majles speaker, but it backfired in the public eye. On the eve of the opening of the Majles, Rafsanjani decided to withdraw altogether, to avoid the possible further embarrassment of having his credentials rejected by the Majles.

In the months after the elections, the conservatives displayed their vindictiveness. More reformist newspapers were closed, and most of the reformist writers who had challenged Rafsanjani were arrested and thrown in jail on one excuse or another. Attacks on the Majles were reportedly planned. The annual meeting of the Bureau to Foster Unity, held in Khorramabad in August, was violently disrupted by conservative-backed thugs. Meanwhile the damaging revelations continued. One of the most damning was the confession of Amir-Farshad Ebrahimi, a breakaway member of the notorious Ansar-e Hezbollah. His videotaped confession, widely circulated, revealed the gang’s link with the conservatives, and even that they had received money from the Kargozaran to disrupt their pre-election rallies for Fifth Majles. The group also took money to film Fa’ezeh’s campaign for women’s right to cycle and to demonstrate against her. According to Ebrahimi, Kargozaran’s analysis was that the Ansar and other extremist gangs were so unpopular that whoever they harassed and disrupted would gain the people’s vote.

Challenging Patriarchy

Ebrahimi’s revelations — whether true or not — further distanced Fa’ezeh Hashemi from the reformist camp. Her political career for the time being seems to be over. She is the very product of the patrimonial style of politics in Iran, which is now openly debated and challenged by the reformist movement. What brought her into politics was her father — who continues to see himself as the nation’s patriarch. What ended her political career was her inability to break away from her father’s style of politics, and to join the new one proposed by the reformists.

What could Fa’ezeh do? How could she abandon her father? Her dilemma and her vulnerability are encoded in her appearance and actions. Her jeans and chador, her advocacy of women’s rights and her disregard for democratic principles are only the outer manifestations of the painful challenges and contradictions of a time of transition. These contradictions will suffuse the May 2001 presidential elections, as they did the Majles elections 15 months earlier, but this time with a new impact and intensity. The clash between forces of theocracy and democracy was thrown into a sharper relief as the Sixth Majles, called the “Majles of Reforms” (majles eslahat), took the place of the press as the battleground. The theocratic forces have so far managed to frustrate most of the legislative moves of the Sixth Majles, but in turn the Majles has not only been chipping away at the patriarchal politics of the Islamic Republic but has questioned the very Islamic legitimacy of gender inequality. At the end of 2000, the Majles ratified a bill to eliminate discrimination between female and male students in regard to scholarships to study abroad. The first bill of its kind — the Majles reformists brought it to honor their pre-election promise to do away with gender inequalities in law — it put them into direct confrontation with the clerical establishment. A number of high ranking clerics wrote open letters to the Majles demanding withdrawal of the bill. The supervisory Council of Guardians — the main bastion of theocracy — rejected the bill as “un-Islamic.” The Council offered no legal justification for its rejection, but could no longer ignore the impact of its decision on people, for which it blames the Majles. Ayatollah Meshkini, the Friday prayer leader in Qom, said it all in his sermon: “Ratification of such a bill by the Majles causes the youth’s antagonism towards the clerical establishment and the Council of Guardians.” [4]

In a country where over 60 percent of the population are under 25, this antagonism is the main force behind the reform movement. It is a winning card in the hands of its current leader, Mohammad Khatami, for the May elections. Will he use it? At the time of writing, he had not even declared his candidacy.

Endnotes

[1] In the Majles elections, in the absence of political parties, factions and groups publish lists of their favored candidates for every constituency. Each city and provincial region forms a constituency with a number of seats according to population. Voters enter the names of candidates up to the total number of the seats in their constituency. If the constituency has 30 seats, the top 30 vote-getters are elected.
[2] Haleh Esfandiari, “The Majles and Women’s Issues in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, eds., In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994).
[3] Attempts to remove him continued, and in December 2000 Khatami accepted his resignation.
[4] For a report, see Hayat-e Now, January 25, 2001.

How to cite this article:

Ziba Mir-Hosseini "The Rise and Fall of Fa’ezeh Hashemi," Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001).
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