Iranian Clerics, Lawmakers Criticize Ahmadinejad for Naming 3 Women to Cabinet

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 23, 2009

TEHRAN, Aug. 22 -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's decision to nominate three women as Iran's first female cabinet members since the 1979 Islamic revolution faced stiff criticism Saturday from clerics and lawmakers, as well as from women's rights activists.

Several prominent clerics said the move was counter to Islamic beliefs and urged parliament to reject the nominations.

"If a woman becomes minister, then she must constantly stay in contact with men and deputies, so she could not carry out her religious duties to the full," Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabaeinejad said during Friday prayers, according to the Khabaronline Web site. "We expect that the parliamentarians should keep their wits and prevent this heresy."

Women's rights activists, most of whom are based in the capital, said they doubted the nominees would work to give Iranian women the same rights as men.

"These women are just like him, only female," said activist Parvin Ardalan, referring to Ahmadinejad. "This is just an act to gain legitimacy among women."

"The damage that such women can do to women's rights issues is much more than any man can inflict," said Nargess Mohammadi, deputy head of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, which is led by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. "These female candidates have a traditional mind-set. They will increase bias against women, since they believe the role of women is limited to families."

Iranian laws apply differently to women and men in such areas as divorce, child custody, inheritance and in court, where two female witnesses are counted as one witness. Iranian leaders say that in Islam, women and men are created differently but are equal in essence, and therefore their rights differ.

Ahmadinejad introduced 21 candidates this week for his cabinet, including former generals, old hands and unknown figures. He has defended picking three women: Marzieh Vahid Dastgerdi, 50, a gynecologist, for health minister; Fatemeh Ajorlu, 43, a lawmaker, for minister of welfare and social security; and Susan Keshavars, 44, a high-ranking employee of the Ministry of Education, for that ministry.

"Some may become unhappy as soon as they hear about women," he said. "We do not want to draw a distinction between men and women. We see them as being complementary to one another."

Parliament must give the nominees a vote of confidence, and some lawmakers have expressed reluctance to do so.

"Because of the special Iranian culture, men will not obey women. This will create problems," Salman Zaker, a lawmaker belonging to a clerical faction of parliament, said Saturday on Fardanews.

The head of the faction, Mohammad-Taqi Rahbar, said, "There are religious uncertainties surrounding the limits of women's abilities and their management, which the administration must pay attention to."

Rahbar said two influential grand ayatollahs asked Ahmadinejad to reconsider, but their offices have issued no official statements on the matter.

Neither of the two clerics, who have tens of thousands of followers, has congratulated Ahmadinejad on his June 12 landslide victory, an unusual sign that they disapproved of the chaotic aftermath of the vote.

Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.

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