Pushing Back The Veil

The daughter of the Ayatollah Khomeini is about the last person in the world you'd expect to hear spouting feminist rhetoric. A Western visitor sipping tea in her formal little office (just past the DEATH TO THE USA sign near the entrance) hardly knows what to make of Zahra Mustafavi and her Women's Society of Iran. Mrs. Mustafavi, 54, says she feels enraged when Iranian TV commercials use women to advertise vacuum cleaners and men to promote computers: "Why can't it be the other way around?" She complained to state-run television, she says--and wraps a black chador more tightly around her face as the photographer moves in for a picture. She's not going to the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, she says. As Iran's antigovernment feminists like to point out, the delegates in Beijing would probably stone her if she did.

Can a U.N. gabfest, even one attracting tens of thousands of participants from around the globe, really do anything to improve women's lives in a country like Iran? Ever since the 1979 revolution enshrined Islamic theology as state law, women have virtually been barred from initiating divorces, banned from serving as judges, relegated to such second-class status that "blood money" for killing a woman is only half that for killing a man. The most visible sign of women's subjection--the ever-present veil--is also the most visible sign of the regime's power, and therefore about the last thing it would give up.

Yet within these limits, the role of women engenders lively debate in the Iranian Parliament. "This event in Beijing has made things a lot hotter," says Ziba Jalali, who helped coordinate nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Iran has not submitted a "national report" on progress since the last U.N. women's conference in 1985. (A spokesman for Iran's mission to the U.N. says it's because of "disorganization.")

Iranian women say the very process of drafting documents for the conference has boosted their profile. The regime established a Women's NGO Coordinating Office a year ago and invited a few dozen foundations to participate. The women approved a democratic charter for themselves, including the right to choose their own board of directors. Since then, says one woman involved in the process, conservatives have stifled any real initiatives and the charter never went into effect. But if nothing else, the NGOs now have valuable experience. "A woman who can make a brochure for her organization before Beijing can do it after Beijing, too," says one woman from an Iranian NGO.

To the outside world, these nudges forward may seem pitifully small. But tiny breakthroughs may take on huge significance. The Iranian Parliament now contains nine female representatives, out of 270. "We've got a lot of clout," insists Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, a Teheran gynecologist who's been in Parliament for three and a half years. "Sometimes other members will ask us to make a speech about something because 'They'll listen to you ladies'." In recent months the Parliament has approved laws ensuring that some men who are divorcing their wives must pay them the equivalent of wages for a 24-hour-a-day servant for the duration of their marriage. "Even if conservatives don't vote for us, we've touched them in some way just by bringing these subjects up," says Dastjerdi.

In the eyes of many Iranian women, no real progress is possible as long as the regime sticks to a conservative interpretation of Islamic law. Khomeini's daughter, by this logic, cannot be a true promoter of women's rights. "Does she say that women are the equal of men?" asks one Teheran intellectual, who then points to her head scarf. "Does she say we can take off this damn thing?"

Still, the veil has not kept Iranian women out of public view. The poor economy is drawing more women into the workplace, and a higher percentage of women can read and write than in the shah's time. Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of Iran's president, insists that the 10 women's sports complexes included in the five-year plan would never have been possible if men were allowed to gaze at women in running shorts. Her idea is to turn separate facilities into equal ones (which they're not, by a long shot). All Iranian women want fairer treatment, no matter what their political views, and as one female professional put it, "Even Rafsanjani's daughter wouldn't like it if her husband took a second wife." Building that female solidarity is harder than holding a U.N. conference about it.