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Woman joins men only club

Activists say the appointment of Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi as Iranian health minister smacks of tokenism, but others are glad to see a gender taboo smashed.

The Islamic Republic's first female minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, who will head the health ministry, is a respected gynaecologist.
The Islamic Republic's first female minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, who will head the health ministry, is a respected gynaecologist.

She is the first female minister in the Islamic Republic of Iran's 30-year history. But as a conservative figure in the new government - which the opposition denounces as illegitimate - Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, 50, inspires little enthusiasm as a person among fellow Iranian women who demand greater rights for their sex. Many view her appointment as a populist move, smacking of tokenism, by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to burnish his tarnished image and trump his ostensibly defeated electoral rivals who had championed women's rights. Yet most Iranian women still welcome Ms Dastjerdi's elevation because it smashed the taboo on women serving in executive positions: it is her appointment rather than her outlook, or that of the cabinet she is serving in, that is important. "There is no doubt that it broke a barrier that is significant," said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. For women considered as regime insiders it "ultimately ? opens the way for the Guardian Council accepting such women as candidates for [the] presidency," Ms Farhi said. Few doubt Ms Dastjerdi's qualifications. A respected gynaecologist, she spent most of her career in medical practice and research. She is "at least as qualified as the previous health minister - who was young and with not much experience when he was appointed", Ms Farhi said in an interview. "At the same time, it is not yet at all clear whether she will do anything that is going to be different from men and, if so, whether she will do anything that would actually benefit women in general." Before her new appointment, Ms Dastjerdi, who served two terms in parliament as a representative of Tehran in the 1990s, was best known for proposing a bill to segregate health care along gender lines, with male doctors treating men and female doctors treating women. The bill was vociferously opposed by health professionals and female activists and did not pass: parliament said there were not enough female doctors to make it possible. Yet she succeeded in carrying out the experiment in Tehran's Mahdieh Hospital, which specialises in gynaecology and related fields. As an MP, Ms Dastjerdi is also said to have opposed a bill that could have helped Iran join the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Yet as she presented herself to parliament last week, Ms Dastjerdi spoke of the need to increase women's role in national affairs. "She is a conservative but not a hardline conservative," Ms Farhi said. Ms Dastjerdi's ministry is responsible for medical education and she rolls out impressive statistics to back her cause. There are more than 120,000 female medical students at Iranian universities while 49.4 per cent of general practitioners and 20.6 per cent of specialist physicians are women, she said. And, in an apparent change of heart from her campaign to segregate hospitals by gender, she praised the "miracles" that happen when men and women work together. Parliament's vote of confidence in her came despite opposition on gender grounds from hardline MPs - vocally supported by conservative clerics - who succeeded in blocking the nomination of two other women to the education ministry and the welfare and social security ministry. Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the head of the clerical faction in parliament, said: "Although it is a new idea to choose women as ministers, there are religious doubts over the abilities of women when it comes to management." Fatemeh Rajabi, an ultra-conservative female writer and ally of the president, added her voice to those opposing Mr Ahmadinejad's nomination of the three women, denouncing the move as "the goal of feminists and secularists". The outcry proved insufficient to block Ms Dastjerdi who was approved by 175 of the 286 deputies who voted. They were impressed by her plans to expand health insurance coverage, to improve health facilities in rural areas and to combat such diseases as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Ms Dastjerdi, who is married, comes from a well-connected family. Her late father, Seyfollah Vahid Dastjerdi, was head of the Iranian Red Crescent and it is rumoured that her brother is in charge of security for the residence of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ms Dastjerdi studied medicine at the University of Tehran, worked as a university professor and has a background in hospital administration. After being elected an MP in 1992, she became chair of parliament's committee on women, family and youth. A year later she helped establish the Islamic Association of Physicians. Since 2004, she has run Tehran's Arash hospital, which specialises in women's diseases and obstetrics. Mohammad Khatami, a former president and a reformer, appointed a woman as one of his vice presidents 12 years ago, but that was an easier feat because the position did not require a parliamentary vote of confidence. Mr Ahmadinejad also had a female vice president during his first term of office. Mounting social pressures in recent years from Iran's doughty, if constantly harassed, female activists clearly contributed to Ms Dastjerdi's appointment. So, too, did Mr Ahmadinejad's desire to steal the thunder of his main presidential challenger. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man many Iranians believe was the true winner of June's elections, electrified crowds by involving his charismatic, high-powered wife, Zahra Rehnavard, in his campaign. Women were also on the front line of June's mass protests against Mr Ahmadinejad's "stolen" election. Neda Agha Soltan, 26, became a global symbol of the opposition demonstrations after mobile phone camera footage of her being shot dead by a sniper went viral. The president's own record on women's rights had been less than stellar. After coming to power in 2005, he cracked down hard on female activists, arresting many involved in a grassroots campaign to overturn laws that discriminate against women. Mr Ahmadinejad was the soul of chivalry, however, when he defended his nomination of three female cabinet members before parliament. "Who says that men manage better than women?" he said. Women had played a leading role in overthrowing the shah and providing sons to fight in the war against Iraq, he added. Repeating an argument he once used unsuccessfully in an attempt to let women cheer from the stands in Iran's football stadiums, he insisted that men behaved better in their presence. Their unique touch would be no different in cabinet meetings. "When women are not around, cabinet members make jokes, but when women are around everyone becomes polite and speaks within acceptable frameworks ? Wherever they go [women] carry with them purity, ethics and respect." Having a woman in the cabinet would "take the message of the Iranian revolution to the world", he proclaimed. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, two women served as cabinet ministers. Farrokhroo Parsa, a minister of education, had been out of office for eight years when the autocratic, US-backed Shah was ousted. But she remained an outspoken campaigner for women's rights and was charged with "corruption" by the fledgling Islamic republic. She was executed by firing squad in May 1980. The other, Mahnaz Afkhami, who served as minister of women's affairs between 1976 and 1978, was more fortunate. Also charged with "corruption on Earth", she managed to flee into exile and now lives in the United States. Little wonder, then, that Ms Dastjerdi hailed her appointment as a watershed. "I think today women reached their longstanding dream of having a woman in the cabinet to pursue their demands," she said after securing parliamentary approval. "This is an important step for women and I hold my head high." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Maryam Sinaiee in Tehran