Iranian Changes Encourage Women in Political Role

Some back reforms while others react to `corruption'

ALL you see is the nose and mouth. Even the eyes are just a gleam behind the heavy blackness of her cape. Her hands ruffle the material's outline, desperate to avoid a single contour.

Looming behind her desk is a stark portrait of her father, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, framed in heavy silver, his face taut and pale beneath a black turban. Few people have seen Zahra Mostafevi's face, but everyone knows the picture behind the desk.

She talks with ease, describing life in the ayatollah's home, how he led by example, and of the time he did not tell her about his last operation because she had exams the next day. "He was very serious," she says. "At the same time, he was very kind, very affectionate."

Ms. Mostafevi heads the Iranian Women's Society, whose role is not to further women rights, she says. "No, we mainly help families promote their moral understanding, not specifically women."

Iran is changing around her and she does not like it. Reformist President Hashemi Rafsanjani won a sweeping victory in the first round of parliamentary elections April 10 and he is all set to extend reforms. He has been deregulating the economy, privatizing state-owned industries, and encouraging competition. He also tacitly condones loosening Iran's strict Islamic social codes.

She despises this new Iran, with its lewd glimpses of hair and touches of make-up. "The generation that you see now was trained and brought up before the revolution. Now we are looking for the generation that grew up after the revolution."

Does she not agree that the women's hijab (head covering) is impractical and uncomfortable? "Life was not made to be absolutely comfortable," she says. "The only absolute thing is Allah."

Other Iranian women, however, cheer reform all the way. Take Pouran Derakhshandeh, a film writer and director, who scored a runaway success with her 1988 feature "Little Bird Of Happiness." Trained at Tehran's School of Cinema and Television during the shah's regime, she established her credentials with 10 years of documentaries for state-run television and then branched into films. She is now at the forefront of those pushing for reform.

"After the revolution, I was the first woman to make films here. Now we're trying to make more of a balance to pick up the position of women," she says. "Many of our production directors are women; they have been very progressive."

With each film, she progresses a little further herself. The actresses in her latest offering, "Lost Time," shows so much hair and make-up that the local authorities slated its wantonness and gave the film only third-rate distribution.

Cinema is a powerful medium here: In Tehran, virtually every household owns a VCR, and in the provinces, movies are the standard evening entertainment.

The divergence of the two groups in Iranian politics is nowhere more evident than parliament itself. In 1988, four women sat in the majlis or 270-seat assembly, three of them supporters of President Rafsanjani. In last month's elections, the number of women running for office, overwhelmingly in favor of reform, was 58.

One candidate celebrating this development is Maryam Behruzi. A veteran of every parliament since the 1979 Islamic revolution, she falls firmly into the reformist camp alongside Rafsanjani. As head of the Women's Party she has orchestrated several successful legislative reforms.

In 1991, she succeeded in abolishing court expenses for women; cut the number of years a woman must work in order to claim retirement benefits; and revived plans to build child care centers and provide child benefits to single parents.

"The government is trying to give women the opportunity to flourish," she says. But "it takes time. It can't happen immediately." She has ambitious plans to send Iranian women abroad for PhD-level training unavailable inside the country, all at the expense of the government. At the moment, single women are not allowed to receive scholarships for foreign study.

MS. BEHRUZI is no political lightweight. Her father was a mujahed (Muslim fighter) during the shah's regime, and organized a revolutionary union. She was banned from politics by the shah, then persecuted and imprisoned for four years.

After the revolution, she won her own spurs championing women's rights on radio. A law graduate and doctor of religious studies, she won a seat on the first parliament after the revolution.

"Women in Islam have a very high position," she says. "The government is trying to find that level for them."

Rafsanjani is consolidating his power in the majlis and trying to marginalize the hard-liners. With most women candidates favoring reform, he is using their voices to further his aims and is rumored to be considering a woman for the Cabinet.

Shahla Habibi, too, falls into the Rafsanjani camp. She has every reason to support the reforms: They gave her a job. Recently appointed the president's special advisor on women's affairs, Ms. Habibi pulls high rank in Iranian politics. Her office has executive, legislative, and judicial power on all women's issues.

Habibi has already used this power to speed legislation through parliament. She passed laws allowing women more part-time work, and helped Behruzi to abolish court costs for women.

"A woman's participation in society makes her a better woman for her family. So we push women to be more educated," she says. "We also give support for women to build their own businesses."

This support consists of financial backing from the Committee of Khomeini for women with promising business plans but no capital. Habibi says they have particularly helped women in the carpet industry and agriculture.

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