Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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Dr. Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi was Iran’s first female cabinet minister, and was appointed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This was a landmark for women, and took 30 years to materialize. But her career has been a mixed blessing for Iranian women. As a doctor she has helped improve women’s overall general health, but as a politician she has supported gender segregation and laws that disempower women in Iran. Nevertheless, throughout her career, she has proven her determination to reach her own decisions, without giving in to external pressure. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed her from her ministerial role after she disagreed with him.
She was born in 1959 in Tehran. Her father, Seifollah Vahid Dastjerdi, was the head of the Red Crescent Society of Iran for 16 years. Starting in 1976 she studied medicine at the University of Tehran’s Medical School and received a doctorate in gynecology. During her student days she was politically active, but unlike many other students she was a Hezbollahi rather than a leftist.
For 13 years Dastjerdi was a professor of medicine at Tehran University and, for six years, the director of the Medical School’s Nursing and Obstetrics Department. She co-founded Iran's Specialized Scientific Association of Reproduction and Sterility. From 2004 to 2009 she headed up Arash Hospital, a medical facility exclusively for women.
Along with these and many other activities in the field of medicine, Dastjerdi has always been politically active as well. In 1993 she co-founded a political party, the Islamic Association of Physicians. She was elected to represent Tehran in the Iranian parliament, and served two terms, from 1992 to 2000. In August 1997, she was elected chairwoman of the parliamentary Committee on Women, Family and Youth.
During this time she supported population control but in other areas her positions with regard to women matched those of the most conservative members of parliament. She voted for legal changes to make it harder for women to obtain a divorce, keep custody of their children after divorce, or have an abortion. She also opposed a bill that allowed Iran to join the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Dastjerdi was an activist for gender segregation and supported segregated medical facilities for men and women. In 1998 she co-sponsored a bill that would have forced the government to segregate all medical facilities, with exclusively female staff for those providing treatment and care to women. The bill might have been very attractive to the conservatives but it was rejected after doctors and health professionals sharply criticized it as being totally unrealistic considering the costs and the shortage of female medical professionals.
Dastjerdi lost her seat in parliament as part of the surge in support for reformists in the 2000 parliamentary elections.
Because of her father’s family, the Dastjerdis, have always had good relations with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Vahid Dastjerdi has managed to have good relations with some of Iran’s most influential players, including the Larijani brothers, Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament; Sadeq Larijani, Chief Justice; and Bagher Larijani, former chancellor of Tehran University’s Medical School. It was Bagher Larijani who got Dastjerdi her first job in the administration of President Ahmadinejad as the Director of the International Affairs for the Medical School.
A “New Idea” for the Islamic Republic
In August 2009, following the disputed presidential election, President Ahmadinejad nominated Dastjerdi and two other women for ministerial posts. Hardliner MPs and clerics opposed the nominations.
"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," said Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, head of the clerical faction in the parliament. He said he and a group of leading clerics, including two grand ayatollahs, planned to ask the Supreme Leader whether Dastjerdi's appointment was in accordance with the founding principles of the Islamic Republic.
The two other female candidates — Susan Keshavarz for the Ministry of Education and Fatemeh Ajorlou for the Ministry of Welfare and Social Security — failed to win enough votes in parliament, but the conservative record of Dastjerdi overcame the opposition of the hardliners.
"I think today women have reached their long-standing dream of having a woman in the cabinet to pursue their demands," she said after the parliament approved her nomination as health minister. "This is an important step for women and I hold my head high."
"Women must have a greater role in the country's affairs," she said, and added that half of all health ministry employees were women and that there were 1.6 million women in the health field nationally.
She also tried to backtrack from her long-standing support for gender segregation and suggested that taboos about male-female professional collaboration should be overcome. "Where there are women and men working together, miracles take place," she said.
Dr. Dastjerdi told MPs that she would expand health insurance coverage and prioritize health facilities in villages and rural areas. She also promised to tackle non-contagious diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, "without forgetting contagious diseases such as swine flu.”
Luxury Cars instead of Medicine
Dastjerdi remained at her job until December 2012, when Ahmadinejad summarily dismissed her after she criticized her colleagues for failing to provide funds to import vital medicines. Because of the sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear program, there was a shortage of some critical medicines for treatment of cancer, multiple sclerosis, blood disorders and other serious conditions.
Dastjerdi said on state television that only a quarter of the $2.4 billion earmarked for medicine imports had been provided in 2012 and there was a shortage of foreign currency for the shipments. "Medicine is more essential than bread,” she said . “I have heard that luxury cars have been imported with subsidized dollars but I don't know what happened to the dollars that were supposed to be allocated for importing medicine," she said.
These statements were bound to displease Ahmadinejad. He rejected her comments on TV and claimed that enough money had been allocated to the health ministry.
The dismissal, however, has not ended her political career. Her conservative credentials have helped her standing with the more conservative officials of the regime. In May 2013 she was appointed head of the steering committee for welfare and health at the parliament’s Research Center. In October of the same year, the chief of the Islamic Republic Judiciary Ayatollah Larijani appointed her as his advisor.
In April 2015 President Rouhani appointed Dr. Dastjerdi as a member of the well-funded and powerful Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation’s board of trustees.
She has been working with a group of like-minded women to create a Fundamentalist Women’s Front, which could be a sign that she hopes to return to parliament in the next parliamentary elections, due to take place in February 2016.
It might seem paradoxical but the relative political success of Dastjerdi under the Islamic Republic is due to the fact that she is not a feminist, although she has occasionally paid lip service to women and their rights. Everything else aside, the fact she became the first female cabinet minister after 30 years of the birth of the Islamic Republic should be considered as a notable event for Iranian women.
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