Author Haleh Esfandiari spoke with NPR in 1997 about the role women played in electing Mohammad Khatami, then the new president of Iran. At that time, Khatami was starting his term and had named several women to his cabinet, but was facing an uphill battle to get them approved by the Iranian legislature.
Jacki Lyden's interview with Esfandiari, the author of "Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution," follows.
This week, Iran's new president Mohammad Khatami was inaugurated in Tehran. Khatami, a moderate cleric, was elected in an unexpected landslide victory over the more conservative candidate.
Women and young people made the critical difference in the Khatami vote, hoping for more liberalization in the culture.
Women were among the first to feel the effects of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Forced to wear Islamic clothing and head scarves, many were purged from their jobs.
What political participation they had under the Shah vanished. There had been, for example, two women ministers with cabinet-level positions.
Iranian women say they want a female cabinet member again. And if they can't get that, they want deputy female ministers and an influential female deputy president in charge of women's affairs.
But much as they will push Khatami to bring more women to power, hard-line clerics in the government will fiercely resist their efforts.
Haleh Esfandiari has just returned from Iran. She's the author of a new book called Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution. In it, she profiles 32 Iranian professional women.
Esfandiari: Most of the women I talked to were professional women before the revolution, before 1979. They were physicians, lawyers, librarians, university professors, technicians in labs. They stayed in Iran and they continued working.
Some continued with their professions — for example, the physicians. They didn't have much problem, you know. But others had to change their profession and start all over again.
Tell us about the tale of (one) woman ...
...Before the revolution, (she) was a librarian at a university. After the revolution, she, like many other women who in decision-making position, was purged.
As a result, she had to go and look for another job. Her husband was also purged. And she became the sole breadwinner in the family, so she became a seamstress for a few months.
And after that, they set up their own little book publishing company. This didn't work out either.
Then eventually, she became a business woman and now runs a very nice book store in Teheran. And I was told that she can make or break writers.
Some of the scenes in this book from 1979, women recalling what happened to them then, are pretty chilling: murders in the street, theaters set on fire; theaters associated with the West. They've all come a long way from that. And it seems that often the women have been more adaptable than their husbands.
Definitely. I think women are very practical people and the men, middle class men especially after the revolution: those who lost their jobs; those who were purged; those who no longer could function in that society, became very depressed, withdrew, and became almost impossible at home. Women lost a lot of confidence in their men and they decided that either the salvation of the family depended on them, or the whole family would go to pieces.
Therefore, they came out and started working and looking for new jobs. And it didn't bother them to reconstruct their lives basically.
Are these women, who are in their — anywhere from their 30s to their 50s and a little older that you profiled — are they role models for the teenagers and very young women in Iran?
Yes. I'll give you the example of university professors, for example.
A number of women university professors I talked to stayed at the universities despite all the harassment, despite all the effort by the leadership to purge them, to encourage them to take early retirement. They stayed on because they felt that somebody has to educate these women. Somebody has to become a role model for the future generation of Iranian women.
And I think today the women who are in power look to — look up to these women as their role models. We had member of parliaments before the revolution. We have now a member of parliament – a female member of parliament after the revolution.
We had deputy ministers before the revolution. We have now one deputy minister after the revolution.
We had business women before the revolution. We have business women after the revolution. So these are looking up to the previous generation as role models.
Can they moderate some of the harsh policies? Are they enough of a political force to temper some of the policies that cause so much concern about Iran among the larger world?
I don't think they can moderate the international image Iran is projecting. But they can moderate the internal image Iran is projecting. And as a result, of course, they might have an effect on the international role of Iran.
Look, the clerical leadership is very sensitive to projecting an image — a progressive image of women's role in an Islamic society. They look at themselves as a role model for other Islamic country.
And therefore, they would like to show that the women are participating in all aspects of life. Therefore, I think the women can bring quite an influence and a moderating influence on the leadership when it comes to internal matters.