First Published: 2004-08-03

Iran's only female mayor

Mehri Roustaie Gherailou, mayor of busy industrial city of Saveh, has work cut out to change her world.


Middle East Online

Roustaie prefers to point out what she does not like: male-chauvinism

SAVEH, Iran - Mehri Roustaie Gherailou is unlike any other mayor in Iran - she's a woman.

The 41-year-old manager of the small city of Saveh, situated around 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of Tehran, is only the second woman to run a town in the 25-year-old history of the Islamic republic, and at present the only female in such a job.

And she has no hesitation in pointing out her difficulties swimming against the tide in a traditionally male-dominated society.

"Men cannot give up power to women that easily," she says in her office in Saveh, once famed for its pomegranates but now a busy industrial centre and trading crossroads between six provinces.

Women, she said, are generally seen as less tolerant of laziness and corruption, something that makes them "very hard to accept".

When the city council appointed her mayor in May - a political upset in the town - Roustaie said she started her job of cleaning up the drab town of 140,000 people by sweeping a broom through her new office.

"On my first day in the office, I made the necessary changes in the municipality that none of the previous mayors had done," said Roustaie, a calm but resolute woman who gives the impression of being well on top of her job.

"I immediately replaced two deputies and some directors who were no longer trusted by people. I also started to deal with cases that have been stuck in the bureaucracy for up to five years," she said.

She said the council backed her simply because she dared to apply for the job, which Roustaie admitted was a "teenage dream" of hers. In winning the post, she beat a male opponent backed by the town's deputy to the national parliament.

But the mayor has her work cut out, even if she has been earning points for heading with her team out onto Saveh's streets to meet and talk more with constituents.

The town has in recent years been flooded with some 40,000 migrant workers looking for work at its industrial, mining and agricultural facilities. There is an unmanaged labour structure, sloppy construction and overstretched public services.

The mayor also has a few ambitious projects up her sleeve: the "Ladies' Garden", a women-only cultural and sports complex which is the fourth of its kind nationwide; low-cost housing; a town computer centre and new cultural offices.

For whatever reasons, she admits some people in the small city of Saveh are upset.

"Some people have tried to set fire to one of the projects under construction. I get discouraging messages from people hoping that, in the end, I will give up," she explains.

A family woman who was the eldest of eight children, she says her father always asked her opinion. She ended up completing her education with a masters degree in management - one of the thousands of women who currently outnumber and outperform their male counterparts at universities in the Islamic republic.

And now her husband, an agricultural engineer, gives his support to her political career, having told her "you can!" when she first showed an interest in becoming mayor.

Islamic Iran's only other female mayor served from 2001 to 2003 in the small town of Firouzkoh to the east of Tehran. There are also just a small handful of women serving in parliament, even if women are seen working in public offices across the country.

But Roustaie, clad in the ubiquitous black chador, shies away from defining herself as a feminist. Instead, she prefers to point out what she does not like: male-chauvinism.

And women, she says, could also do much more to advance their position in society.

"I do not mind about what gender my staff are. I used to be a teacher, a member of the town's Women's Committee, an advisor to the governor, a member of the city council since its establishment in 1999. So I believe women are as guilty as men for not getting decent positions in society."


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