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Against All Odds; Iranian Women Will Continue to Push for Change

Author: Sussan Tahmasebi

The outgoing president failed to deliver on his bold promises to improve women’s rights, and the next government is also unlikely to advance legal reforms or social and economic opportunities. But women in Iran will nevertheless fight for improved rights and more equality.

Women and their issues rarely figure prominently in Iranian presidential elections. Women’s groups did manage, however, to infuse the political discourse with their more pressing demands during several previous elections. This year, though, the lack of attention to women’s demands, the superficial mention of a few issues in presidential debates, and the inability of candidates to even articulate minimally coherent policy proposals in response to women’s long-standing demands have demonstrated a serious regression, which can be attributed in great part to the absence of the independent women’s movement from the political scene and discussions.

Repression and marginalization are certainly to blame for this absence, but a sense of disillusionment, hopelessness, and apathy towards a political process that doesn’t respond to the demands of its citizens (especially women) is also a major factor. Like many other Iranians, women’s movement activists feel a sense of apathy towards the political process. The origins of this apathy include the state’s bloody crackdowns against protesters in November 2019 and December 2017, the downing of the Ukraine plane and the state’s lack of transparency and accountability on that issue, rising inflation, a poor economy, and increased corruption.

Beyond the political system’s broader shortcomings, the unrealized campaign promises of President Rouhani have also played a significant role in the decision of many movement activists to remain on the margins of the political process and to stay home on election day. Chief among those unfulfilled promises was Rouhani’s assurance to reduce the state’s securitized approach toward citizens. In fact, Rouhani’s ministry of intelligence and the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards have targeted women and other civil society activists at an unprecedented rate.

Many activists have lamented on social media that the Rouhani presidency, especially during his second term, was more repressive than the presidency of the hardliner Ahmadinejad. Women’s groups have come under fire, their non-government organizations have been shut down, and scores of activists have been arrested. The authorities have made the process of establishing NGOs even more restrictive than before.

Rouhani also failed to keep some of his most frequently vocalized promises, such as the establishment of a ministry of women’s affairs, the appointment of a female minister, preventing the morality police from harassing women for the way they are dressed, and facilitating women’s entry into sports stadiums, to name a few. What’s more, other seriously regressive policies, such as increased restrictions on women’s access to birth control and limitations on their reproductive rights, were pursued with greater vigor under the Rouhani administration, albeit by order of Iran’s supreme leader.

Some positive but limited developments in support of women – such as the introduction and adoption of a bill allowing women to pass on their nationality to their children, small loans programs for women entrepreneurs, and efforts to increase the number of women in mid-level managerial government positions – did occur during Rouhani’s presidency. Still, these limited efforts paled in comparison to Rouhani’s general lack of support for women’s empowerment and a gendered approach to governance. Further, Rouhani’s failure to support his VP for women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, who was under serious and constant attack by hardline forces throughout her tenure for being a “feminist,” made it clear to women that Rouhani was not committed to ending the serious and long-standing legal and social discrimination against women. It appears that his campaign promises were, more than anything, a means to garner votes.

The reformists who have consistently claimed, more in words than through deeds, to support women’s rights were largely silent over the past few years. They failed to hold Rouhani, a moderate candidate elected with support of reformist parties, to account for his failure to meet many of his campaign promises to women.

These shortcomings and disappointments have contributed to the absence of women activists from the political process and their refusal to articulate a set of demands or engage with reformists in the 2021 presidential elections. This has meant that no broader platforms in support of women’s rights were developed as part of the reformists’ campaign agendas.

This loss of ground was ironic given that this year marked the first time a reformist political party had backed a female candidate in the presidential elections. Zahra Shoajee, a reformist politician and the advisor to former president Khatami on women’s affairs, sought to run for president as one of 14 candidates put forth on the reformist consensus ballot. Her candidacy was seen as an effort to continue a long-running challenge to the Guardian Council, which refuses to clarify whether women can be elected as president. Needless to say, Shoajee, along with all other reformist candidates, was disqualified through the Guardian Council’s vetting process. The reason for her disqualification was not announced, meaning that the challenge and lack of clarity on the issue of women presidents will continue.

Women ministers and high-level appointments for women

One of the issues that did figure somewhat prominently in the discussions leading up to the presidential campaign and the official debates was the appointment of female ministers. Reformist women politicians have long demanded progress on this issue – as well as the appointment of women to other high-level decision-making roles in government – in order to address long-standing discrimination against women. Independent women’s movement activists added their voice to this particular demand in recent elections, namely in 2016 during Rouhani’s bid for a second term and through the Campaign to Change the Male Face of the Parliament, during which they encouraged women to run in the 2016 parliamentary elections.

Many reformist women and men continue to argue that women in positions of power would push for positive change for women. However, given the sensitivity and difficulty of advocating for women’s rights, the few women in high-level positions have not managed to achieve any significant progress on women’s rights. The theory actually backfired when Leila Vaseghi, the Rouhani-appointed municipal governor of Shahre-Qods, admitted to ordering the police to shoot protesters who entered the municipal building during the 2019 protests.

The issue of female ministers received much attention during Khatami’s two terms as president. Khatami, who was elected in large part because of the votes of women, chose not to take on the task of appointing a female minister, given its “sensitive” nature. Instead, he appointed Massoumeh Ebtekar as the first female vice president in charge of the department of environment for two terms. Rouhani, who twice ran on the promise of appointing women to ministerial positions and establishing a ministry of women’s affairs, also failed to meet his campaign promises. The only president who managed to appoint a female minister was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He made Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi the first and to date the only female minister in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. To the dismay of women, she held this unique position as part of an administration that systematically pushed back on women’s gains. An obstetrician-gynecologist, Dastjerdi held the distinction of being the lone female minister of health during a time when Iran dismantled its long-running, successful, and internationally acclaimed family planning program and introduced serious limitations on women’s reproductive rights.

One reason why the appointment of female ministers garnered more attention than other issues in the 2021 presidential debates is that reformist women had continually demanded progress on this issue over the last few years and in the months leading up to the election, to the exclusion of almost all other demands related to women’s rights. In fact, ministerial appointments and election of a female president characterized much of reformist women’s discussions during the lead up to campaigns, including discussions held on social media with candidate Zahra Shojaee.

The reformists’ lack of a comprehensive political agenda for women’s rights

In the absence of the resolve to force reformist candidates and parties to articulate and insist on a comprehensive set of demands in support of women’s rights or the ability to infuse the broader political debate with a discourse in support of basic rights for women, this incessant focus on the appointment of women to high-level decision-making positions seems more akin to an effort to share political power than a commitment to support women’s advancement and address discrimination.

During the presidential debates, conservative candidate Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi ridiculed the idea of appointing female ministers. Hashemi criticized commitments by reformist candidate Mehralizadeh and moderate candidate Hemmati, who respectively promised to appoint three and five female ministers if elected and if allowed. In jest, Hashemi claimed that his entire cabinet would be comprised of women ministers if it meant being elected. He then sharpened his critique, stressing the importance of appointing people based on merit rather than gender. This has been a staple argument of conservatives (and some reformists) countering demands for affirmative action to help women into high-level government positions.

As if that wasn’t enough, in a televised rant in response to criticisms launched against his administration’s record, Rouhani too ridiculed the focus on women. “It is only the government that is bad, the rest of the [system] is fine,” he lamented in response to televised presidential debates, “we hear better things these days too, how women are [all of a sudden] good, we have to pay attention to women and their rights… Let us not insult the intelligence of the public… they know better.” These reactions hammered home the point for many women that commitments to appoint female ministers don’t reflect a genuine commitment on the part of male politicians, reformist or conservative, to support women’s demands for equality and are instead intended to win votes and then perhaps share political power with female politicians.

Missed opportunities

The need to address Iran’s economic crisis was an important and central issue to the presidential debates. It was unfortunate, then, that all the presidential hopefuls overlooked the need for a discussion on women’s specific economic concerns. Before the pandemic the workforce participation rate for Iranian women was at 17% percent, which is one of the lowest worldwide. Iran’s economic crisis has hit Iranian women especially hard. In the first six months following the COVID-19 pandemic women lost over 700,000 jobs, i.e. nearly 15% of employed women lost their jobs. Women have continued to experience a decline in their employment rates throughout the COVID pandemic. While the candidates discussed improving the economy for Iranian families and addressing the livelihood crisis that many Iranians are facing, none mentioned the devastating economic situation of women, especially those heading households. Hemmati, the moderate candidate, who is an economist and former head of Iran’s Central Bank, provided the most comprehensive and technical plans to move Iran out of economic crisis. On several occasions during the debates he discussed the need to economically engage a wide sector of society, but he failed to offer any plans or solutions with respect to engaging women in the workforce.

Hemmati and the reform candidate Mehralizadeh tried to address the issue of the hijab, one of the more high-profile concerns of Iranian women. But instead of tackling the issue head on, they chose to dance around it. Hemmati criticized the monitoring of women’s dress and vowed that the harassment of women for their dress, which has led to violent encounters between police and women, would end under his watch. But he refused to commit to dismantling the morality police, which was a bold step taken by the reformist Khatami. The conservative candidate Rezaiee put forth a proposal to provide stay-at-home women with an income, but he failed to explain his plan any further and provide ideas on how he would do so.

Candidates also failed to take up other longtime issues of concern to women, such as the need to push for reforms to laws that discriminate against women or to address the violence against them. As in many other countries, in Iran violence against women spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along these lines, candidates failed to mention, much less commit to, the adoption and implementation of a law to protect female survivors of violence, a measure that had been in the works for 10 years and was finally submitted to parliament by the Rouhani administration as a last-minute effort. The measure was severely watered down by committees in parliament and by the judiciary since its introduction, but it has still not been passed into law.

Pushing for change against all odds

Even before the elections, the future for Iranian women did not offer much promise in the way of legal reform or increased social and economic opportunities. In general, given the sensitive nature of advocating women’s rights in Iran and the resistance of part of the state to women’s advancement, serious political will is needed in order to make real change in support of women’s rights. But conservatives do not seem to possess this political will, nor in fact do the reformists who have long claimed to stand with women.

Now, under a Raisi presidency, the situation will likely be especially bleak for women. He represents an ultra-conservative segment of Iranian society that believes that men and women complement one another for biological reasons and should therefore have different roles and enjoy different rights. This ideology also actively promotes, through incentives and disincentives, the idea that a woman’s primary role is to be a wife and mother. If the experience of Iranian women during the time of Ahmadinejad is any indication, the next four or perhaps eight years will bring serious pushback on women’s gains, with the state taking steps to limit women’s access to higher education and employment. Additionally, pro-natalist policies that severely restrict women’s access to reproductive health services will be pursued with vigor by a conservative administration, which will likely advocate and push for marriage at earlier ages through incentive programs. Currently the average age of marriage for women is around 25 years, but there has been an alarming increase in early marriages and even child marriages. Under Raisi’s government, we are sure to see further increases in the rate of child marriages. Needless to say, civil society and especially women’s organization will continue to face serious pressure and crackdowns.

Despite the bleak outlook, one can never underestimate the power of Iranian women, who have resisted some of the most regressive policies targeting their rights over the last 43 years, pushing to remove red lines and redefine social norms in the face of serious legal and cultural discrimination. In discussions on social media (especially Clubhouse), Iranian women activists are already putting forth ideas for how to advocate for and create change, with a special focus on influencing the thinking of a younger generation of Iranians. They recognize that, despite the extremely difficult road ahead, the next four or eight years will also be a time of transition that may indeed offer unexpected opportunities for advancing women’s rights. In other words, Iranian women, and especially activists, are already committing to an intense fight. They are intent on maintaining past gains while pushing for improved rights and more equality.