By Massoumeh Torfeh
28 Feb 2016
Iran's parliamentary elections this year included the highest number ever of women candidates from the combined reformist-moderate camp. Supporters of President Hassan Rouhani joined forces with the reformists presenting a combined list of 30 candidates for Tehran, eight - less than one-third - of which are women.
More or less, the same pattern was seen across the country. Photos of women candidates were branded around on campaign posters and the reformist media hailed this as a major success.
Despite persistent attempts by women to find a voice in the politics of the Islamic Republic, their presence has been minimal and, for the most part, cosmetic. It is now almost the norm that at important historical junctures, the male-dominated conservative establishment calls upon women to perform their "Islamic duty" and participate in elections. Once the elections are over, however, women's demands are forgotten.
Will Elections Change The Course Of Iranian Politics?
The encouragement to participate in this year's elections came first from the spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"There is no need for women to take permission from their husbands to take part in the elections," he said in one of his guidelines on elections.
Some newspaper columnists took this to be a liberating step. But since it is not a general edict and it refers only to women casting their vote, it can only be interpreted as a measure to persuade higher participation.
World Public Opinion
Rouhani followed suit, stressing the importance of the post-nuclear-deal environment, and saying: "Women's presence in elections is important for world public opinion."
Iran 37 years later: Any hope for reforms?
"Everyone who's qualified - whether male or female - should participate in the elections to the parliament and to the Assembly of Experts," said the president.
Iranian women who played a significant role in the revolution of 1979 have been pushed back time and again by the establishment not just on the Islamic dress code, but with all kinds of curtailments on their legal rights ...
Both elections were held simultaneously on Friday. But the Guardian Council has not approved a single woman candidate for the Assembly of Experts. And for the parliamentary elections, the council only approved a minimum of the lesser-known women out of the 1,400 who had registered.
Soheila Jelodarzadeh, one of the "moderate" women candidates, announced that the elections should be regarded as the 'nuclear deal number two' in which "the government would give the nation its rights".
Another, Parvaneh Salahshoor, recalled how effective women had been in the outgoing parliament: "Women gave 42 written warnings and posed 10 questions to ministers."
This clearly shows how limited the function of women is in the 290-seat parliament, which presently only has eight women MPs, one of the lowest levels in the world.
Yet, the publicity goes on.
"Iran has attained great achievements in women empowerment," says Shahindokht Molaverdi, vice president for Women and Family Affairs. As one of the few women in a high-level post she admits there are difficulties in "gender equality and women empowerment", which she believes are due to the "natural differences" that exist between men and women.
Those "natural differences", plus the strict Islamist interpretations of women's role in society, have dwarfed women's progress in the parliament, making it go one step forward and two steps back. There have been no major political views expressed by women in the parliament nor any persuasive suggestions on new legislation. Those who were outspoken have been barred.
Iranian women who played a significant role in the revolution of 1979 have been pushed back time and again by the establishment not just on the Islamic dress code, but with all kinds of curtailments on their legal rights, even over their basic demands for equal treatment in family laws and the custody of their children. Many women activists who defended these rights have been labelled as "feminists" or "agents of foreign countries".
Even at the height of the reform period in the two terms in office of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) in which there were 11 women MPs, no laws were changed to bring women any closer to equal rights.
"I was really keen to improve women's advancement to top jobs in the sixth Majlis," says Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, an outspoken woman MP in the Reformist-led parliament of May 2000, now in exile in the US.
"I advocated equal chances for top jobs for women. But almost everyone in the parliament, even my own reformist colleagues, disagreed with me."
Her point is crucial because it illustrates the fact that many of the women members of parliament do not necessarily seek equal rights even in the discriminatory laws of marriage divorce family or inheritance. This is either because they do not believe women should have equal rights or because they fear they will have no chance of success in Iran's political structure.
Reversing the Trend
Rouhani has tried to reverse the traditionalist trend by choosing three women deputies and a woman ambassador and has in his speeches invited women to be more active. But so far, he has failed to choose a woman minister, perhaps fearing rejection by the establishment.
That explains why the fight for equal rights has been mainly limited to the educated urban middle-class women whose frustration has intensified over the years.
Women bloggers, journalists and lawyers led the fight against the stoning of women to death. Thousands of women students marched across the country condemning violence against women and demanding equal rights. Women students called for academic freedoms to be included in candidates' policies.
Many women were sent to prison for being part of the international campaign, One Million Signatures. Leading members of the Stop Stoning Forever campaign were arrested in 2007. And several prominent women's and human rights lawyers have been arrested, barred from their practices and silenced over the years.
So, 37 years on, women in the Islamic Republic are still discriminated against in most aspects of family, social, economic and political life.
"Right to vote for all," Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted on Monday.
"Right to vote is a joke without the right to free elections," replied the veteran women's rights activist, Shadi Sadr, now living in exile in London.
Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science specialising in Iran Afghanistan and Central Asia.