by Sussan Tahmasebi
Iran’s tenth parliament will begin its term in June boasting many firsts, including the highest number of female parliamentarians. In Iran’s first round of parliamentary elections, 14 female MPs were elected, and, according to the results of Iran’s run-off parliamentary elections held on April 29, an additional four women have been elected as MPs.
However, the exact number of female MPs serving in Iran’s tenth parliament remains a hotly contested issue. The Guardian Council voided the votes given to Minou Khaleghi, a candidate from Isfahan who received the third highest number of votes in the city. The Guardian Council’s ruling in turn has received some pushback from prominent MPs, such as Ali Motahari and more recently by President Hassan Rouhani. These critics have claimed that the Guardian Council doesn’t have the authority to disqualify MPs or to void votes received after elections results have been tallied and elections declared fair. Further, they argue, only parliament itself has the right to disqualify MPs after election.
Even if it turns out to be only 17 female MPs, this parliament improves on the previous record held by the fifth parliament of 14 female MPs. Nevertheless, at 6 percent, the number of women in parliament falls well below the 30 percent quota that some leading women, mostly reformists, had advocated for in the lead up to the parliamentary elections. The numbers also fall short of those advocated for by a campaign to “Change the Male Face of Iran’s Parliament,” by ensuring the election of 50 female MPs.
However, the election of these 18 female MPs remains significant on other counts, including the fact that the majority identify as reformists and supporters of Rouhani’s government. The MPs are all highly educated, professional women, and mostly young, which positions these women well to represent the concerns of Iranian women, especially professional, educated, and independent women, who have long demanded equality. During their tenure, the MPs will also likely advocate for social reforms, including reforms to women’s legal and social status with a view to ending legal and social discrimination.
In fact, many observers are less concerned with the makeup of the parliament and more concerned with what their elected officials will do to improve the lives of Iranians. All Iranians will be watching to see what the female MPs do to support reforms for women. To push forward a positive agenda in support of women’s rights is a difficult task at best. It would require a careful and well orchestrated balancing act by the female MPs to garner the support of their male colleagues, ensure support of Iran’s president as well as his ministers and governors, and ensure successful coordination with the office of the vice president for women’s affairs to introduce and push for legislation in support of women. A successful strategy in support of women’s rights also requires an engaged public that is vocal on women’s rights and an active women’s movement to push various state bodies to create change.
Although few question the qualifications of men who enter politics, women are not judged so lightly. In Iran, like many other countries, arguments against women’s inclusion in politics, including their appointment as cabinet ministers or in other leadership positions, rest heavily on lack of experience. Basing political appointments and leadership on merit and past experience has often been an argument to exclude women.
So, those supporting as well as those opposing women’s leadership will likely be watching closely the performance of the female MPs to bolster their arguments. Of the women elected to the tenth parliament, only Soheila Jelodarzadeh has political experience, having served as an MP in the fifth, sixth, and seventh parliaments. The others are newcomers to the political realm, as are many of those elected on the reform and moderate coalition list.
As political analyst Said Hajjarian has observed, the more prominent reformers were mostly disqualified, so the final list of reformers included in the coalition list represented the third or fourth tier of preferred candidates. Many were even relative unknowns to reformists and moderates, but still they made the ticket. As such, all of these rather inexperienced politicians may potentially make the parliament ineffective. Of course, unlike its predecessor, this Parliament is expected more than anything to cooperate with the president in implementing moderate reforms.
Further, given that most of the women in this parliament have no real political experience their positions vis-à-vis women’s rights or whether they even have a gender perspective remain unknown. They may not be concerned with women’s issues or work for social reforms simply because they are women.
Coalition of Unknowns
Although the coalition of reformers and moderates in support of the government of Hassan Rouhani can claim a slight majority at 40%, they do not have a strong majority (the independents are at slightly over 30% and the conservative-hardliners slightly below 30%). .Additionally, this reformist-moderate coalition contains a range of candidates who may differ significantly on social issues and especially issues that pertain to women, which tend to be sensitive and ideologically charged.
For example, although some relatively progressive reformers have been elected as part of the reformist-moderate coalition, others are progressive on hard political issues but seriously regressive on women’s issues. Ali Motahari, who was listed second on the reformist-moderate coalition list and received a high vote in Tehran, has been outspoken and progressive on a range of political issues, such as the 2009 protests and the need to free political prisoners. He is especially notorious for his insistence on ending the house arrest of the Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard. For this reason he has been popular with voters and a valued member of the reformist-moderate coalition that Rouhani supports.
At the same time he is infamous for his regressive stance on women, such as urging greater restrictions on women’s dress. So, even if female MPs want to create change in favor of women, they will face a considerable amount of resistance from the elected MPs identifying themselves as reformist or moderate candidates.
Independent and Undecided
The tenth parliament is significant in many respects beyond boasting the highest number of female MPs. It is also the first parliament to include such a high percentage of independent candidates: 65 seats or slightly over 30%. Being independent does not mean that candidates come to their parliamentary posts without political and ideological leanings. Choosing to run as independents has been more of an election tactic for most candidates. By disassociating themselves from reformists, many independent candidates aimed to avoid Guardian Council disqualification. By disassociating themselves from conservative and principalist candidates, especially those close to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, some candidates running as independents sought to ensure public support and votes.
The ideological leanings of many of these independent candidates will become clearer as the tenth parliament begins it activities and members join various factions. Mohammad Reza Aref, the chair of the High Council of Reformists, has already promised the establishment of the Hope (or Omid) faction of the parliament, which will include reformist and moderate/centrist MPs. In the weeks remaining before the start of the term, Aref intends to hold a conference to identify members and establish an agenda for the faction. They will likely draw from those who ran on the Reform-Moderate coalition platform and a good percentage of the independent MPs to form a strong voting block.
Those who join this faction may be more likely to support a reform agenda, but it is unclear whether that agenda will include significant reforms in favor of women. So, even if the majority of independents identify for a variety of reasons with reformist and centrist agendas, the female MPs will have to work hard to gain their support for reforms on women’s rights.
To Unify or Not
To come together in a unified and influential manner may also prove to be a challenge for female MPs. If they are able to come together on a range of issues and act as a determining force in critical votes in the parliament, they will be well positioned to act as a block and negotiate for their respective priorities. This may still prove a challenge given their limited political experience and the possibility that they may not agree on all issues related to women. At the same time, this strategy may also prove to be the only mechanism by which they can be effective and powerful and seen in a positive light by observers and the public alike. It may serve them well to set aside differences from the start and come up with a common agenda and strategy to harness the male-dominated parliament in their own favor.
To effectively push forward an agenda of reform in support of women’s rights, female MPs may well decide to align themselves with the government’s agenda. After all, the pro-government forces in parliament have a slight majority. Although independent MPs may be vulnerable to the pressures of the conservatives and hardliners, it is quite likely that they will align themselves with the government on a range of issues to ensure that budgets are allocated to and programs implemented in their districts. So, working with the government—and, in particular, the vice president for women’s affairs—may prove an effective strategy for female MPs to gain support for reforms in favor of women’s rights.
However, MPs must keep in mind the challenges to this approach. First, they can’t work too closely with the government and the office of the vice president for women’s affairs in order not to compromise their independence as a branch separate from the executive. Second, although the vice president for women’s affairs has been a strong advocate for women’s rights, she has not received the full support of the government, the ministers, or even the president. In fact, she has been under constant attack by conservative factions within the state and the security sector. So, the MPs would have to push the government to take the issue of women seriously, while preventing further backlash against the vice president and against themselves. To gain the support of their male colleagues in such an environment, female MPs may be forced to offer a moderate agenda.
The leadership of the parliament—whether it will be Mohammad Reza Aref or Ali Larijani, for instance—will also play a significant role in this respect. Aref, a staunch reformist with progressive ideas, including on social issues and women’s rights, will in all likelihood face resistance from conservative candidates and conservative structures and powers within the state, especially on controversial social issues. Larijani, on the other hand, is a long-time conservative, albeit a moderate one, who is in good standing with Rouhani and many reformists. His brother heads the conservative judiciary and so he wields some power and maintains better relations with conservative factions within the State. Social reform proposals, even those on women, will in all likelihood face less resistance from conservative actors if they are endorsed by Larijani. At the same time what Larijani endorses on women’s rights, will be limited and minimal at best.
Issues that may be taken up by the parliament successfully include some of the less controversial issues endorsed by the office of the vice president and the president in recent years: support to vulnerable women (including female heads of households), women’s empowerment programs, and support for addicted, homeless, or HIV-positive women. Further increasing women’s employment, promoting women’s entrepreneurship, increasing the numbers of women in leadership and decision-making positions, even establishing quotas for female MPs might also fall into this category. More controversial and subject to conservative backlash, despite being longstanding demands of the women’s movement on the agenda of the vice president for women’s affairs, would be reforms to laws, adoption of legislation designed to prevent and address violence against women, and a more progressive interpretation of religious laws, especially those governing the family and personal status. Likewise, the issue of women attending sports matches and women’s dress or forced veiling are politically charged issues and will prove difficult for female MPs to tackle.
Women’s Handicap or Women’s Agenda?
To make matters worse, female MPs will face restrictions and challenges simply because they are women. For instance, their husbands by law have the power to prevent them from going to work and from traveling. In September 2015, the husband of the 30-year-old captain of the Iranian women’s soccer team prevented her from traveling to Malaysia to compete in the Asian Football Championship. The case made headlines and angered officials as well as women. Perhaps a progressive and effective women’s faction in parliament can capitalize on similar instances that have sparked public outrage to build support for a women’s agenda and to create change.
The nullification of the votes cast for Minou Khaleghi is another case in point. Although there has been little official explanation about the Guardian Council’s decision to nullify these votes, rumors and unofficial explanations point to inappropriate fraternization with the opposite sex, namely, shaking hands with an unrelated man while traveling outside Iran. This is just one example of the scrutiny women in the public eye, and especially those in positions of power, have to face.
The MPs will face even greater pressure, especially from hardliners, if they advocate reforms for women. Consider the case of the Iranian vice president for women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. She has been under severe and consistent attack by hardliners since she took the position, simply because of she is a reformist with a civil society background and seems determined to create real and positive change for women.
Despite all the challenges that female MPs face as women and in their roles advocating for women, their presence in the Iranian parliament—along with that of a progressive vice president for women’s affairs in the executive branch—is a huge advantage and opportunity for Iranian women. Perhaps this opportunity will galvanize a beleaguered women’s movement, which is still struggling to recover from the repressive policies of the Ahmadinejad era, the isolation and economic hardships suffered by many activists during the last seven years and the mass migration of some of the most influential members of the women’s movement.
Without the women’s movement to push for a women’s agenda and to organize demands on the part of the public, the task at hand for the vice president and MPs, will be close to impossible. Some women activists want to meet with the female MPs to make their demands known. The MPs would be wise to take them up on this invitation.
Photo: Shahindokht Molaverdi
Sussan Tahmasebi is an Iranian civil society and women’s human rights defender. Currently she is the director of the MENA/Asia Program at the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), which she co-founded in 2006. ICAN works to support women’s civil society organizations in the Middle East and North Africa and in Asia, to advocate for rights, peace, and security with a focus on countries impacted by conflict, extremism, and shrinking civil society space. Follow her on twitter @sussantweets