by Sussan Tahmasebi
A group of women’s rights activists issued a statement on May 6 outlining their demands for the next president of Iran. The statement, which calls for improved economic opportunities for women, reform of discriminatory laws, access to public spaces such as sports stadiums, and more appointments for women to managerial and cabinet positions in government, has received some press and attention. But it seems unlikely to bring about significant change in the focus or discourse of the presidential hopefuls. Nor will it probably force them to take a more proactive and progressive stance on women’s rights in the remaining 10 days before Iran’s presidential election.
Women’s social, economic and political demands have been largely and conspicuously absent from the presidential campaign, including the two public debates that have taken place thus far. Many women’s rights advocates and observers were outraged that the first debate, which focused on cultural and social issues, hardly broached the subject of women. Indeed, only one question with a two-minute allotted response time focused specifically on women, and that question prioritized the role of women in the family. The question—“What is your administration’s most important program for striking a balance between women’s employment and the protection of their roles within the family”—was directed at Rouhani, who discussed how, in his first four years, he had appointed women to high government and managerial positions in his administration and created jobs for them. But his response time was too short to allow for a broader discussion, and none of the other candidates had a chance to provide responses.
Since then the state broadcasting agency has also come under fire for allocating so little time to the discussion of women, framing that discussion by emphasizing women’s primary role within the family. and not posing more questions on women’s issues. In an interview with Shahrvand Daily Tehran MP Parvaneh Salahshouri asked the following: “how is it that social issues are addressed but the demands of half of society are not taken into consideration?” She went on to claim that the exclusion of women’s issues in the first debate “demonstrates the usual perspective of the State Broadcasting Agency (IRIB) toward women and their demands.”
What the Candidates Say
The candidates themselves also failed to take the opportunity to present their perspectives on women beyond general statements when discussing other social and cultural issues. For example much of the discussion in the first debate focused on marginalized and informal communities. This discussion could have easily focused on women who make up a large percentage of this sector and face disproportionate problems as a result.
Social media users, however, have used various platforms to bring attention to the problematic perspective on women of the main conservative candidates, Ibrahim Raisi and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf,. Some social media critics poked fun of comments made by Ibrahim Raisi in a promotional campaign video. During an interview in the video, Raisi explains that his wife asked for his permission to get a Ph.D. Many saw Raisi’s statement as a sign of backwardness and began warning that a win for him could turn back social gains 100 years. Although many Iranian families may enjoy more equal relations in the home, husbands in fact do have the right to prevent their wives from continuing their education, seeking employment, or traveling, which most reformist politicians poking fun of Raisi seem to have forgotten.
During the second debate, one of the conservative candidates Mohammad Qalibaf, who is currently the mayor of Tehran, claimed that through appointments he had managed to increase the presence of female managers in the Tehran municipality to 13% of all managers. Those figures were quickly fact-checked and found to be incorrect. Posts stating that only1% of managers in the Tehran municipality were in fact female began to pop up on various social media. Qalibaf has also been targeted on social media for previous proposals to segregate women and men in the Tehran municipality. In fact in a recent rally in Hamedan, Rouhani warned the crowd that his conservative opponents had decided to segregate men and women on public sidewalks, similar to orders issued to segregate their places of work. “You don’t know them, I know them” Rouhani warned.
The Promise of Rouhani
For those who support women’s rights, Rouhani seems to promise the greatest hope. On social media, his promotional video received praise for mentioning women’s employment and their accomplishments in the area of sports. Although most of Rouhani’s campaign messages on women have focused largely on women’s employment and the appointment of women to high and mid-level government positions, he too has been criticized for not paying enough attention to women’s issues. For instance, on May 9, the women’s branch of Rouhani’s campaign held a rally in Tehran to address women’s issues. Rouhani’s speech echoed the same limited pronouncements he has made on women since the start of the campaign and failed to provide details on women’s rights and needs for his second term.
Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, Rouhani’s vice president for women’s affairs, tends to be popular for her efforts to push for women’s rights and to respond to women’s needs. But Rouhani has been accused of not providing her support to carry out her work or defending her after repeated attacks by the conservative right over the last few years.
Mowlaverdi has defended her programs and women’s progress through press interviews and posts on her Facebook and Twitter accounts. On social media she praised the efforts of Azam Taleghani who has been registering for over a decade as a presidential candidate with the aim of pushing the Guardian Council, which is charged with vetting presidential candidates, “to once and for all clarify whether women can actually run for and be elected as president in the Islamic Republic.” Applauded by women’s rights advocates, Taleghani was ridiculed by the hardline press, who even poked fun of her showing up to register as a candidate with the help of a walker. On her Facebook page, Mowlaverdi wrote an impassioned defense of Taleghani and slammed those who criticized her. Using the hashtag #tangible_changes, many on social media argued that Mowlaverdi’s presence in the cabinet was progress enough to justify a vote for Rouhani.
The reformist Eshaq Jahangiri has received the greatest praise on his stance on women’s issues. Currently Rouhani’s vice president, Jahangiri is also running for the presidency, though he’s expected to withdraw in favor of Rouhani before election day. In an interview on state television, Jahangiri expressed regret that virtually half the population of “this country are the most wronged group, neither their honor nor their rights are protected.” His comments spurred a wave of support on social media, and the hashtag #WeAreThe49Percent appeared so that those who support women’s rights can chime in and make their demands known.
Many observers believe that the lack of positive attention to the needs and demands of women by the presidential candidates reflect a women’s movement that has been largely silent and inactive over the last four years and that has come together for the election. However, the May 6 statement signed by over 180 activists calls for greater freedom for civil society organizations that promote women’s rights. Perhaps the coming together of activists during the presidential campaign to issue this list of demands will be the impetus to reinvigorate the women’s movement beyond the elections.
Photo: Azam Taleghani registers for the 2017 presidential election.
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