If there’s anything that can starkly depict Iran’s failure to include women in politics, it is the image of 73-year-old Azam Taleghani entering the Iranian Interior Ministry with a walker to register as a presidential candidate, only to be rejected a few days later. This was Taleghani’s fourth attempt, as she and other potential women candidates failed to make waves with the international media. On May 19 this year, Iran will elect its eighth president – and once again, it will be a man. Out of the 137 women – the highest number ever – who had registered to run for the Iranian presidential elections 2017, a total of zero were selected to be presidential candidates.
Electoral decisions in Iran are taken by its most powerful political body, the Guardian Council. It is the upper house of the Iranian Parliament and has twelve members all of whom are men. Women have been banned from standing as candidates for the Council. The Council announced this year that it would allow women candidates to run for president.
The announcement, however, became a token gesture as none of the women were selected. In fact, women had anyway been applying for candidacy since 1997 and had been disqualified every single time. The Iranian constitution does not actively prohibit women from running for President. It says the candidacy is open to ‘Rijal-e-Siasi’, interpretations of which have implied that the candidacy is open to only men. Activists have called for the removal of the term altogether.
“For us, it’s clear that this word definitely means ‘men.’ And the fact is that in the past 38 years, since the Islamic Revolution, every woman who has put herself forward as a candidate for the office of president has been rejected. We want to change that. We – by which I mean the whole spectrum of women’s rights activists – want this word to be changed,” Iranian women’s rights activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh said in an interview to German news website Deutsche Welle.
The precedent was set by Azam Taleghani, member of the Society of Islamic Revolution Women of Iran, editor of Payam Hajar Weekly, and formerly member of the Iranian parliament (elected in 1980), who became the first Iranian woman to have announced her candidacy for president. Twenty years later, there has been no candidacy even as women apply for it every year. Taleghani applied in 2001, 2009 and in 2017, getting disqualified each time after the vetting process, which was conducted by the Guardian Council. They have never been given an explanation for not letting women be presidential candidates.
“The religious politicians did not admit their real reason for excluding women; however, it was clear that these women were excluded because of their gender and the conservative male-centred interpretation of the laws that state women are not considered to be statesmen – rijal,” Jamileh Kadivar, member of Iranian parliament from 2000 to 2004, told Turkish news outlet TRT World.
In the 2013 presidential elections, the Guardian Council categorically barred women from running for President. The Council had then said that, “women lack the intellectual capacity and understanding to stand.”
Ironically, at the same time, Zahra Rahnavard, wife of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, is being touted as a very consequential possible first lady. In the 2009 elections, she drew comparisons with former US First Lady Michelle Obama with her actively supporting her husband’s presidential campaign, a feat she is repeating this year as well. However, before the elections in 2009, she had stated that she had her own identity: “I am not Michelle Obama. I am Zahra Rahnavard. But I do respect all women activists, wherever they are in the world.” Rahnavard has been extremely vocal about women’s rights in the country. She lost her position as the chancellor of Al-Zahra women’s university after inviting Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, to the university. Ebadi is a controversial figure as conservative Iranians disregard her noble win, citing it as political. She has been extremely critical of the Iranian regime and has been in exile in the UK since 2009.
Rahnavard’s ferocious stand in a conservative world makes her a strong first lady – yet not a strong enough candidate for president.
Iranian journalist Fateme Karimkhan, in an interview to TRT World, rued the lack of a strong woman presidential candidate. “Right now our problem is not about the Guardian Council. It is about the person. The question is who is appropriate that much for their work. Our political parties are not that powerful in training political figures and this is our real problem. All those who were nominated for presidency in the last 37 years were famous political figures, we do not have such things among women,” she said.
The Iranian Parliament has, however, seen more participation of women. In 2016 parliamentary elections, 18 women were elected to the parliament. Until a woman leader comes to power, women in Iran have pinned their hopes on incumbent President Hassan Rouhani who has made inroads for his reformist attitude toward women in all spheres.