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The (Slow) Rise of Iran’s Women

Gender discrimination is still an issue, especially in high office, but progress is being made.

By Faezeh Samanian for

Nearly 35 years after the Islamic Revolution, gender discrimination is still a challenging issue for Iran. On the one hand, the situation for Iranian women has improved considerably in many respects under the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). On the other, there is a clear and seemingly impregnable ceiling for women in administrative and government positions.

Iranian Women Under the Islamic Republic

In some ways, women have enjoyed significant gains under the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowhere is this more true than in education. In 1976, on the eve of the Revolution, the female literacy rate was a mere 35 percent. Despite the turmoil of the revolution and the imposed war with Iraq, by 1986 this rate had risen to 52 percent. Today, Iranian girls between the ages of 15 and 24 enjoy near universal literacy.

These gains are also reflected in education levels, which have greatly improved as part of the IRI’s commitment to providing universal education. For example, the female enrollment rate for primary education institutions is actually higher than it is for males. Women also graduate from their primary education programs at the same rate as their male counterparts. And despite new restrictions on what they can study, Iranian women are also strong participants in secondary education, with the female general enrollment rate in secondary education about 86 percent of the male rate.

In many ways, the high female education rate also extends to employment, especially since 1992 when the High Council of the Cultural Revolution adopted a new set of employment policies for women. Although women are unemployed at a rate of roughly twice that of men, one-third of doctors, 60 percent of civil servants, and 80 percent of teachers in Iran are women, according to the British historian Michael Axworthy.

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One area where Iranian women continue to face clear obstacles is in the upper reaches of the Iranian government. For example, around 30 women signed up to run for president earlier this year, but the Guardian Council – Iran’s constitutional watchdog – rejected their candidacies based solely on gender. As Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdii, a conservative cleric and member of the Guardian Council explained at the time, the “law does not approve” of women running for president.

Women vs Clergy

Indeed, the clergy have long been the fiercest opponents of women holding senior political positions, opposition that dates at least as far back as to the Western-backed Shah’s regime. In fact, before the Revolution, two women served as cabinet ministers under the Amir-Abbas Hoveida premiership. Even during that time, however, religious leaders used their power to prevent these female ministers from playing crucial roles in governing the country.

This competition between women seeking a senior role in public life and conservative clergy opposition has continued during the Islamic Republic. It’s been a long struggle, but Iranian women have continued to chip away at many of the restrictions.

Although women served in parliament during the 1980s and early 1990s, the taboo against a woman serving as an administrative official and in a top management position was finally broken during the reform presidency of Seyed Mohammad Khatami.

The reform period under Khatami in fact greatly enhanced the role of women in public life. To begin with, he appointed Masoumeh Ebtekar as vice president in charge of environmental protection, the first time a woman had served as a vice president. Despite his reputation as a hardliner, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad built on Khatami’s record. For example, he initially tapped Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, a former parliamentarian who was close to Ahmadinejad, to be his Minister of Health and Medical Education. This made her the first woman to serve as a minister under the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad went on to appoint five women as vice presidents during his time in power.

Still, progress has been uneven. For instance, in December of last year Ahmadinejad fired Vahid-Dastjerdi as the Minister of Health and Medical Education. More recently, Nina Siahkali Moradi was elected to a seat on the city council in Qazvin, only to be prevented from taking her position by religious conservatives who disqualified her…for being too attractive. As Moradi’s case demonstrates, progress aside, Iran still has a long way to go when it comes to women’s rights in public life.

Prospects for the Rouhani Era

Some hope that the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of the eleventh government will help further the rights of women in Iranian public life. To date, there have been mixed signs.

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On the one hand, Rouhani has chosen not to appoint any women to his Council of Ministers. In a speech last month he explained away this decision by remarking that he had not used women in any ministerial positions due to the country’s “special conditions.” He later stated that he did not believe that appointing a single woman as government minister would result in gender equality.

On the other hand, the release of his all-male cabinet sparked sharp criticism and last month he appeared to respond to this pressure by making Elham Aminzadeh vice president for legal affairs. In addition, he advised his male ministers to employ women in their respective departments.

Perhaps more promising, in his election manifesto Rouhani promised to establish a Ministry for Women. Some women's rights activists, such as Fatemeh Rakei, a reformist MP, have come out in support of the proposal, stating that it would help women’s rights issues receive more funds from the government.

By contrast, Shahla lahiji, a writer, publisher, translator and director of Roshangaran – a prominent publishing house on women's issues – believes Rouhani should be bolder, stating: “Iran is not Afghanistan nor Pakistan, the wishes of Iranian woman have been glossed over by having only one woman in the Ministry and that’s all.  If we take into account the 50% of female university graduates, 40% of the official seats should be filled by women in the near future whether the government wants it or not.”

There have been other encouraging signs. For example, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seems to have taken Rouhani’s advice to appoint women to heart, naming Marzieh Afkham, former head of the Foreign Ministry’s Public Relations Department, the first ever Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.  Afkham, 48, is a career diplomat and has been praised by her predecessor, Abbas Araqhchi, who called her "seasoned and experienced." Meanwhile, Farideh Farhi, a prominent Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, called Zarif’s appointment of Afkham an “extremely bold move.”  

Zarif appears to have more such moves in store. According to reports, he also plans to appoint Mansoureh Sharifi Sadr, currently the Foreign Ministry's Director of the Women and Human Rights Department, as the Islamic Republic’s first ever female ambassador. Already, Sadr has served as Iran’s deputy ambassador to Japan. Moreover, according to Abbas Araghchi, the former Foreign Ministry’s Spokesman, Zarif is also considering another woman as Iran’s representative to the UN in Geneva, although Araghchi refused to identify who the candidate was, instead saying that her name would be announced later.

Women Representing Iran

Following these decisions, it is apparent that Rouhani and his cabinet are sending a strong message to the rest of the world by appointing women to government positions. Although no women are serving in ministerial positions, they will are being appointed as Iran’s diplomats. Therefore, they will become the face Iran shows to the rest of the world.

This should improve Iran’s image abroad. For years, Iran has been considered by many to be an egregious human rights violator, especially when it comes to women and children’s rights. By appointing women to diplomatic roles, Rouhani and his cabinet are increasing the respect foreign nations have for Iran even as the president fulfills an electoral promise to place women in his government.

In his inaugural address, Rouhani asked the world to “talk to Iran in reverence not in treatment.” Female diplomats will undoubtedly help him form relationships with the world based on mutual respect and peace.

Faezeh Samanian is a Graduate Student at the Korea Development Institute’s (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management in Seoul, South Korea. She specializes in Political Economy and International Relations.