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.
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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.
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.