Iranian women wait to cast their ballots for the 11th Parliamentary elections at a polling station in Shah Abdol-Azim Shrine in Tehran on February 21, 2020. Photo: AFP / Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency

Iran’s all-male Guardian Council, after four decades of barring women from the presidency, has reversed course to allow women to run in 2021.

The step has been largely welcomed as a positive sign by women’s rights advocates, although the constitutional watchdog tasked with overseeing Iran’s electoral process screens all candidates’ eligibility for elected government positions.

In a press conference on October 10, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the spokesperson of the ultra-conservative body, which operates under the aegis of the Supreme Leader, surprised reporters by saying there was no prohibition on women running for the presidency in next year’s elections.

No explicit legal provision blocked women’s path to the presidency previously in Iran.

Article 115 of the Islamic Republic Constitution stipulates that the president should be picked from among the country’s political and religious rijal who is a national of Iran, pledges allegiance to the principles of the Islamic Republic, enjoys a favorable public reputation and subscribes to the country’s official religion, Shia Islam.

Originally an Arabic word, rijal literally means “men,” and the Guardian Council lawyers, for more than four decades, have taken the word at its face value in their exegesis of the constitution, denying women the right to become president.

Critics of the council say rijal in the context of the constitution was meant to denote political and religious figures in general, not necessarily male personalities. Yet neither the constitution was ever amended to polish the cryptic wording, nor did the Guardian Council back away from its position disenfranchising women from assuming the highest elected office.

Iranian women, however, are represented on other levels of public administration, including vice-presidency, cabinet ministers, ambassadors, MPs and provincial directors.

The announcement by the powerful, rearguard council, marking a notable reversal in its hardline policies since 1979, is probably an appeal to Iranian women and youths on behalf of the establishment to reconcile them with the ballot box as more Iranians appear to be disillusioned with the political elites failing to handle the Covid-19 pandemic and a full-blown economic crisis exacerbated by merciless US sanctions.

The February legislative elections recorded the lowest turnout of any elections since the 1979 revolution in Iran, causing authorities to fear that people were incensed at the government. The nationwide turnout was announced to be 43%, while in Tehran, only 22% of eligible voters cast their ballots.

Now the leadership is hoping that the prospect of a woman being elected as the nation’s chief executive may inspire more Iranians to vote in next year’s polls, reinvigorating the state’s legitimacy.

A lecturer in Islamic civilizations at Dublin’s Trinity College and expert on women studies said the announcement was a “welcome acknowledgment of gender equality.”

“The Guardian Council’s announcement on women and presidential candidacy is as much political strategy as it is a substantial corrective to past injustice. Of course, women should be eligible to run in presidential elections in Iran and should have equal access to leadership positions on par with their male peers,” said Professor Roja Fazaeli.

In preceding years, a number of high-profile women in Iran have sought to challenge the odds and become president, distinctly carving their names in the world of politics.

One of them was Azam Taleghani, a former MP and daughter of the prominent theologian and reformist cleric Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, who registered for the presidency in five consecutive presidential elections from 1997 to 2017, and was disqualified by the Guardian Council on every occasion. She passed away in 2019.

Zainab Soleimani (C), daughter of Qasem Soleimani attends a commemorative ceremony held for her father commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, who was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq. Photo: Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office/Anadolu Agency

Women hardliners

The new opening, however, could pave the way for a rising class of hardline women leaders.

With the recent U-turn taken by the council, rumors have been swirling that Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, Iran’s first female cabinet minister, who was the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s health minister from 2009 to 2013 and one of his close disciples, is courting the Guardian Council to greenlight her for running in 2021.

And the January 3 assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani by the United States produced a new celebrity, especially cherished by conservatives and religious traditionalists: Soleimani’s daughter, Zeinab.

The 28-year-old, who once called the Secretary-General of Lebanon’s Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah her “uncle,” made the headlines after giving a blistering speech following the killing of her father.

While there have been no reports of her considering a run in 2021, she is expected to be the inheritor of the slain commander’s anti-US, anti-West legacy.

Shahla Haeri, an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University and one of the pioneers of Iranian anthropology, is not optimistic that the step heralds a significant reform.

“For the Guardian Council to make that announcement now, at a time when many are discouraged about the political situation in Iran and are not likely to vote, is more like a publicity stunt, to get some people excited and bring them to the polls and then again disqualify them,” she told Asia Times.

Alluding to the obscure approach of the Guardian Council to dealing with female nominees in presidential elections, Haeri said the vetting body at no time overtly discouraged women from submitting bids so as not to give the impression that its decisions were sexist.

Yet it never approved any female candidates for presidential contests.

Iranian women live in the shadow of hardliners Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, and late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Photo: AFP/Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto

Even though female Iranian politicians registered as presidential nominees in every presidential election in the past 40 years – in 2001 47 women submitted their names – “the Guardian Council continued to disqualify them without clarifying its position one way or another,” said Haeri.

“Why bother to raise women’s anger about the matter when it could simply disqualify them and was under no obligation to state its reasons for doing so?” Haeri added.

Porochista Khakpour, an award-winning Iranian-American novelist and a former visiting assistant professor at Bucknell University, said she was cautiously optimistic about the decision being a precursor of change for Iranian women, adding that the Guardian Council’s announcement should not be viewed in isolation.

“The Islamic Republic has a real human rights problem and that needs to be dealt with. In some ways, I worry that these gestures are distractions,” she said.

“I think they are also great publicity, especially where the West is concerned, and we know the clerics have become increasingly interested in engaging with the West through social media,” she told Asia Times.

Women rights movement

Iranian women have been battling for equal rights and redemption from discrimination for more than a century, and it was in 1910 when the first signs of an eclectic women’s movement emerged in tandem with the Iranian Constitutional Revolution.

Many gains were made – and there were setbacks – until the Islamic Revolution of 1979 forced the movement into a temporary hibernation and a torrent of legislation was unleashed restricting women’s liberties on account of being in conflict with Islam.

Male guardianship laws and a compulsory hijab were some of these new edicts.

As time went by and the revolutionary fever of the 1980s tapered off, more educational, occupational and political opportunities were accorded to Iranian women and discriminatory measures were moderated.

But there are still many gaps that remain to be bridged and a thorny path to be trodden until what some observers call a “gender apartheid” in Iran is entirely vanquished.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, chronicling the extent of gender-based disparities in the areas of economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment, has assigned the rank 148 to Iran out of 153 countries surveyed.

“While women in Iran have the right to vote, to drive, to education and to run for parliamentary elections, the list of rights they are still fighting for is endless,” said Samaneh Savadi, an Iranian gender equality activist based in Brighton, Britain.

“In some cases, these are very basic human rights such as the guardianship of their children, the right to divorce, leave the country and take jobs under the marital contract. In addition to those, women are facing the patriarchy culture that overshadows their existence and control of their bodies, such as honor killing and female genital mutilation,” she added.

Savadi argued that the women now in charge of government positions were not representative of the majority of Iranian women.

“While I strongly believe that there are many eligible women in Iran to fill positions in the government bodies, those who are occupying them these days are not representing the diversity in the community of women. A woman needs to oblige with the compulsory hijab in order to be even considered for positions,” she said.

That would mean wearing it in a formal and strict Islamic style, not loosely draped or revealing hair, as many women do.

Professor Fazaeli of Trinity College, the author of Islamic Feminisms: Rights and Interpretations Across Generations in Iran, is optimistic that Iranian women can make headway in securing greater liberties and disentangling themselves from the labyrinth of inequality.

“In the past 40 years a number of different campaigns have demanded an end to legal discrimination focusing in particular on foregrounding women’s choice and agency, that is to wear or not wear the hijab,” she said.

“I am always positive that in whatever political climate Iranian women will persist in seeking to secure the civil liberties and social freedoms that they are rightfully entitled to.”

Women shoppers show some hair under their veils but only those who wear the strict Islamic headdress are picked for public office. Photo: AFP/Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto

Iran’s influential rival in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has introduced a catalog of reforms in recent years pertaining to women’s rights and has taken action to repeal many of the restrictions that curtail women’s civil and social liberties.

Even as prominent Saudi women’s rights activists languish in jail, there is hope in Iran that developments in Saudi Arabia will encourage the Islamic Republic to offer further reforms to women.

“Saudi Arabia appears to have opened up opportunities for women by realizing that the country cannot advance until women’s rights are improved in the kingdom,” said Leila Alikarami, an Iranian lawyer and associate member of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

What is needed, she added, is that “religious figures change their outlook toward women and the government demonstrates the political will to engage in such reforms, too.”