Iranian Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar takes part in a cabinet meeting in Tehran in April. Women are well represented in academic fields in the Islamic Republic but have not reached the pinnacle of power. Photo: Handout / Anadolu Agency

Iran’s Guardian Council, the powerful body in charge of electoral oversight, caught the public by surprise by announcing that women may run for the presidency in the 2021 polls that will decide the successor to Hassan Rouhani.

Some women’s rights activists welcomed the announcement as a harbinger of change in a highly conservative, patriarchal society. Others suggested the gesture was grandstanding by the government to draw more voters to the ballot box and polish its image.  

More than 60% of university students in Iran are female. Some of the country’s most brilliant authors, academicians, scientists, artists, philanthropists and media personalities are women. Global examples are 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, the late mathematics prodigy and recipient of the Fields Medal Maryam Mirzakhani, and Anousheh Ansari, the first female space explorer, who is Iranian-American.

Yet the road to justice and elimination of disparities that cast a dark shadow over the fortunes of Iranian women remains rocky. The Statistical Center of Iran reported in 2014 that women constituted only 16.6% of the workforce.

Iranian women continue to complain about stringent male-guardianship laws, a rigid compulsory hijab code, and being excluded from social and cultural participation.

Leila Alikarami (above) is an Iranian lawyer and human-rights advocate. She is an associate member of the Center for Iranian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is also the recipient of an Anna Politkovskaya Award from RAW (Reach All Women) in War.

Asia Times spoke to Dr Alikarami about women being permitted to run for the presidency and the gains and challenges of the women’s rights movement in Iran.

Kourosh Ziabari: Is the Guardian Council’s backtracking from its long-standing position about women’s eligibility for running in presidential elections a significant precursor of change? Is this something that should make Iranian women optimistic about the future? 

Leila Alikarami: Based on Article 115 of the constitution, the president must be elected from among religious and political personalities – rejal – who possess specific qualifications mentioned in the same article. 

During the ratification of the constitution, there was disagreement among members of the Guardian Council about this term. There were two opinions about the word rejal. One view was that rejal refers to both men and women. Therefore, both men and women are eligible to be candidates for presidency. The other group believed that the president should only be elected from among men.

At the end, the word rejal was approved, which in Arabic refers to both men and women.

Therefore, based on the constitution, there is no restriction for women to be president. However, we have witnessed that the ambiguity of Article 115 prevented women from being qualified as candidates for the presidency.

Women have been applying for candidacy since 1997 and have been disqualified every single time. The late Azam Taleqani tried very hard to address this issue throughout her lifetime. She applied in 2001, 2009 and in 2017. She was disqualified each time after the vetting process conducted by the Guardian Council. The Council did not give an explanation for disqualifying her and other women.

As there is no consensus about the word rejal, the recent position of the Guardian Council would not change the current situation for women. Majles [the parliament] is clarifying the criteria for qualification of the candidates, which did not include the definition of the word rejal. Therefore, the ambiguity of Article 115 remains the same as before.

As women are, in practice, excluded possibly because of their gender and narrow interpretation of the word rejal, Iranian legislators should address this issue clearly and settle the ambiguity of law.  

KZ: Does it make you proud that there are female vice-presidents and cabinet members in the administration and female members of parliament? Are they representing the voices and aspirations of the collective of Iranian women with all of their differences and heterogeneous interests?

LA: Iranian women are highly educated and talented. They make up half of university graduates in Iran, for example. Still, I cannot say that I am proud that a few women are amongst the high-level politicians in Iran. Unfortunately, we do not have [anywhere] close to the number of women present in decision-making positions that one would want to see.

According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, Iran ranks among the worst countries in terms of female political empowerment. Moreover, most women who rise to the level of decision-makers do not usually advocate for a women’s rights agenda, and those that do are often quickly driven out of government by socially conservative forces. 

KZ: What are the most notable demands Iranian women are fighting for? Are you positive that under the current political climate, Iranian women can make headway in securing more civil liberties and personal, social freedoms?

LA: Iranian women are still fighting for gender equality. They have suffered legal discrimination both before and after the 1979 revolution. Their struggle to bring the country’s laws in line with social realities is an ongoing process.

Despite periods of intense bargaining and large-scale campaigns, which receive popular support even from within the complex echelons of the Islamic Republic’s political elite, the underlying political-legal framework has resisted this round of efforts to bring about tangible change.

There are many reasons to explain these challenges in Iran. But the real issue is the various interpretations of sharia law and, more important, the resistance of the conservative establishment to significant improvements in the status of women.

The hardliners in the government mistakenly saw women’s rights advocates as political opponents and worked to control, confront and repress them. Yet they explicitly expressed their major aim: to change the laws that discriminate against women in Iran. These do not include constitutional provisions, but just a focus on changing provisions in civil and criminal codes.

Strong opposition shown by Iran’s religious and conservative establishment to change or amend the codes has decreased the likelihood of any substantial positive reforms for Iranian women in the foreseeable future.

KZ: Saudi Arabia has lately introduced a series of reforms pertaining to women’s rights, including abandoning its strict dress code, lifting a ban on female singers performing publicly and allowing women into stadiums. We know that Saudi Arabia is a conservative Sunni kingdom and hosts the two holiest sites of Islam. Do you think such reforms are replicable in the context of Iran, a similarly conservative theocracy? Or will resistance by the religious authorities preclude women from achieving equality and improved rights? 

LA: The recent move toward reforms in Saudi Arabia is a clear sign of the political will of the Saudi government to change the face of the country when it comes to half of its population. Central to the reforms has been the apparent break between the state and hardline clerics.

To move ahead with its reforms, Saudi Arabia understands that it has no choice but to part ways with such voices and rather move to more tightly control them. This has not been the case in Iran, where a strong connection between hardline clerics and the ruling authorities still persists.

Of course, one cannot separate religion and tradition from either society. 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.

But it is clear that in the case of Iran, women are unlikely to be able to effectively continue the advancement of their rights until religious figures change their outlook toward women and the government demonstrates political will to engage in such reforms, too.

KZ: Do you attribute the restrictions, discrimination and violence Iranian women face in different aspects of their daily life to the edicts of Islam and that the religion is inherently misogynistic? Or is it that there is nothing inherently bigoted in Islam and they are the religious hardliners who are cracking down on the Iranian women’s exercise of their personal and social rights by abusing and contorting Islam?

LA: I think the problem of inequality lies in tradition and the internal contradiction between the ideals of sharia and the norms of Muslim societies. The religious edicts harming women’s rights are limited readings of flexible Islamic legal thought.

Islam introduced the right of women to receive a fixed share of inheritance at a time when no such system was in place, bringing about a massive change in Arab societies. 

While Iran is a society with rapidly changing norms in relation to women’s social status – literacy and primary-school enrollment rates for women and girls are estimated at more than 99% and 100% respectively, and gender disparity in secondary and tertiary education is reportedly almost non-existent – discourse with respect to women’s rights has its place in Islam. 

It is a discourse that challenges hardline Muslims who oppose women’s rights on the grounds that they are not Islamic, and also speaks to a government and legal system that claims it is based on Islamic law.

But Islamic discourse is important for the average person who wants to marry his or her religious beliefs with a belief in human rights, equality and dignity. These people are empowered to stand behind their human-rights principles, without abandoning their religious beliefs. So to build a broad movement and unite like-minded people, it is important to be able to argue that Islam and human rights are not mutually exclusive and that Islam supports human rights.

Women’s rights is an issue that cannot be easily or quickly changed even within the legal and political system of the Islamic Republic. This was also a lesson from Iran’s reform era of 1997 to 2001, during which women’s rights activists and reformist politicians tried unsuccessfully to bring about Iran’s accession to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the primary human-rights treaty safeguarding the rights and equality of women.

And born out of political contention, there is a lack of political will that hinders women’s rights reforms in Iran’s legal system. Adopting a sharia-based strategy supported by well-known clerics to combat discriminatory laws justified by the government’s interpretation of sharia, nonetheless, has proven to be an effective way to gain the support of the public.

Naturally, this is not a matter that can be resolved overnight but requires a steady and systematic approach.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.