Women in higher positions within the Iranian state who are loyal to the system of the Islamic Republic and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s leadership are dissatisfied with the new government under President Ebrahim Raisi, and especially with its composition. They had expressed their hopes that with women accounting for half of Iran's population, they could be responsible for at least one of the ministries in the cabinet. Instead, Raisi’s government, approved by parliament at the end of August, is made up of conservatives and includes not a single woman. What impact is that likely to have on support among women who back the system? Will these women fight for greater political participation within the government or become disillusioned with it? And what consequences might that have for the Iranian state in the longer run?
Iran’s first female minister since the Islamic Revolution was appointed in 2009 under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi took over the Ministry of Health. Former President Hassan Rouhani (2013-21) promised to appoint women as ministers, but it never happened. In his first term he appointed three women as deputies: Masoumeh Ebtekar at the Department of Environment, Elham Aminzadeh as the president's legal deputy, and Shahindokht Molaverdi as the deputy for women and family affairs. During Rouhani’s second term, there were two female deputies in the cabinet, for women and family affairs and the legal deputy. In Raisi’s cabinet, however, there are no female ministers or even deputies.
Reaction and response
Tayebeh Siavashi, a member of parliament and senior advisor to the vice president for women and family affairs in Rouhani’s government, stated in an interview with Egtesad News that Article 3, 20, and 21 of the Iranian Constitution acknowledge women’s political participation and Article 20 in particular emphasizes women’s equal rights in the social, cultural, political, and economic spheres. Siavashi added that the lack of female representation came as a particular surprise given that Raisi, in his time as the chief of the judiciary, dealt with countless female experts, lawyers, and clerks, as the judiciary employs more than 2,000 of them. Siavashi believes Raisi could appoint women to the ministries of Education, Tourism and Cultural Heritage, or Health, since a large number of female elites are well-qualified for these positions.
Commenting on Raisi’s all-male cabinet in an interview, Neda Haji Vosough, a university professor and secretary of the Women and Peace Committee of the Iranian Peace Studies Scientific Association in Tehran, noted that sometimes “it is said that we believe in meritocracy and that women should have the ability to be appointed for the position as a minister of the government, but which standards and criteria should women possess that they lack?” According to Vosough, women’s issues are highlighted only briefly at particular times like the run-up to elections and then politician forget all about them. Vosough added that women feel like they have been used as "instruments" for elections and this could result in losing the trust of 50% of the Iranian population.
Vosough also noted that a number of the ministers in Raisi’s cabinet lack relevant experience and wondered why, if many of the men have been given an opportunity to gain that experience in role, with help from their deputies and advisers, why aren’t women given the same opportunity? She thinks it costs society to not give better and more opportunities to women and suggests that from now on, presidential candidates should introduce their cabinets and lay out the role women will play in them before asking for support.
Growing exclusion and the shrinking circle of power
While the voices of women in Iran are far from well represented on state TV and radio and in newspapers, millions of women agree on the legal and cultural discrimination against them — including both women from the inner circle of the Islamic Republic and those opposed to it — and they are waiting for change. In the long run neither President Raisi nor Ayatollah Khamenei will be able to exclude women from higher decision-making positions.
In the meantime though, the circle of power in Iran continues to shrink. In the most recent presidential election the Islamic Republic excluded even more groups and people from vying for office. Whole segments of society are already barred from running for the presidency, including women and religious minorities like Sunnis, under Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution, which requires the president to be a man and a follower of the country’s official religion, Shi’a Islam. The highest position Iranian Sunni Muslims have achieved to date are ambassadorial roles in Vietnam and Cambodia and a deputy minister role during Rouhani’s administration. In Raisi’s government, however, not even a single middle-ranking position has been given to either a woman or a Sunni Muslim, prompting criticism even from within parliament. Raisi did not respond to the critics, but he did defend his cabinet, saying the main and most important consideration when selecting ministers was their “health” — meaning that they are not corrupt — and adding that “we need a team who have ‘clean hands.’”
In the long term the greater the exclusion, the weaker the Islamic Republic will become. The exclusion of women and other groups like Sunni Muslims is gradually destroying the state from the inside by undermining its support, even among those who have traditionally backed the system. With its authoritarian behavior, the Iranian state is standing against more and more groups of people — people who are better informed and increasingly unsatisfied with the status quo. The situation is unsustainable and sooner or later something will have to give.
Dr. Fariba Parsa specializes in the political ideologies of democracy and civil movements in Iran. She is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Iran Program, works at Yorktown System Groups as a Farsi instructor, and is the founder and president of the nonprofit Women’s E-Learning in Leadership (WELL). The views expressed in this piece are her own.
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