Parvaneh Salahshouri, a sitting Iranian representative of Tehran, took to the parliament floor in December to criticize the unelected bodies that are destroying the “republican nature of the system.” In her fiery speech, she expressed her deep frustrations with a system which sacrifices the will of the people for the interests of a select few, with little respect for civil liberties. While Salahshouri has maintained a critical tone towards the undemocratic aspects of the Islamic republic throughout her four-year term in the parliament, she ultimately decided that she would not compete for a seat in the eleventh parliamentary elections in order to protest “bodies that limit the powers of the parliament, ignoring people's views and wishes, the inappropriate implementation of the approbatory supervision of Guardian Council and the suppression of the November protests.” Indeed, leading up to the February 2020 national parliamentary elections, Iran’s Council of Guardians, the unelected body that vets candidates hoping to compete in the popular elections, disqualified one-third of the sitting 290 total lawmakers, among them many of Salahshouri’s outspoken female colleagues.
With the absence of any critical mass of women in politics, Iran’s electoral politics have nonetheless witnessed the rise of a few women as “critical actors,” or those who have captured the interest of the electorate through their outspoken criticism of repressive facets of the regime, such as its gendered restrictions. Hence, although functioning from within a closed and limited political context, the past forty years of the Islamic Republic has on occasion seen the rise to power of women who have boldly pursued progressive policies, including on women’s rights; though time and again their true impact has been tested by numerous institutional and political structures that are designed to curtail those efforts. Given that much of the women-friendly policy changes that have materialized in Iran have been thanks to decades of women’s rights organizing, which pushed willing women (and on occasion men) politicians to address these demands, such critical actors deserve our attention.
While previously many of these women politicians were close relatives of key political or religious figures—such as Azam Taleghani, Ayatollah Taleghani’s daughter; Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s daughter; and Zahra Rahnavard, former Prime Minister Mousavi’s wife—today many women have risen to power thanks to their high levels of education and political experience within reformist-backed institutions and entities, though some still have familial ties. Although the literature of “critical actors” in women’s political representation mostly entails women politicians’ responses and activism surrounding women’s rights concerns, it is important to note that their actions go beyond addressing women’s issues. Particularly in recent years with increasing popular discontent with the regime, such women have on occasion echoed the protestors’ concerns in the parliament and other state institutions, for example by siding with the protestors over the gasoline price hike in November or by demanding greater transparency and accountability in Iranian politics.
As I have argued elsewhere, the rise of such women is thanks to numerous opportunities that present themselves despite Iran’s closed context. For instance, the “Government of Prudence and Hope” of moderate Hassan Rouhani that followed the presidency of conservative President Ahmadinejad presented an opportunity to appoint and elect women who are more sympathetic to women’s rights. Soon after his election in 2013, with the endorsement of a number of independent women’s rights activists and academics, President Rouhani appointed Shahindokht Molaverdi as his deputy minister for women’s affairs. A lawyer by training, the devout Molaverdi had been a long-term member of the Iranian women’s rights movement with experience working on the expansion of women’s rights NGOs during the reform era (1997-2005), as well as efforts for Iran to join the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). As deputy minister for women’s affairs during Rouhani’s first term in office, Molaverdi, building on decades of Islamic feminist thought that emphasized the compatibility between women’s rights and Islamic precepts as publicized in women’s magazines such as Zanan (Women), diplomatically pushed for women’s rights while working from within Iran’s political system.
Many women’s rights activists, including those with secular tendencies, welcomed Molaverdi’s progressive views on matters such as women’s increased participation in politics through gender quotas, and felt empowered to launch a campaign ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections demanding “Change of the Male-dominated Face of Parliament.” This campaign was a notable example of Iranian women organizing against all odds to enhance women’s parliamentary presence from outside of the state structure. In an attempt to counter the Council of Guardian’s discriminatory candidate vetting process and increase the odds of women passing the Council of Guardian’s filtering process, the campaign with the help of social media asked women to register as candidates, resulting in 1,234 women aspiring for a parliamentary seat, which was a three-fold increase from the 428 women hopeful candidates of the previous round. The campaign also publicized the voting records and views of incumbent and likely MPs on women’s rights and gender equality, hoping that increased public awareness would help defeat misogynist candidates. The campaign however fell short in its goal of electing at least “fifty egalitarian women,” since only seventeen women, mostly backed by the reformist-oriented List of Hope, entered the Iranian parliament in 2016, the tenth parliament since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
Held against the backdrop of the Iran nuclear deal with Western powers and a hopeful public eager for sanctions relief, sixty-two percent of the Iranian electorate turned out to vote in support of the reformist-backed candidates affiliated with Rouhani in 2016, slightly higher than the historical average turnout for parliamentary elections which until then was 60.5 percent. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the election was that mostly reformist-backed women, many of whom were unknown to the public, replaced all of the conservative-backed female incumbents of the previous two parliamentary terms. A number of the women parliamentarians elected in 2016 dared to be vocal on women’s rights concerns in Iran’s legislative arena, among them, Parvaneh Salahshouri, Tayebeh Siavoshi, and Fatemeh Zolghadr, all of whom represent Tehran. Given the level of popular support, these women have had the leverage to pursue women’s interests, with Salahshouri initially heading the Women’s Faction in the Iranian parliament, the all-female parliamentary group which advocates for women’s rights.
Despite their limited numbers, some of the women politicians of the Rouhani-era, have helped instigate a number of important policy changes aimed at enhancing women’s rights and status. Such reforms include policies granting Iranian mothers the ability to pass citizenship to their children, ensuring that women compose at least thirty percent of the managers in government ministries, and at last granting women (limited) access to sports stadiums as spectators. A number of female politicians have also been publicly critical of the gender discriminatory policies and behaviors of the Islamic regime, bold moves that have been well received by several Iranian women’s rights activists both inside Iran as well as in the diaspora. For instance, both Shahindokht Molaverdi and Parvaneh Salahshouri have been outspoken against the harsh treatment of women who have been publicly protesting to end compulsory veiling, a long-term demand of the women’s rights movement in Iran, and both have encouraged the establishment to revisit this ruling and do away with the morality police given its failure to instill this ‘Islamic’ value in large sections of the population. Such suggestions were later echoed in ground-breaking research done by an official state institution, Iran’s Parliamentary Research Center, which reported that roughly seventy percent of Iranian women do not observe the Islamic state’s sanctioned dress code.
The Islamic regime’s ultra conservative forces however have not remained silent in the face of such outspokenness and women-friendly reforms. Justifying their actions through claims of protecting the Islamic society and its values, some segments within the conservative camp have waged harassment campaigns against critical women politicians, succeeding in their removal from office or hindering their political influence. For instance, Iran’s conservative Kayhan daily, thought to be close to the office of the Supreme Leader, published an article in 2015 criticizing Shahindokht Molaverdi’s attendance at a United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women held in New York. The newspaper objected to the United Nations’ support for the notion of “gender equality,” which is “unacceptable to the Islamic Republic.” Thanks to numerous vicious attacks on Molaverdi as “a Western agent” and reports about her supposed “disrespect for Islamic values,” Iran’s hardliners succeeded in pressuring Rouhani to remove her from her post as his deputy minister on women’s affairs. Following her removal, Molaverdi publicly complained of the “sensitivities” around women’s rights during President Rouhani’s tenure, and considered her biggest failure as deputy minister on women’s affairs her inability to “recommend even one bill on women’s rights to the parliament” as a result of “multiple challenges.” Despite her removal from the cabinet, Molaverdi has continued to maintain a critical presence both in civil society and party politics. Currently Molaverdi leads a number of organizations, among them Society of Supporters of Women’s Human Rights with the aim of better integrating women’s rights concerns in Iran’s policymaking. She is also a high-ranking member of the Coalition of Reformist Policy-makers, an umbrella organization of the main political parties and groups within the Iranian reformist movement, and even registered as a candidate for this round of parliamentary elections while encouraging other women to register as well. Although this coalition did not put out a central list as they had for the 2016 elections, Molaverdi and many of her female peers publicly advocated for women reformist nominees for the 2020 elections.
In preparation for the February 2020 parliamentary elections, similar to previous terms, Iranian hardliners utilized the Council of Guardians to ensure outspoken female politicians’ absence from the legislative branch by disqualifying their candidacies. The Council unsurprisingly disqualified Molaverdi, alongside six of the incumbent women MPs. In an effort to tighten the grip of the Supreme Leaders’ loyalists over policy-making, the Council of Guardians used its ‘approbatory supervision’ prerogative to disqualify those that it deemed threatening to the Islamic Republic and the office of the Supreme Leader, regardless of gender. However, many outspoken politicians publicized their disqualifications in a move to further shame the state. For instance, Tayebeh Siavoshi, tweeted about her disqualification by outlining the Council’s reasoning. “First I was disqualified for ‘non-adherence to the sacred structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran;’ but after I protested, twenty days later ‘non-adherence to the proper practice of Islam’ also added to it.”
In the context of such extensive restrictions, many observers question the value of advocating for women’s increased access to political leadership, given the control over women’s rights and status exercised by Iran’s authoritarian structures. The futility and limits of reformist women’s rise to power is particularly apparent when even the much-celebrated women-friendly legislations passed recently, such as the law enabling women to pass their citizenship to their children, has faced limited implementation. Recognizing such limitations, women MPs of the tenth parliament, such as Tayebeh Siavoshi and Soheila Jolodarzadeh, have been outspoken against the “general resistance” of various authorities and bodies in fully implementing them.
At this current political juncture, it seems that the prevailing institutional constraints of the Islamic Republic that aim to concentrate power into the hands of a select few, especially conservative devotees of the Supreme Leader, are effectively undermining the work and influence of many women critical actors. Hence the opportunities that led to their rise in Iran’s electoral politics gave way to a plethora of constraints for the February 2020 parliamentary elections, ranging from the usual institutional obstacles to a disheartened and frustrated electorate. Calls for boycotting this round of parliamentary elections were particularly loud among the civil society groups, including many women’s rights activists, who hoped that, by turning their backs to the ballot box, they could deliver a vote of no confidence in the regime itself, while seeking alternative routes to change from outside of formal political institutions. Despite the ruling elites’ repeated calls for participation in the elections, less than forty-three percent of Iran’s eligible voters turned out to vote, the lowest ever in the history of the Islamic Republic, with women composing just forty-eight percent of the voters. Tehran witnessed the lowest voter-turnout of only 26.2 percent, while the highest was in the province of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad in south-west Iran, home to some of the country’s Lur population, where it surpassed seventy-one percent. Expectedly the outbreak of the Coronavirus just days before the elections also impacted the voter-turnout, though the regime reassured the electorate that postponing it would not be necessary.
With the mass disqualification of reformists and moderates, women backed by the conservative forces had a much easier time entering the parliament this time. In numbers similar to the previous term, seventeen women have been elected in the first round of the parliamentary elections (this record can rise to eighteen in the second round of elections to be held next month). Only two incumbent women MPs, Hajar Chenarani and Somayeh Mahmoudi, both of whom identify as independents, were re-elected from small provincial towns. Tehran’s thirty-member district, which is the most politicized electoral district, elected five women from the main conservative list, a drop from the eight reformist-oriented women from the last term. In a disheartening turn of events for women’s rights activists, all of the five women representing Tehran in the eleventh parliament have a poor record of advocating for women’s rights as is apparent from their previous tenures as either MPs or cabinet members in conservative-dominated institutions.
While this round of parliamentary elections appears to highlight the limitations of Iran’s electoral politics in delivering meaningful and lasting change on women’s rights and other progressive politics, it is also true that Iran’s elections usually have surprising outcomes. One unexpected outcome has been that the rate of women’s parliamentary presence remained the same despite the absence of extensive campaigning efforts of women’s rights activists that had occurred during the previous election, with a notable number (around five or six) entering the parliament as independents from smaller provincial towns. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the election is the first-ever election of women from Kurdish and Lurish regions in Iran. While the actions of these mostly independent lawmakers remain to be seen after they take office, it is possible that some critical actors can enter the parliament from outside the capital, particularly from regions that have experienced historical negligence from the state and its dominant factions. Hence, as noted earlier, while the mere number of women in the parliament is not as significant as the politics of whoever enters the parliament, the electoral success of women who emphasize their independent tendencies and win majorities in competitive districts with only one or two seats, is a testament to their ability to appeal to their voters, opening the way for important policy changes outside of factional politics.
In sum, throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, a number of women critical actors have entered the political scene, at times in alliance with autonomous women’s rights activists, to pursue women’s rights and other progressive agendas, and have formed a key force against the regime’s repressive policies. While one can be dismissive of such efforts given their eventual failure to radically enhance women’s rights in Iran, I argue that their mere presence and activism, though limited, warrants our attention as it is a testimony of women’s perseverance to fight discrimination, injustice, and repression. The role of women politicians also points to the dynamism of a seemingly closed political system in which certain political openings can nonetheless facilitate the emergence of critical women actors with progressive values. Although gradual and often facing limited implementation, many of the reforms advocated by such women also help shift public discourse and inform demands made on the ruling elites; once these reforms are adopted, public pressure hinders their complete reversal.
Iranian women’s rights activists, though currently functioning in a highly securitized environment, are also inclined to take advantage of even very limited openings within the state to pursue women’s rights. In this dynamic, women critical actors in political office have played essential roles in gradually translating women’s grassroots activism into women-friendly policy changes. While Iran’s hardliners, and in particular the security forces, have made a point to limit the scope of women’s activism both inside and outside of political institutions—and to obstruct the bridge between them, as is apparent by their attacks on actors such as Molaverdi—the extent to which they can fully muzzle such alliances also seems limited.
 Although just weeks after the revolution women’s rights were radically curtailed, throughout the forty-year history of the Islamic Republic, a number of women friendly laws have been gradually passed, among them laws granting child custody to mothers widowed during the Iran-Iraq war, integrating certain women-friendly conditions into the marriage contract, or limiting the grounds for polygamy.