Inside Tehran’s massive Azadi Stadium, Iran’s biggest indoor sports arena, men and women carrying campaign banners and wearing purple to signify their support for the incumbent candidate, Hassan Rouhani, sat next to each other at a rally last week, just few days before the country’s presidential election.
One of the young women in attendance held a sign with a simple but powerful message. In Farsi it read: “# don’t_send_us_back_into_the_home.” The women in the crowd that day were expressing support for the relatively moderate candidate Rouhani. But their support was mixed with bittersweet feelings of achievement.
Those women had most likely never been in the stadium before. In fact, they had likely never been allowed to enter any stadium, and certainly not in the presence of men.
Iranian women have a long way to go before we can be considered equal to men in our own country. The mandatory covering of women’s hair and bodies is the most vivid example of how the Islamic Republic violates women’s freedom of expression and their right to self-determination. But there are countless ways that women find themselves discriminated against, sidelined, and stymied.
Imagine that for a moment. That’s how I lived the first 31 years of my life.
This year’s presidential election in Iran, which begins today, is in some ways a momentous one for the country’s women. In general, elections are particularly important to Iranian women because it is one of the few times in Iranian public life when our opinion is given the same weight as a man’s. This year, their choices are stark: the top two candidates are the ultra-conservative former attorney general, Ebrahim Raisi, and Rouhani, who has been president since 2013. Both of them are clerics.
By holding a rally in a location where half of the country’s population is usually unwelcome, Rouhani is sending a signal to these women. If he is re-elected as president, he may or may not be able to lift the ban on women visiting stadiums, but at least he won’t actively discourage them.
To some, that alone feels like progress.
Iranian women have held various government positions, serving as vice presidents, cabinet ministers, lawmakers, and city council members. But a woman has never served as president. The law does not explicitly ban women from running; this year alone, 137 women registered to run for the role. But the Guardian Council, a 12-member group of all-male legal authorities that vets candidates, has never allowed any to run on the election day ballot.
Candidates can’t win by ignoring women’s demands altogether
However, even the men running for office must turn their attention to so-called “women’s issues,” including the right to divorce, child custody rights, and recourse against domestic violence, among others. These concerns receive plenty of attention during presidential campaigns, as candidates attempt to win the hearts and minds of this under-represented half of the population. They can’t win by ignoring women’s demands altogether. Rouhani consistently promises a better situation for women. On the campaign trail earlier this spring, he said, “We can’t say that mountains, forests, and other recreational places are for men, and God created tiny kitchens for women.”
That’s all well and good, but in his four years as president there has been no sign of action.
To take advantage of this rare spotlight, a vocal and vibrant community of women activists has defied threats and intimidation to shine a light on these inequalities. In the weeks leading up to this year’s election, more than 180 Iranian female activists wrote a petition asking for the future president to dedicate 30 percent of his cabinet to female politicians. They have also demanded the future president improve women’s employment opportunities, increase income equality, and end gender discrimination in Iran’s legal and penal codes.
Once in office, an Iranian president has some authority to improve the lot of women either by drafting progressive bills for parliament or by reversing discriminatory regulations in ministries under the supervision of the presidency. However, whether they choose to do so is another matter.
When a candidate states openly that gender equality is an “unsuccessful Western idea” and that women’s dignity is best preserved if they stick to their traditional role as mothers and housewives—as Rouhani’s challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, said during the campaign—then the 60 percent of university students in Iran who are women understand that such a man will actively work against their goals of self-improvement if he becomes president.
It gives women a greater incentive to participate to the extent that we are allowed.
My biggest fear is that, as usual, whoever gets elected will make promises, and then do nothing to change the lives of women
Presidents in Iran, while beholden to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, can make an impact on women’s lives. At seven, I had to start wearing a hijab. When Mohammad Khatami became president, women had the opportunity to wear colorful scarves for the first time since the revolution, and to us, that felt like an achievement. We were allowed to express ourselves in a small way, and finally being able to have a choice of color about my headscarf felt quite liberating.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the first president after the revolution to appoint a female government minister, but he also created a morality police to control women’s hijab status. The morality police still exists, and Rouhani did nothing to end its operation. For female activists, the end of this operation is one of the most important demands in this year election. During his second term, women were completely banned from studying in 14 different academic fields, and their acceptance into more than 241 majors was limited throughout the country. I talked to quite a few students at the time as a reporter—all of them young and passionate about their education—and they were devastated. Even men told me they didn’t welcome the decision because they felt the perspective the women would bring to the classroom was needed in the educational environment.
Our goal as Iranian women isn’t to have a few token women in cabinet positions or to show off more of our hair under our scarves. We want equal rights in all aspects of public and private life, and as long as women are not allowed to run for president—or simply go to stadiums—that dream of equality is impossible.
I’m hoping more women get elected for city council during this election, and that we also see more women in key cabinet positions. But my biggest fear, and that of many Iranian women, is that, as usual, whoever gets elected as president will make promises, and then do nothing to change the lives of women living in Iran today.
Top image: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images