Rouhani’s Action on Women in the Workplace is Not Enough to Secure Moderate Image

Rouhani’s decision to order a review of these positions would seem to give support to those who claim that the current Iranian president is moderate in comparison to his predecessors and the rest of the regime. Indeed, the BBC gives Rouhani credit for speaking out on women’s rights issues, and for praising the election of several new women to Iran’s parliament this year, the vast majority of whom were associated with his political faction.

But the BBC also notes that activists have criticized Rouhani for doing little to back up his nice-sounding statements on women’s rights in general and on female employment in particular. Iranian women make up 60 percent of the country’s population of university graduates, and yet only 12.4 percent of women are active members of the workforce. And if anything, this situation has deteriorated for women under Rouhani’s presidency, as has the general status of women’s rights.

It remains to be seen whether the review of civil service jobs will lead to additional, more proactive steps by the administration. But if it does not, then the review alone cannot be expected to do much to seriously encourage the hiring of women, especially at a time when national and various local authorities have been pushing measures to expand the enforcement of gender segregation while actively urging women to remain in the home and raise families beginning at an early age.

Last week, Iran News Update reported upon some of the recent gender-oriented crackdowns that have taken place in the Islamic Republic, including several raids of mixed-gender parties, the imposition of strict bans on very young children swimming together, and the arrest of various women for riding bicycles in public parks. These trends represent a situation that has by most accounts gotten worse over the past three years, during which time Rouhani has occasionally made moderate-sounding statements on the issues, but has not taken any recognizable steps to counteract hardline authorities’ efforts.

Rouhani has defended himself by saying that the Iranian judiciary, which prosecutes women for such crimes as inadequate compliance with the country’s forced veiling laws, is an independent body not under the control of the presidency. But while this is true, some human rights organizations have responded by saying that independence is not synonymous with intractability, yet Rouhani has made no clear effort to influence the judiciary in positive directions. Quite the contrary, when challenged over the regime’s notoriously high rate of executions Rouhani has said that the laws leading to those executions are either “God’s laws” or reflective of the will of the people.

But in many cases, those laws are decidedly vague, leading to situations in which the judiciary can implement arbitrary punishments. In such cases, the Iranian president could presumably take serious steps toward pushing parliament to clarify the law while also urging the judiciary to avoid prosecution in cases where it is not completely clear that there has been a violation of the law.

The problem of vagueness is certainly an issue when it comes to some laws relating to women’s rights or “sexual crimes.” This fact was illustrated by IranWire on Tuesday, in an article exploring the legal topic of “illicit sexual activity.” The laws of the Islamic Republic clearly allow for a sentence of execution by stoning in cases where a man and a woman commit adultery with each other. Other situations call for execution by hanging, but lower punishments such as flogging are prescribed for situations that are often less clearly defined.

This has led different judges to interpret the law with varying degrees of strictness. But some have determined that “illicit sexual activity” does not even have to involve physical contact. Some unmarried romantic couples have been charged with crimes for exchanging amorous messages by telephone or by text message. IranWire even cites one particular case in which a young woman was charged with committing sinful acts in public by “drinking coffee in a provocative way.”

What’s more, the sorts of laws that allow for prosecution of these individuals can also be used by the regime to attack organizations and groups that are or may be advocating for reform within the Islamic Republic. Existing laws call for intervention and prosecution in cases of the promotion of “corruption” or “promiscuity,” but they fail to define these terms. Meanwhile, the regime frequently cites issues of public morality in its crackdowns, whether or not these are justified with explicit reference to the law.

In July, for instance, the Basij civilian militia held a ceremony to destroy an estimated 100,000 satellite dishes, in a renewed attempt to cut off the Iranian people from access to foreign media. The head of the Basij, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, used the occasion to claim that access to such programming and information was responsible for a range of social problems including drug addition, an extremely high divorce rate, and “inappropriate behaviors” by young people.

On Tuesday, Reuters revealed additional dimensions of the crackdown on alternative media of which this satellite television obstruction is one part. Although it was already well known that the regime had made efforts to gain access to user information for relatively secure social networking and communication apps, it has now been revealed that state-affiliated hackers recently succeeded in penetrating approximately three quarters of the Iranian accounts for the particularly popular Telegram instant messaging app. There are an estimated 20 million active users in Iran, many of whom have been known to use the app for activist organizing or for the expression of dissent.

The 15 million people who have had their information compromised may now be at additional risk of monitoring or arrest, although information technology experts believe that these individuals can still keep their accounts secure in the future. Even so, the massively large-scale hacking leaves little doubt about Tehran’s commitment to monitoring and suppression of dissent, or about the fact that this aspect of the regime has not diminished in the three years since Rouhani assumed office.

This latter point was further emphasized by 92 Iranian university student groups, which jointly issued a letter on July 27 explicitly criticizing the Rouhani administration for failing to take steps toward the fulfillment of any of his major campaign promises. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran quoted that letter as describing an “atmosphere of fear and intimidation” related in part to intimidation of students on social media and expanded enforcement of gender segregation policies.

The International Campaign also reported that Rouhani himself has claimed that the situation has improved during his time in office, saying for instance that “the difference between the climate now and the one in 2013 is like night and day.” But the student associations’ letter strongly suggests that young Iranians do not see it this way. And this in turn casts doubt upon the prospects for Rouhani to spearhead reforms regarding women in the workplace.

Meanwhile, any who tries to do so from outside the government may be subject to severe reprisals from an unchecked hardline faction of the regime. Not only are activists and dissidents subject to political imprisonment and arbitrary, but supposedly legally justifiable punishment; so too are many of their lawyers. This fact was discussed in another report published Tuesday by the International Campaign.

The report listed numerous such lawyers who have been jailed or banned from practicing law after they represented members of groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. The report also touches upon the use of vague moral laws to justify attacks on political organizations. For instance, it pointed out that numerous lawyers were put in jail and that some of them still remain there as a result of being accused of “acting against national security” by establishing the Defenders of Human Rights Center.

Naturally, the formal bans on such organizations and the unofficial bans on representation of individual political prisoners will make it extremely difficult for Iranians to advocate for the rights of women and other targets of repression. This difficulty has been variously exposed in the international media and will presumably continue to be exposed in this way, even as the Rouhani administration claims to have brought about improvements.

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British mother accused of vague national security crimes in April, has finally seen the inside of a courtroom for the first time. But although she faced her first hearing on Monday, she was not expected to be given an opportunity to choose a lawyer to represent her until the following day. It is not yet clear whether this plan went forward, but Iran is notorious for obstructing access to lawyers and rejecting defendants’ choices of representation. And this practice also has persisted throughout Rouhani’s term as president.