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Political Reforms are Absent for Iranian Women, but Social Activism Grows

By Edward Carney

On Thursday, the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran published an article detailing the mismatch between a growing role for women in national politics and a general lack of progress toward reforms that would actually empower or liberate women across Iranian society.

Gender discrimination remains rampant in the legal practices and mainstream policies of the Islamic Republic, where unrelated women and men are barred from occupying the same public spaces, women are forced to cover their hair with traditional hijabs, men’s testimony in a courtroom is afforded greater weight that women’s, and men are granted almost unlimited authority over matters like divorce.

There has been substantial backlash against these elements of the Iranian system, as evidenced by the “Stealthy Freedom” social media protest and the “Revolution Street” demonstrations in which women publicly removed their headscarves and held them over their heads like flags. Meanwhile, the prevalence of women’s rights activism has seemingly led certain Iranian politicians to pay lip service to the cause, although reform-minded citizens have rarely proven satisfied with those gestures.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani initially took office in 2013 amidst various promises of reform, some of which touched upon the issue of institutionalized gender discrimination. His commitment was immediately tested amidst international headlines concerning a mixed-gender group of Iranian students who had been arrested for posting a video of themselves dancing together to the Pharrell Williams song, “Happy.” Although the students were eventually released on bail, Rouhani took no recognizable action on their behalf, deferring to the hardline judiciary while publicly stating only that young Iranians shouldn’t be punished too harshly for expressing joy.

Related issues of intermingling between women and men have emerged at various times over the ensuing six years, spanning the transition between Rouhani’s first and second term. But his administration’s response has never been notably different, even as hardline political rivals affiliated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have made concerted efforts to reinforce the regime’s Islamist identity, including its enforcement of female veiling and its general pattern of gender discrimination.

Rouhani’s second electoral victory in 2017 was greeted by guarded optimism in some circles, as reformist supporters expressed hope that he would prove less restrained in the face of a renewed public mandate. Much of this optimism surrounding the matter of his second-term cabinet appointments, more specifically his promise to appoint female minsters, as has never been done in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic. But this promise was not fulfilled, and a handful of women were relegated to lower-level positions. Indeed, all of Rouhani’s cabinet appointments were reportedly approved by the supreme leader himself.

The betrayal of this promise was prominently referenced in the NCRI Women’s Committee’s article, which also described the successful hardline opposition to multiple bills that would have diminished certain legal imbalances that strongly favor men. The lack of female cabinet appointees is also a key to the broader point behind the Committee’s article: that larger numbers of women have assumed office in recent years, but most of them have served a ceremonial or “cosmetic” function, providing the superficial appearance of greater inclusiveness while doing little to actually affect change for the betterment of the female population.

According to the Committee, this situation was recently acknowledged by Didar News, “one of the official websites of the mullahs’ regime.” The article declared, “The limited participation of women as parliamentarians or ministerial deputies in the political structure has little impact on changing the legal procedures in favor of women or on improving their social status.” And the NCRI followed up on this observation by emphasizing that women’s participation is further limited by the fact that most of those who are allowed to serve in government are drawn from very specific backgrounds, leading them to serve affiliated hardline interests to a greater extent than the voting public.

This is not to say that there are no women in Iranian politics who are earnestly focused on trying to secure a better future for their gender. But Iran’s theocratic system is tightly controlled and dissenting voices are rarely allowed to even seek high office, and even those who do so may be barred from serving at any time, for virtually any reason. In 2016 a woman named Minoo Khaleghi won a race to represent the city of Isfahan in the Iranian parliament. However, before being sworn in, photographs began to circulate purporting to show her not wearing a hijab while traveling abroad. This led the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, to disqualify her from the seat she had won.

For this and other reasons, Iranian women may be more likely to try to affect change on the social level rather than through a political system that is stacked against them. This is evidenced by the aforementioned “Stealthy Freedom” and “Revolution Street” protests, and in a range of other movements and incidents that showcase open defiance of the regime’s gender discrimination and its overall efforts to control Iranian culture while staving off anything that is deemed modern or Western.

EFE Agency published a profile of one such movement on Thursday, describing ongoing efforts by women’s cultural groups to preserve and promote opera, ballet, and other art forms that do not comport with Tehran’s ideological fixation on cultural practices that come only from post-Islamic Iran. As described in the article, these groups tend to operate within the law, which means that they can only present their works to an all-female audience, using an all-female cast, and cannot so much as advertise their performances.

But sometimes even these closely-controlled acts of dissent meet with repression and arbitrary additions to the regime’s limitations on women’s semi-public behavior. As one example, the EFE profile notes that a choreographed waltz was once censored because authorities took issue with the image of ballerinas spinning on stage.

Such incidents underscore the backlash that has been generated by efforts to test the limits of the regime’s restrictions. And these competing tendencies lead to public clashes on a somewhat regular basis. IranWire reported upon one of the latest such incidents last week, noting that two cafes in the city of Bushehr had been shut down by security forces against the backdrop of a festival celebrating traditional, secular Iranian music.

The forced closures were justified by reports that female musicians had been permitted to sing and dance in front of a mixed-gender crowd. This defiance of religious norms also led to performers and organizers receiving threats from vigilante groups affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. But at the same time, the subsequent responses from some participants in the festival underscored the attitude of resistance that drives Iranian women to continue asserting what they see as their rights, even in absence of meaningful political reform.

“Dancing is part of this genre of music and nobody has the right to censor it,” said one traditional music artist interviewed by IranWire. “It is us who are being censored. Why, as a woman, can I not dance and rejoice with my own native music?”

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