Iran’s Women Set to Vote in Elections
Although women are not allowed to run for the presidency, close to 50% of the Iranian electorate is female. On Friday, when 55 million eligible Iranian voters head to the polls to elect a new president, the women’s vote will be significant. Iranian women largely favor current president Hassan Rouhani, a reformer and supporter of women’s rights.
“We don’t want gender discrimination. We don’t want gender oppression,” Rouhani said at a recent rally.
Rouhani’s main opponent is hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric who has publicly disagreed with efforts to equalize education between men and women. Though many hope for change to Iran’s antiquated and discriminatory gender-based laws, any significant development for women’s rights under a new government is doubtful.
Change, if it happens at all, takes place very slowly in Iran. Even if Rouhani is re-elected, his hands will be tied on many fronts because of the incredible power that Iran’s ultra-conservative, 12-member Guardian Council holds. Iranian women face legal challenges in addition to a strict dress code: laws ban women from sports stadiums, they’re restricted in what they can study at university, face discrimination in matters of divorce and child custody, and girls can be legally married at the age of 13.
Parvin Sarvar — whose name has been changed — was a key activist in the Women’s Movement until she was forced to leave the country in 2009. Back then, the Ahmadinejad government cracked down severely on women involved in the movement, handing out harsh sentences and long prison terms to many. Others, like Sarvar, were exiled. She now lives in Europe, far from her family and friends, and she cannot return to Iran.
She became aware, she says, of the situation faced by Iranian women when she was a teenager.
“I was 16 and in school in Iran and we were forced to wear the chador [a full-body and head covering that leaves only the face exposed],” Sarvar says. “I wanted to choose my way, choose the kind of dress I wear. I started to learn more about the rights of women in society at that time. I understood that as a woman, I have nothing in Iranian society because of Islamic law.”
Sarvar joined a group of human rights activists campaigning at a grassroots level on buses, going door-to-door to speak to women. Before she was forced to leave Iran in 2009, she joined the One Million Signatures campaign, a movement that aimed to collect a million signatures to demand an end to discriminatory laws against women and give them the same legal status as men. The movement lost steam, though, when most of its members went to prison or ended up in exile.
Today, Sarvar — like other exiled Women’s Movement members — tries her best to stay close to what’s happening in Iran, including this election. She raises awareness outside the country through writing and speaking.
The Iranian Women’s Movement is “one of the most successful movements to be a thorn in the side of Islamic Republic,” Narges Bajoghli, who has spent 10 years conducting research in Iran as a postdoctoral research associate in international and public affairs at Brown University, told Teen Vogue. This decades-old movement has amplified on social media and is “holistic and widespread,” Bajoghli says, and includes women from secular backgrounds and conservative families. It still faces many setbacks and there have been harsh crackdowns on women by successive governments, particularly by the administration of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Yet it has continued to soldier on — sometimes overtly, more often covertly, always dedicated to bringing about change for women. Women have, over the years, done everything from openly distributing fliers and pamphlets, to secretly filming videos to raise awareness of the issues they face, to holding underground workshops on different topics, and using social media to spread their message.
Some of their efforts have been successful. For example, women have kept up a sustained challenge to the dress code, an effort that began in 1997 when reformist Mohammad Khatami was Iran’s president. Efforts like My Stealthy Freedom, an online movement that began in 2014 as a place for Iranian women to post hijab-free photos of themselves, have generated strong interest and participation.
“You see very lax forms of covering the head, which you would think is something very superficial, but women have fought for this very hard, even as the government has reacted,” Bajoghli says. “It started from the ground up — you saw young women not wearing black but a cream overcoat instead, and that would be the thing for a year, and then they would push their scarves back a bit and a bit more. It’s been a cat-and-mouse game I would say: As one thing happens, then the government reacts, they place more religious police on the streets in the summer, for example.”
Bajoghli would also draw attention to male support for women’s rights in Iran.
“A lot of people who were part of the 1979 revolution were younger men at the start of the revolution, but now many of them are not so young and they have daughters,” Bajoghli says. “A lot of the laws that these men supported at the time were abstract, but now they see that it affects their daughters, who are doing as well as [their] male counterparts, but they can’t get ahead because of the restrictions. These men, as fathers, are personally experiencing the impact of laws that they once supported.”
Today, around half of university students in Iran are women. They want their voices to be heard, says Nina Ansary, a historian and expert on women’s rights in Iran, told Teen Vogue. In the 2016 Iranian parliamentary elections, women won 18 seats out of 290. That tiny number was something of a record, though, Ansary says, and she hopes it can be repeated this time around — even as the increased number of women on city and village councils has had a minimal impact thus far.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are officially banned in Iran, and Ansary’s website is blocked there, too. Yet, she says, so many women find a way to circumvent those barriers, and many reached out to her to include their voices in her award-winning book, Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran.
“Initially when I started connecting with these women, I was afraid that they will get arrested and I can’t live with that,” Ansary says. “But I realized they want to be heard, they do not want to be anonymous. I compiled an epilogue [for my book] of 100 women I connected with through Facebook and Twitter…. The Iranian Instagrammers are particularly savvy and fearless.”
In lectures at colleges and universities, and on panels where she’s spoken, Ansary has shared the stories of women like Noora Naraghi, Iran’s first female motorcross champion. Naraghi was born in 1988, just after Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq, a bloody conflict that claimed over half a million, and possibly up to a million, Iranian lives. She connected with Ansary because she wanted her to “let the world know” that no regime can stop Iranian women.
This election is the 12th presidential election to take place in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Whatever the election’s outcome, Iranian women are not going to give up.
Related: Women in Iran Risked Jail to Run a Marathon
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