First published on Al-Monitor
Nine out of 290 members of the Iranian parliament are women. This 3% membership puts Iran near the bottom of the international measures of female parliamentary representation. Women have never been more than 5% of the parliament, but they have always been among the key political players on both sides of the political divide in the Islamic Republic.
Eight of the nine women in parliament belong to the “Principlist” (conservative) side of the house. Three (Fatemeh Alia, Mahnaz Bahmani and Zohre Tabibzadeh) sit on the Central Council of the Principlist Caucus, which is the more hard-line of the two main conservative factions in the parliament. Another member, Fatemeh Rahbar, is on the leadership body of the Islamic Coalition Party, the oldest Islamist party in the country. Parliament members Laleh Eftekhari and Nayereh Akhavan are two other political heavyweights in their own right. This makes the all-female Women and Family Caucus an unlikely power center in the country.
One of the Islamic Republic’s many contradictions is that it has always boasted both leading female members and laws that limit female participation.
“Unity of the people was among the slogans of the Islamic Revolution and this includes women,” Effat Shariati, a conservative member of parliament from 1996 to 2004, told Al-Monitor. She quotes Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who said “women are developers of humans, just like the Quran.”
Shariati comes from a traditional family in Mashhad. Her father was among the clerics active against the shah, prominent enough to be buried at the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite Imam. It was unimaginable for a woman from such a family to have that kind of public life before the 1979 revolution. Here we see a contradiction of the Islamic Republic: It is heavily premised on the clergy that are a traditionally conservative section of the society, but its Shiite revolutionary ideology has always encouraged female participation.
Perhaps unique among the Islamic denominations, one of the top five holiest personalities of Shiite Islam is a woman: Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and the wife of Ali, the first Shiite imam.
Another emblematic woman in Shiite Islamist ideology is Zeynab, sister of Imam Hossein, renowned for her oratory during and in the aftermath of the Battle of Karbala and seen as a “symbol of resistance.” Not coincidentally, one of its key thinkers, Ali Shariati (no relation to Effat), was buried in the Shrine of Zeynab near Damascus, Syria, as he had wished.
The female members of parliament in the Islamic Republic might have been few but have always included key political players. For instance, there were only four of them in the first three parliaments (1980-92), but those parliaments included women such as Marzieh Hadidchi (Dabagh), a personal bodyguard of Khomeini during his year of exile in Paris who spent years training guerrillas in the Palestinian camps of Syria and Lebanon. After the revolution, she was the all-powerful commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the key western provinces that border Iraq and harbored a civil war between the nascent regime and Kurdish forces. In 1989, she was a member of the three-member high delegation that went to the Soviet Union to deliver Khomeini’s message to President Mikhail Gorbachev.
There was also Maryam Behroozi (member of parliament from 1980 to 1996), a political prisoner during the shah’s time who got state budgets with the personal approval of Khomeini to found an all-female political partly (Zeynab Society) in 1986.
But these female members of the establishment cannot be compared to the strong feminist movement in the country, who decry what they see as the gender roles and misogynist laws of the country. In fact, under the leadership of these female members of parliament, many of these laws have indeed been strengthened, often to the detriment of women’s rights. Legalization of “temporary marriage,” criminalizing contraception, gender segregation in the universities and many measures that seek to limit female entry into the workforce have all been supported by these conservative female members of parliament.
Sedigheh Shakeri, a Central Council member of the Isargaran Society (a hard-line party), explains the thinking behind this to Al-Monitor: “We believe that women should be active in fields where only women can be active. For instance in teaching, women can have a decisive role because of their emotional morale. But why should women get factory jobs and destroy the job opportunities for men who are breadwinners of their families? We shouldn’t forget that no job in the world is as precious as childbearing.”
But Zeynab Society-type politicians are not the only female members in parliament in the history of the Islamic Republic. In the sixth parliament (2000-04), you had what Leyla Alikarami, a lawyer and rights activist, calls a “turning point.”
Thirteen female members of parliament had made it to the Majles in the heyday of Reformism under President Mohammad Khatami. They were mostly Reformist. “From the get-go, they had some basic innovations,” Alikarami told Al-Monitor. “They wouldn’t wear the chador to work and they desegregated the parliamentary quarters. But, most importantly, they tried very hard to change the law to expand women’s rights as they were committed to equality.” Relying on the Reformist super-majority in the parliament, they ended up passing more than 30 measures in favor of women, many of which (like Iran’s ascension to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) were vetoed by the Guardian Council. Still, about half were eventually passed by the intervention of the Expediency Council. These included banning child marriage and more rights for women in divorce and custody matters.
With a moderate government in place, Reformists feel buoyed again and hope to win a majority in the parliamentary elections in February. Some of the female parliament members of the sixth Majles now head the Reformist Women Assembly, which was founded last year. They work closely with President Hassan Rouhani’s Women and Family Affairs Deputy Shahindokht Molawerdi (a Reformist).
One of their most senior figures who spoke anonymously to Al-Monitor said they harbor an ambitious legislative agenda, similar to the years of 2000-04.
Whether or not they’re successful in increasing the number of female parliament members, some of the conservatives agree with a quota system to boost female participation. Shariati says it should be increased to “at least 30” (which seems to be in line with a plan being worked out by the Speaker Ali Larijani to mandate a minimum of one female member of parliament from each province). If passed, that would make it at least 31 female parliament members, three times the number they have now.