Iran s parliament convened last month for the first time since the April 2008 elections. The results of the parliamentary elections are in and all the votes have been counted. Surprisingly, or perhaps alarmingly, women now account for a mere 2.8 percent of this new conservative-dominated parliament. This is a decline from the already low 4.1 percent representation in the previous Iranian parliament.
Those familiar with Iranian society may find this shocking. Iran performs much better than other Middle Eastern countries on female education, health, and labor force participation. Iranian women comprise around two-thirds of university entrants, which has led to government-imposed quotas on university admittance, where women were dominating fields such as medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. And, while lower than the world average of 58 percent, Iran s female labor force participation – 42 percent – is the highest in the Middle East.
How is it then possible that the political representation of Iranian women is lagging, even when compared to other countries in the region; the average for the Middle East and North Africa is approximately 9 percent with Iraq having the highest female representation in parliament – 26 percent.
The answer to this question is complex. First, Iran does not use gender quotas for female political participation like some other Middle Eastern and North African countries; it is not certain how the other countries would have performed without the use of quotas and appointments.
Second, to qualify as a candidate in the parliamentary elections, the conservative Guardian Council – a powerful political body that has the power to veto candidates – has to be convinced of the prospective candidate s belief in Islam and the Islamic Republic. Women in Iran have played a crucial role in shifting the conservative-liberal balance in the government. Many believe that women were an integral part in bringing to power former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Therefore, it may simply be that females who register to run are likely to be less conservative than their male counterparts leading to a lower qualification rate.
Third, some of Iran s laws discourage women from rising to positions of leadership and decision-making. Women are not allowed to serve as judges or to run for the presidency. And the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, encourages women to stay at home and focus on the institution of family. Only two women hold secondary cabinet positions, the Centre for Women s Participation has been renamed the Centre for Women and Family Affairs and Ahmadinejad has publicly announced support for larger families with women staying at home to take care of children.
Finally, in light of external pressure with regards to its nuclear program, the Iranian government has come to view domestic women s groups as a threat to national security. There have been crackdowns on the One Million Signatures Campaign, a campaign aimed at collecting one million signatures in support of gender equality in Iran, peaceful women s rights demonstrations, and over the dress code. And the premier women s magazine, Zanan, was shut down in January 2008 allegedly because it offered a dark picture of the Islamic Republic and compromised the psyche and the mental health of its readers by providing them with morally questionable information.
Despite these challenges, Iranian women s determination to break stereotypes cannot be underestimated. Today, Iranian women are present in every educational and employment field that is traditionally male-dominated. And they are active politically, especially at the local level. In the 2006 municipal elections, 44 seats out of the 264 on provincial capital councils went to women.
In addition, Iranian women represent such a large share of voters in local and national elections that they are able to significantly influence national politics. For instance, the 2008 parliamentary candidates had to adjust their election campaigns to attract women voters by vowing to change family and labor laws to ensure more equal treatment of women.
The government is slowly amending laws that are discriminatory towards women. The most recently passed laws by parliament allow some Iranian women married to foreigners to pass on their Iranian nationality to their children, which was previously not possible. And women suffering injury or death in a car accident are now entitled to the same insurance company compensation as men, whereas previously women received only half of the compensation given to men.
There is strong public support for greater gender equality in Iran. A recent poll conducted by World Public Opinion and Search for Common Ground finds that 78 percent of Iranians think that it is somewhat or very important for women to have full equal rights with men and 70 percent think that the government should make an effort to prevent discrimination against women.
As the world is watching developments in Iran, the women s movement is likely to be in the forefront. And perhaps it will not be too long before Iranian women become as politically empowered as they are in other spheres of society.
Talajeh Livaniis an Iranian who was raised in Sweden and is currently working as a consultant for the World Bank s Middle East and North Africa division. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.