By Aida Ghajar
May 25, 2021
The Boy who Cried Wolf was a shepherd boy who constantly tricked villagers into believing a wolf was attacking his flock. Every time, they rushed to his aid. But he deceived them so many times, and for so long, that eventually the villagers stopped believing him and when a wolf actually did come to gobble up his sheep, nobody came to the rescue.
The upcoming Iranian presidential election has parallels with this folktale. Every four years, candidates rush to throw their hats into the ring to represent the Iranian people, boasting of their ability to enact change. But the moment one of them takes the helm they complain that they are helpless in the face of the Supreme Leader.
In time, the people — beleaguered by economic pressure, political impasse, bans on normal civil activity and media suppression — have come to lose hope, especially since the November 2019 protests when the internet was cut off for three days and hundreds were massacred in the ensuing blackout. Just two months later, the Revolutionary Guards shot down a Ukrainian Airlines plane over Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard.
No small wonder, then, that this time around so many people are unwilling to even go to the polls at all. So far has the disillusionment spread that a handful of Iranian political figures who always preached hope are now publicly calling for a boycott of the June 18 vote.
Meanwhile, two noteworthy developments have taken place. A woman was able to register as a candidate in the presidential election and claims she’s still in the running, while Ayatollah Khamenei addressed the issue of women’s voting rights head-on in public. But are changes really on the way, or this is just another lie by the shepherd boy?
According to Sharia law as interpreted by the Islamic Republic, women cannot even leave home without their husband’s permission. And yet, when asked recently whether women they can go to the polls without their spouse’s consent, the Supreme Leader answered shortly: “Voting in the election is not subject to the husband’s permission.”
Ahead of a previous vote Ali Khamenei was asked a similar question and had then said that participating in elections was “a [religious] obligation”.
The latest comments have compelled baffled reactions in cyberspace. In Iran, according to the Supreme Leader’s own decrees, apart from stepping outside their homes women also need their husbands’ permission to get a passport or a divorce. A further constellation of unwritten laws bar them from participating fully in public life, such as the “ban” on female spectators in sports stadiums.
In the regime’s eyes, the core duty of a woman is to obey her husband’s wishes and give birth to as many children as possible. “Marry early and have children” has been Khamenei’s refrain for decades. Women, in his view, have no more important role than increasing the Shia population.
Despite women having been blocked from running as presidential candidates for 42 years, a woman has also registered at the Interior Ministry this year under the impression that the Guardian Council might approve her candidacy. Zahra Shojaei formerly served as head of the Center for Women’s Participation under then-President Mohammad Khatami as a major advocate for women’s rights.
After her tenure was over and the principalists took over under Ahmadinejad, the word “Participation” was dropped from the Center’s name and replaced with the words “and Family Affairs”. In the current political climate, Shojaei’s attempt to run is thought to be more of a publicity stunt aimed at bringing more people to the polls.
Only “Gentlemen” Need Apply!
Article 15 of the Iranian constitution unhelpfully uses an Arabic word — rijal, meaning “men” or “gentlemen” — to qualify presidential candidates. For years now how to interpret this word has been the subject of heated dispute, while the Guardian Council has consistently used it to deny women the opportunity to run for president.
After signing up at the Interior Ministry, Shojaei told reporters that she wanted to be “done with” the word rijal once and for all. She is not the first to have made this point. Before her, Azam Taleghani, an MP for Tehran in the Islamic Republic’s first parliament and founder of the Society of Islamic Revolution Women of Iran in 1992, tried to do the same by registering for the 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2017 votes. Of course, she was knocked out by the Guardian Council every time, but up until her death in 2019 she never gave up the fight.
In a Clubhouse chat room, Shojaei later said she believed the Guardian Council had no reason to reject her candidacy. She even claimed her name was on the shortlist of 40 candidates the Guardian Council had deemed to be generally qualified.
Asieh Amini, a journalist and human rights activist, told IranWire that in her view, even if both Shojaei and reformist firebrand Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani end up on the shortlist, turnout including female turnout will stay low.
“I don’t believe some people are ever going to vote again,” she said, “and the reason is clear. Human beings live on hope and strive for a better life. But the pile of ruined social and political hopes in Iran has now risen so high that people cannot breathe the weight of it.
“There are no bright spots in the power structure. Efforts to get women over the hurdle of the Guardian Council, or to change the meaning of ‘political gentlemen’, are telling you that you shouldn’t believe your own eyes but believe in what they say you are seeing. These attempts to convince people to vote are the same story as the Boy who Cried Wolf.”
These publicity drives, Amini says, might even make the situation worse: “This distrust and societal collapse is not merely about voting and choosing a president. A wolf has really attacked our flock. But we have heard so may lies, we have witnessed so much duplicity and demagoguery, that now we cannot trust anybody.”
Not Calling the Islamic Republic’s Bluff
Claims made during the presidential campaign, Amini believes, are nothing but bluffs in a decades-long card game. This time, women’s rights are being used by the regime as a deceptive instrument.
“Telling women that they do not need their husbands’ permission to vote is itself a means of exploiting them. When a woman cannot leave the country with her husband’s permission, cannot divorce, cannot be the guardian of her children and needs his assent to get a job, such a statement is manipulating women: using them as tools that the Islamic Republic now needs.”
In Khamenei’s eyes, Amini says, a woman “is a semi-human on whose behalf somebody must make decisions. Her value is in being a mother, in having children, and in having even more children. In the Supreme Leader’s own words, the value of a woman lies in how obedient she is. Why would a woman listen when her humanity is not being recognized?
“Even under the worst economic and political conditions, with war, sanctions and economic disaster, millions of Iranians tried to make their own lives better. But they weren’t even permitted to do this. In this kind of power structure, the claims are no more than bluffs.
“To say that women can be presidents and ministers is like trying to insert an unknown into an equation where every element is known, and where one can see the outcome clearly. The outcome is that the divide between the Iranian people and the Iranian government is only going to get wider. This gap has become so big that no amount of promises and pledges can fill it.”
Even the “undecided”, says Amini, have decided. “You can hear their voices clearly, from the streets to social media: ‘I am not going to vote!’”