By Roghayeh Rezaei
September 7, 2021
Ebrahim Raisi has appointed Ansieh Khazali as his vice president for women and family affairs. She confirmed the news in a tweet, quoting a verse from the Quran in which Moses pleads with God: “O Lord! Expand my breast for me/… And loose the knot from my tongue,/ [That] they may understand my word.”
Ansieh Khazal is a former president and former faculty member of Al-Zahra University, the first women-only public university in Iran, and the president of the female campus of Razavi Islamic Sciences University in the holy city of Mashhad. On just two occasions have her inclinations with regard to women’s rights gone on record. They were both telling, and did not inspire confidence for progressives or women’s rights activists.
Khazali married when she was 16. She also married off her daughters when they were very young. She has said she supports child marriage, accused women who do not want children of “seeking comfort”, and called women who are entitled to sizeable dowries in the event of a divorce “hagglers”. With some irony, she herself secured a guaranteed right to divorce, to continue her social and political activities and to stay in education when she was married to her husband, through appeals to none other than Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic.
Who is Ansieh Khazali, and what can Iranian women (and children) expect from her as the VP for women and family affairs? IranWire interviewed Nayereh Tohidi, a professor and former chair of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at California State University, and Mina Khani, an Iranian political analyst and feminist based in Berlin, to get their take on the little we know about her politics so far.
Who Is Ansieh Khazali?
Ansieh Khazali is among the handful of women who could be described as being in the upper echelons of power in Iran. Like others who have somehow been able to climb that ladder, she has close family ties to current and former senior figures in the regime.
The daughter of Ayatollah Abolghasem Khazali Boroujerdi, a former hardliner and fundamentalist member of the Assembly of Experts, Ansieh Khazali is now 58 years old. She was born in 1963 in Qom, the holiest city in Iran for Shia Muslims, and grew up there, obtaining a PhD in Arabic literature and a “level 3” degree from Qom seminary, which is roughly equivalent to a master’s.
In a June 2017 interview with the website Namayandeh News, Khazali described her personal life in minute detail. Although she had married at 16 while she was still in high school, she said, and although her husband expected her to “obey”, he couldn’t stop her continuing her education because she had secured this liberty in their marriage contract.
But she also told the interviewer that while her children were small, her husband had told her she could spend only 15 hours a week outside their home. She had “observed” this rule, she said.
Traditionally in Islam, the husband has the sole right to seek a divorce. But Khazali said that at one point, Khomeini had said women could pursue the same. On this basis, she claimed, she asked her father to ensure this was in her marriage contract too.
Khazali is an academic and has published several articles and books in Persian and Arabic, all rooted in Islamic political ideology. She has also said that although she was very young at the time, she railed against Shah’s regime under the alias “Zeinab Boroujerdi”. When her brother was killed in an anti-Shah demonstration in Qom in 1978, she told the interviewer, she talked at his mourning ceremonies, and her words were recorded and distributed as a “message from a martyr’s sister”. According to her, when the cleric Morteza Motahari, a prominent supporter of Khomeini, heard the tape, he wept and told her: “Make copies of this tape. It will help advance the revolution a great deal.”
What Do Khazali’s Supporters Say about Her?
IranWire made efforts to talk to those supporters of Ansieh Khazali who have approved of her appointment and wished her success on social media. This unsurprisingly bore no results. But many people responded positively to her tweet announcing her appointment, calling on her to work to “revive the family” and “strengthen the role of the woman” within the family.
One person tweeting under the name of “Mahmoud, Son of Ali”, who has Khomeini as his profile picture, asked Khazali to “distance herself from the feminists” while in office. Another called on Khazali to do whatever she can in her power to prevent the implementation of UNESCO’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – which, among other things, asks member states to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training”.
Khazali herself is a staunch opponent of the 2030 Agenda. In an interview in May 2018, she bizarrely blamed sexual harassment by the schoolmaster of a boys’ high school in western Tehran on the 2030 Agenda, which, she said, was aimed at “removing inhibitions”. “Such incidents are inevitable,” she said, “when this document practically insists on no-holds-barred education, normalizes such issues and calls its opponents psychologically imbalanced.”
Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet approved the 2030 Agenda and Khazali is following the lead of Ali Khamenei in being opposed to it. She has also claimed, baselessly, that it is “quietly” being implemented in Iran without people’s knowledge.
Shahindokht Molaverdi, Rouhani’s VP for Women’s Affairs in his first term, was a proponent of 2030 Agenda. After her retirement she was charged, among other things, with “promotion of corruption, prostitution and encouraging individuals to sexual deviancy,” and sentenced to two and a half years in prison in December 2020. Nevertheless, Molaverdi congratulated Khazali on Twitter and wished her success “on the unfinished road to achieving gender justice”.
Masoumeh Ebtekar, Rouhani’s VP for Women’s affairs in his second term, has also offered her congratulations to her successor. She also said she hoped Khazali would succeed in “achieving gender justice as defined by Quran, removing discrimination and legal shortcomings, and also strengthening Iranian families.”
Whether Ansieh Khazali actually believes in gender justice – even as envisioned by the Quran – is uncertain. But there are fears she will be no different from the rest of the patriarchal Raisi cabinet, which seems to be bent on buttressing the ruling clergy’s utopia: in which women are primarily mothers, sisters and wives.
A Retrograde Worldview
Professor Nayereh Tohidi, a past head of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at California State University, told IranWire she believes that despite Khalazi’s academic record there will be little to celebrate here. “We don’t know much,” she said. “One might expect that, in contrast with the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic and the president, neither of whom have a university education, she’ll have a more scientific, progressive take on the realities of today’s world. But, unfortunately, it seems a university education in the Islamic Republic does necessarily lead to this.
“Ms. Khazali wants Iranian women to have more children. In other words, she wants women to focus most of their time, energy and attention on housework and on being mothers, ostensibly because Iran has an aging population. For the same reason, she also believes in early marriage and when it comes to dowries, she has more sympathy for men than for women.
“To resolve the population problem in Iran — if indeed there is a problem — we have to understand it’s caused by bad economic conditions and young people’s diminished hopes for the future. Instead of looking at these root causes, Ms. Khazali wants to force women to have more children by moving the discourse on gender roles backward, duping them, and offering them only fleeting rewards. Her comment that women don’t bear children because they are ‘seeking comfort’ shows she has no understanding of the issue.”
“The fact that she encourages underage marriage indicates she hasn’t grasped that scientific studies prove underage marriages do enormous harm to the family, and to the health of both women and children. She has the same stance toward the question of dowry– itself a symbol of discriminatory laws and women’s lack of security – and says women are ‘hagglers’.”
At a seminar on family at Al-Zahra University in 2015, Khazali made a series of statements on the matter of dowries: in Iran, this denotes the sum of money a groom promises to the bride’s family if the marriage ends in divorce. “Unfortunately,” Khazali said, “a financial and bargain-hunting outlook is taking over marriage. For instance, the dowry, which is a symbol of affection, has now turned into haggling. Child-bearing has also fallen as a result of comfort-seeking… Unfortunately, the belief that God will provide for children, that the man must be able to afford the dowry and that a simpler life brings the couple closer together, is fading.”
For Nayereh Tohidi, these comments missed the wider point about the legal, financial and practical obstacles that push many women to still seek a dowry in 2021. “Iranian women who didn’t get the right to seek a divorce, and who fear the law that allows for male polygamy, will want high dowries to alleviate their insecurity. Instead of studying or addressing the root causes of this issue, Ms. Khazali wants to eliminate this tiny safeguard women are left with. Her focus is on preserving men’s unjust legal, social and political privileges, not the inequalities, insecurities and discriminations that women experience day in, day out.”
A Bleaker Prospect for Iranian Women
Like Tohidi, Iranian feminist commentator Mina Khani believes Ansieh Khazali’s appointment as Raisi’s VP for women and family affairs is a wider, symbolic gesture toward what hardliners perceive women’s role in politics to be. “That is to say, if a woman chooses to embrace the misogynistic and patriarchal policies of the regime, then she is allowed to enter politics. That means that at most, such a woman can only be involved in politics where it concerns family and women’s affairs.
“Nothing special is going to happen with the Khazali’s appointment. This new vice president will work within the same framework of entrenching the sexual and gender divide in Iran, of male domination over women, of consolidation of patriarchy and the patriarchal ‘nuclear family’. The fact that Khazali defends child marriage in order that those little girls enter a traditional, patriarchal family to play, as she puts it, their ‘main role’ of being a wife and mother, tells us she is part and parcel of the regime’s endeavor to consolidate its political and social norms.”
Nayereh Tohidi fears this appointment spells the beginning of a period in which Iranian women’s lot is even worse than before. “Unfortunately, as was predicted, Mr. Raisi’s government is moving backward in terms of women’s affairs. Most likely, the situation is going to get worse.
“Ms. Khazali is not going to be like Shahindokht Molaverdi, who was very proactive and possessed a measure of bravery, wisdom and realism. Molaverdi also had experience of working with female civil rights activists.”
During her vice presidency in Rouhani’s cabinet, Molaverdi was challenged by principalists and a number of hardline clerics. “Even though nothing extraordinary happened during her tenure,” Tohidi says, “she at least had a desire to improve the lot of women. She tried hard, and the opposition by the conservatives that she encountered showed she was trying. But Ms. Khazali is not going to try anything because she has a retrograde mind.
“My advice to Ms. Khazali is to take a lesson from the situation in Afghanistan and from the reactions of Afghan people, especially women and young Afghans [to Taliban rule]. Whenever she wants to do something that would mean a return to tribalism, to Sharia law that only befits premodern societies, she should remember those scenes at Kabul airport. People were ready to risk their lives instead of living under the Taliban.”