By Golnaz Mahdavi
June 10, 2021
The Guardian Council never endorses women candidates in Iran’s presidential elections, but women are always at the center of the debates – usually as a weapon for rivals to use against one another. It’s obvious that Iranian politicians understand that women, who constitute a huge section of the electorate, matter, but they can’t quite bring themselves to see their value beyond what service they can offer to them.
In the 9 June debate, there was considerably more focus on women’s “issues” than usual, with reformist and principlist-conservative candidates alike promising to improve the lives of women across Iran if elected. In fact, none of the running candidates will bring greater freedom, prosperity, security or independence to Iranian women, and in most cases, they will create greater problems for them than they are already experiencing.
The second debate focused on social, cultural and political issues, including matters pertaining to family, young people, sports and culture. Each of the candidates pointed out the relevance of these issues in women’s lives, and each of them exposed their willingness to use the idea of women’s empowerment to gain the upper hand, while at the same time demonstrating just how little they understood why these issues were relevant. Everything they said made it obvious that, whatever their political and ideological differences, these candidates all had one thing in comon: they believ that women’s role is motherhood, and it was their job to grow the population of the Islamic Republic.
Abdolnasser Hemmati: Bringing Women into the Cabinet and Ending Harassment Against Them
Abdolnasser Hemmati and Mohsen Rezaei are the only candidates who actually appeared to regard women voters as a key target group in their election campaigns. For Hemmati, who is hoping to attract swing voters, women are very important. He told the audience that he intended to appoint women to key roles in the cabinet if elected, even specifying that he intended to appoint a total of five women. At the same time, he mocked his rivals. Both approaches represented two clear bids for women’s votes, including women who may have already decided they will boycott the election and not vote for anyone at all, and who Hemmati hoped would change their minds after hearing what he had to say.
One key comment he made that he knew would definitely chime with women voters was his criticism of the Morality Police and their harassment of women on the streets and his call for a stop to their behavior. Hemmati highlighted that the judiciary had sent warning messages to women for not properly observing Iran’s mandatory hijab law, and pointed to the unnecessary and damaging pressure it put women under.
He also promised to combat gender discrimination in the workplace and the wage gap between men and women — one of the most progressive promises in the Islamic Republic for more than 40 years.
And yet, the self-proclaimed reformist and self-appointed champion of women appeared to undermine his own statements. For example, during the debate, he talked about the importance of bringing Iran’s Sunni community into the political process, and specifically into the executive branch, repeatedly using the phrase “Sunni brothers” without making any reference whatsoever to Sunni women.
Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh: Cabinet Presence and the Iconic Issue of Women in Stadiums
At the very beginning of the June 9 debate, Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh addressed rival Ebrahim Raeesi directly, accusing him, as the head of the judiciary, of being behind the targeted campaign against women and the messages going out to them via text.
Mehr Alizadeh also pledged to bring women into the cabinet, and also gave a promise of a specific number. He said he would appoint three women in his cabinet as ministers, and if parliament did not support him in this, he would instead appoint women as vice presidents to ensure women had a role in the government. At the end of the session, he conjured up and alluded to an iconic issue for Iranian women: their right to enter stadiums and watch sporting events. His nostalgic ruminations were no doubt part of his strategy for wooing the electorate. “I remember the days when women could attend stadiums,” he said with feeling.
But although Mehr Alizadeh appeared to support women’s freedoms by addressing the key issues of mandatory hijab and stadiums, skepticism about this commitment is probably warranted, especially given the fact that he is only the latest in a long string of presidential candidates who have used these issues to leverage votes from women, and from men who support women’s rights. It’s a refrain that has often been heard coming from the mouths of both reformists and moderates — Hassan Rouhani among them — but even former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw the value of such sentiments. However, a quick scan of comments made by Shahindokht Molaverdi, Rouhani’s former vice president for women and family affairs, reveals that she was unable to gain much political ground and ultimately became a victim of Rouhani’s efforts to improve relations between the executive branch and Qom authorities.
Mohsen Rezaei: Sympathy for the Neighborhood Gossip Women Have to Endure
Among the five candidates, Mohsen Rezaei is probably one who has invested tangible efforts to secure votes from women in the current election period. As he did in the previous debate, he promised affordable internet access for women, a lifting of restrictions on women athletes, salaries for women who work as homemakers, and support for women who have set up and operate business from their homes.
Among the electorate, of course, there is huge doubt as to whether he would even be able to deliver such promises, and, as with the other candidates, skepticism that he truly believes any of what he has said, given Rezaei’s long-standing presence in the higher echelons of Iran’s notoriously anti-feminist government system. And he did little to build confidence in his statements when, at one point during the debate, he resorted to gender stereotyping that essentially reduced problems women face to neighborhood gossip and family feuds.
“It is true that men face many problems outside the home,” said Mohsen Rezaei. “Women also have to deal with childbearing, neighborhood spats and competitions” — the “competitions” reference evoking the image of a woman doing everything she could do to acquire luxury and glamor she could show off to other women.
Ebrahim Raeesi’s Joke: Gender Justice Through Law Enforcement
Ebrahim Raeesi, as anyone who has read the news in recent weeks will know, already considers himself to be the next president. As mentioned above, in the most recent debate, he faced criticism from two reformist candidates after the judiciary, currently under his leadership, texted women and threatened them with reprisals for their “indecency.” Raeesi didn’t bother responding to the criticism. That honor went to Saeed Jalili — widely believed to be a “cover” or plant candidate who will step down before the election in order not to take any votes away from Raeesi. Jalili’s rebuttal was weak, with him simply dismissing the issue as trivial.
But Raeesi did not completely ignore issues most relevant to women voters. He said during the debate that the judiciary had helped the government draft a bill to protect women’s rights, but that it was not yet finalized due to the inefficiency of the (Rouhani-led) government process. He then took the decision to round the debate off with a joke bordering on a motto it was so apt: gender justice is achieved through law enforcement, he said.
It is unlikely that Ebrahim Raeesi, who has a long career with the judiciary, serving as its first deputy head from 2004 to 2014 and now its chief justice, is unaware of the numerous women rights activists currently detained in Iran. He is probably well aware that most of these women, many of whom were detained and prosecuted between 2006 and 2009, demand an immediate reform of the country’s many laws that discriminate against women, including laws pertaining to inheritance, the Sharia legal concept of retribution or “blood money,” and marriage. Among the women who have been targeted are the 70 women jailed on June 12, 2006 in Tehran’s Haftir Square for their part in the One Million Signatures Campaign. During their arrest they were subjected to violence by male and female police officers, some of them in plainclothes. Supporters of the movement are routinely harassed, detained, and imprisoned by security forces and the judiciary, and many have been forced to flee Iran over the years.
Saeed Jalili: Let’s Really Support Women
Principlist candidate Saeed Jalili, who has held senior positions in the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic apparatus, criticized the way the debates had been conducted, saying that women should be able to put forth questions for presidential candidates to answer. He spoke of Iran’s 3.5 million households headed by women, of which only 177,000 are supported by government agencies. Elsewhere in his speech, Jalili made a differentiation between politicians that carried out “theatrical work” for women and those who really addressed their needs. “The result of the current government’s eight years of talk about women has brought nothing,” he said. “Women heads of households were not given greater opportunities. Employment for women did not improve. The government has not convened a single meeting about its missions for women. It defined a plan for rural women with a budget of 500 million tomans, which was implemented for only 510 people; this is what I mean by theatrical work.”
Jalili, like several of the other candidates, made dramatic gestures about meeting women’s demands, while at the same time downplaying their right to choose how to dress. “When we criticize the practice of sending warning text messages to women, we must consider that there are thousands of women who have problems just making a living,” he said.
Alireza Zakani: Women Struggle Financially, but They Should Really Have More Babies
Alireza Zakani, currently a parliamentary representative for Qom, also used women’s issues to launch an attack on rival Abdolnasser Hemmati. In response to Hemmati’s stated plans for greater representation and greater freedoms for women, Zakani appeared to agree with Jalili. “Which women are you talking about? Some of these women are struggling to meet the very basics to live.”
Elsewhere, he said, without mentioning women, that the fertility rate should be 2.3 percent, and said he planned to offer support for three and a half million childless couples across Iran and promote marriage.
Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi: The Last Word on Feminism
Toward the end of the second debate, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a candidate who has put himself forward as an expert physician and surgeon, added his own mocking comments to the mix. He challenged his rivals Abdolnasser Hemmati and Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh and made his own commitments to help women reach the upper rungs of politics. “My entire cabinet will be made up of women!” he announced, likely caught up in the drama of the battle to persuade the electorate of firm feminist credentials.
But it didn’t take long for him to realize what he had said. He soon changed his tone, reasserting his reputation as a doctor and a surgeon. “My campaign manager is a woman and a mother of three. It’s a matter of meritocracy, and mothers can do solid work for society.”
Ghazizadeh may have thought this was the last word when it came to best boasts for the pursuit of feminist ideals, without realizing he, like the others, was simply reinforcing the dominant discourse about women in Iran: they are only ever mothers first, and then, if time allows, they can also contribute to the world of work. Every Iranian knows that women who try to approach their lives from any other angle find it difficult to gain employment, are deprived of key rights, face ongoing harassment, and can even find themselves in prison.
The campaign leader, whose name Ghazizadeh Hashemi failed to mention, is Zahra Sheikhi Mobarakeh, was elected as an MP for Isfahan in 2020. A simple search reveals that, on June 7, Hashemi replaced Sheikhi with a man named Mehdi Badpa.