On Sunday, November 25, President Hassan Rouhani accepted the resignation of Shahindokht Molaverdi, his advisor on citizens’ rights. The resignation of the prominent female politician is both a blow to the advocacy for women’s rights in Iran and evidence that Rouhani’s administration is unwilling or unable to introduce any real change in the way the government operates.
Molaverdi, who is the former Vice President of Women’s Affairs, was forced to tender her resignation after a law went into effect that bans the government from employing retirees. Although her resignation has attracted widespread media attention, in reality Molaverdi played only a ceremonial role in Rouhani’s administration, particularly during the president’s second term.
Molaverdi’s letter of resignation was also a protest against the law that forced her to resign. “Banning political participation is the violation of the most self-evident human rights,” she wrote. Rouhani’s letter of acceptance, meanwhile, was a boilerplate acknowledgment of her services.
A few days before her resignation, a number of reformists had proposed that Molaverdi be appointed as the governor of Razavi Khorasan province. But on November 19, she expressed surprise at the suggestion. Prior to this, there had also been suggestions that she should be given the governorship of South Khorasan province.
Molaverdi is 53 years old and, as she argues in her resignation letter, neither her age nor her years of service for the government make her subject to the new law pertaining to retirees in government service. In fact, the law is open to interpretation. During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), as with many officials who had worked under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, Molaverdi took early retirement. In an interview with the newspaper Etemad afterward, she said that at first she had taken a leave of absence without pay for a year but the “climate was so suffocating” that she felt she had to retire.
During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Molaverdi was the director of the International Center for Women’s Participation and Family Affairs and afterward, she ran her own office in Tehran. In an interview, she said that her family was against her returning to government service and when she accepted Rouhani’s offer to be his Vice President for Women’s Affairs, her daughters did not leave their rooms for a full three days as a protest against her decision.
Zahar Shojaei, who was President Khatami’s advisor in women's affairs, said that Rouhani had at first offered her the job but she had suggested Molaverdi instead. However, the world had changed since Khatami’s presidency. Calls for women’s rights had grown stronger and much more attention was paid to Molaverdi than was paid to Shojaei. This attention was also because of Molaverdi’s different attitude, the fact that she did not equivocate, and because of her active participation on social media.
When talking about her past, Molaverdi had admitted that during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when she was only 13, she did not understand anything about politics and had heard the name of Ayatollah Khomeini only once, when she was in fifth grade at primary school. She also recalled that she had not had the opportunity to enjoy her childhood, and had no chance to “play young.” When it comes to “playing young,” she said, boys have it better than girls.
A Target for Hardliners
Molaverdi’s style and her penchant for straight talking made her a target for the hardliner media. She was attacked for supporting a woman’s right to attend volleyball games after security officials refused to honor 200 tickets sold to women planning to attend a much-anticipated volleyball game between the US and Iranian national teams in Tehran. In turn, she condemned her critics in harsh terms. She wrote on her Facebook page that her conservative opponents were from a group that was “denounced two years ago by voters, and who had crawled into their cave of oblivion.” She also criticized what she described as the “crowd of sanctimonious people who published one notice after another denouncing the modest and decent girls and women of this land” and who “used obscene and disgusting insults that only befit themselves.”
She was also criticized sharply for opposing the deployment of 7,000 “underground” Morality Police, for her support of proposals to change the law that requires a woman to obtain her husband’s permission to travel abroad, and for her opposition to gender quotas. She also said that hijab laws were in need of “serious re-examination and updating,” that any legal action taken regarding hijab “must respect human dignity” and not be considered to be a security issue.
A “Shrew” who “Promotes Prostitution”
Principlist conservatives leveled many accusations at her, including that she provided fodder to “enemy media” and to Ahmed Shaheed during his time as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran. Some went beyond the bounds of personal decorum and called Molaverdi a “shrew” who “promotes prostitution under the cover of liberty.” She dismissed this treatment as “intimidation” and said that the people who responded in this way wanted to remind women that they are not exempt from “their sharp blades” — even if they are a vice president.
Not all of Molaverdi’s critics were men. On occasion, several female representatives to the Iranian parliament criticized Molaverdi’s stance on women’s issues.
In July 2014, Molaverdi came out against a law that allows girls under 15 to be married. According to official statistics, in 2013 more than five percent of marriages — or close to 31,000 — in Iran involved girls under 15, some of whom were as young as nine.
In March 2016, Molaverdi was summoned to court after comments she made in February about a village in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan where she said all the men had been executed. “We have a village in Sistan and Baluchistan province where every single man has been executed,” she said, without naming the place. “Their children are potential drug traffickers as they would want to seek revenge and provide money for their families. There is no support for these people.”
This shocking claim made headlines in Persian-language and Western media alike — and angered judiciary officials in the province, who accused Molaverdi of spreading lies and damaging the reputation of the province.
During the campaign for the 2017 presidential election, Fatemeh Alia, head of the Women’s Committee for the campaign of Ebrahim Raeesi, Rouhani’s principlist rival in the election, accused Molaverdi of providing information to the United Nations about divorced women aged between 20 and 25 that could be sent to work in the Turkish city of Antalya. Molaverdi dismissed the claim as a “barefaced lie” and threatened to take legal action against Alia. “This gibberish comes from a deranged and confused mind and it exposes the people to psychological insecurity,” she said in retaliation.
No Executive Power
Views vary about the performance of Molaverdi as Vice President of Women’s Affairs. Some believe that Iranian women did not benefit from any specific changes during her tenure. Molaverdi herself said that her office was mostly about coordinating various government agencies, not a ministry that has the power to take direct action.
As vice president, she was involved in a bill for a “national center for the protection of women against violence,” a proposal to create a “national authority to prevent human trafficking,” a proposal for “alternative punishments” for women who have been imprisoned on drug charges and for reducing their sentences to less than 91 days, as well as requesting funds to treat victims of acid attacks.
“They tried hard to marginalize us and deny us the chance to engage in our main mission,” said Molaverdi afterward. “I even believe that, had I remained at that post, these obstacles would have become bigger. Of course, if I had remained vice president, I was ready to confront the obstacles.”
But she did not remain in the job. In his second term, President Rouhani appointed Molaverdi as his advisor on citizens’ rights — a position that many considered to be merely ceremonial — but she continued to express her views in support of women’s causes. When some of the “Revolution Women” — the young women who in early 2018 protested against forced hijab by removing their scarves, tying them to a stick and waving them in public — were arrested, Molaverdi called for their release. She also said she was corresponding with security agencies about the forced closure of shops and businesses owned by the Baha’i religious minority.
In the last parliamentary election in 2016, news emerged that Molaverdi’s husband Hamid Ayati, a lawyer and the president of the Institute of Culture, Art and Architecture, had announced his candidacy to be a member of the parliament to represent Birjand, a city in the province of South Khorasan. Some claimed that he was hoping to win the election with his wife’s support. But he failed to get elected, and he was not put forward as a reformist candidate to sit on the city council either.
Molaverdi’s resignation letter and President Rouhani’s response are the latest evidence of the rift between the two. In interviews, Molaverdi had said that Rouhani’s second administration had failed to use the talents of women and young people and it could “no longer be defended.” She said the absence of female ministers in Rouhani’s cabinet was like “marching in place or even going backwards.”
Now Molaverdi has met the same fate as others who have tried to improve the lot of Iranian women from within the establishment. In her resignation letter she offered her apologies to “each and every citizen … for my part” in letting them down, and for not realizing their expectations —“despite all my endeavors.”
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