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Why is Iran's Judiciary a Male-Dominated Institution?

October 8, 2020
Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
9 min read
The Iranian Women Lawyers Union was founded in the latter days of the Pahlavi era, when women could still sit as judges
The Iranian Women Lawyers Union was founded in the latter days of the Pahlavi era, when women could still sit as judges
"Judgment is not a right that has been taken away from women; it is a responsibility that has been removed from their shoulders"
"Judgment is not a right that has been taken away from women; it is a responsibility that has been removed from their shoulders"

Why has Iran’s judiciary been unable to gain public trust over the last 40 years? What are the basic problems of the institution, the original primary goals of which were to "litigate, protect public rights and implement justice" in order to "uphold individual and social rights”?

In this series, IranWire will look at the structural problems of the judicial branch of government, relying on concrete examples and statements from legal experts to build a picture of the judiciary and whether it functions according to the principles on which it was originally based.

In the first part of the series, IranWire looked at the independence and impartiality of Iran’s judiciary. The second article looked at the protracted trial process, which successive judiciary heads have promised to reform, without success. The third article addressed corruption in the judiciary while the fourth scrutinized the appointment system for justices in Iran. The fifth article delved into the ideological misuse of Iran’s “special” courts. 

This article, the sixth in the series, examines the systematic exclusion of qualified women from both senior posts in the Iranian judiciary and other roles in the legal system. Where are Iran’s female justices, and why is the regime afraid of them?  



In the latter years of the Pahlavi era, a group of around 35 Iranian female justices came together to form the Women Lawyers Union: a network for girls and women who were either studying law or who had graduated from law school, dedicated to achieving sex-based equality in Iran’s legislature.

But the fortunes of Iranian women lawyers were drastically reversed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Suddenly, these women – many of whom were at the peak of their careers at the time – were confronted with a ruling that told them their judgement was forbidden in the new regime’s interpretation of Islam.

Asadollah Mobasheri, a former Isfahan prosecutor and the new Minister of Justice, first refused to sign the final certificates of new would-be female judges, and then cancelled what would have been the 23rd swearing-in ceremony for women justices in Iran. The decision was staggeringly hypocritical, as Mobasheri himself had studied law at a French university and was still living in France at the time of his appointment.

Female judges in Iran were dismissed en masse, with senior members of the judiciary such as Shirin Ebadi demoted to the post of magistrate’s clerk. The decision was met with outrage, repeated sit-ins, rallies and public statements in front of the Palace of Justice in Tehran. But it came to nothing as Ahmad Sayyed Javadi, who took over the position of justice minister in June 1979, was similarly opposed to the idea of women presiding over the courts.

From the very first days of the Islamic Revolution and for the last 41 years, the presence of women in the Iranian judiciary has been relegated and constrained. Since the mid-1990s, women have again been permitted to work as deputy prosecutors, but cannot sit as judges in the high courts – despite the presence of around 1,900 women in the country with the right qualifications to do so.


Why Can’t Women be Judges in Iran?

"Judgment is not a right that has been taken away from women; it is a responsibility that has been removed from their shoulders."

So said Mohsen Gharaati, a cleric and former representative of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, who preached on religious affairs on Iranian television for many years. "This is not a privilege for men,” he opined in 2012. “God created woman to raise the future generation. This requires kindness, compassion, and emotion... the delicate and vulnerable feelings of the woman cause her to be moved by tears or threats.”

There are no definitive figures on the number of women working anywhere in the Iranian judiciary today. But last year, the Statistical Center of Iran announced that only 4.34 million women were in any form of employment in Iran. On the other hand, it was estimated that eight out of every 100 judges were women. In the past few years, fewer than 30 percent of participants in the judges' exams have been women, for what little roles remain available to them. Putting these scattered statistics together, it is evident that women have no place in the top echelons of Iran’s judiciary.

Furthermore, it is not only the most senior roles that are closed off to would-be lawyers who happen to be female. Mehrnaz Mansouri, who has a master's degree in public law, has taken several consecutive qualifying exams but on every occasion, she failed the accompanying “personality test”. Her attempt to take the judicial counsel test was also unsuccessful.

"There’s discrimination after discrimination,” she told IranWire, “and wall after wall. The first layer of discrimination is that you do not become a judge even if you are more capable than your male counterpart. Second, even the limited percentage of women selected for the position of secondary judge is not on a par with that of men.

“In the face-to-face interview stage, women make up the bulk of those who do not cross the threshold into employment as justices. They’re blocked over such problems as hijab and make-up. Even if you do get your master’s degree, pass the near-impossible tests and somehow get through the interview stage, you’ll only be taken on as a secondary judge.”


From Incredulity to Courtroom Harassment

Mahnaz Parakand, an Iranian-born attorney now living in Norway who has represented imprisoned human rights lawyers Abdolfattah Soltani and Nasrin Sotoudeh, told IranWire that while working on Mr. Soltani’s case she had needed an Iranian judge’s authorization to meet with her client. She was told: “You are a woman. Why do you want to meet with a man in prison?"

Parakand points out that little else can be expected from a country in which women’s role as second-class citizens is enshrined in the Constitution itself. “The status of women in Iranian law is defined based on the role of the mother, and the mother’s position in the family,” she says. “In civil and criminal law, women do not have the same rights as men and are considered ‘half-men’. From this standpoint, not only in the judiciary but in all parts of the system, women cannot have equal status.

"For years, civil and human rights activists have tried to bring Iranian women back into the judicial positions they occupied before the revolution. Perhaps it was the result of such efforts that we now see some women in the judiciary, albeit not as judges or branch heads but as counsel and secondary judges.”

Zahra Ravanaram, a lawyer living in Khuzestan, says she has often been made to feel uncomfortable in court because of her sex. Last year, for instance, Ahmad Mortazavi Moghaddam, the head of Iran’s Supreme Court, warned judges to be vigilant against flirtatious women lawyers who might try to “charm and allure judges by their coquetry”.

"We women lawyers in Iran are very hard-nosed,” Ravanaram tells IranWire, “and tolerant in the face of both insults and unequal pay. They’ll say [to defendants], ‘You gave your case to a female lawyer? Are you insane?' or ask us, 'Hey madam, why did you enter the police station with your head down? The police station is no place for women.'

“When the judge sneers and writes down his personal phone number on the corner of the cover of your client's file, you know exactly what he’s getting at. This and other behaviors are extremely annoying. But it shocked me that a high-ranking judicial official [like Mortazavi Moghaddam] would also humiliate female lawyers with sexist insults."


Female Lawyers’ Disavowal is Iran’s Loss

London-based lawyer Mehri Jafari believes there are various factors bearing down on legal discrimination against women in Iran – some of which are as old as society itself. “In patriarchal societies,” she says, “this imbalance is very strong, and it is natural that this imbalance is most visible in the judiciary: one of the most important bases of power in society and the government.

“Serious decisions are made in this arena and so, by evaluating the amount of intervention and clout women have in the judiciary, we can determine the role women hold in the whole of society’s balance of power.”

The process of eliminating discrimination against women, Jafari points, has long been under way across the developed world and some societies are even moving toward positive discrimination to correct past imbalances. “In Iran,” she adds, “it is quite the opposite. Not only is no action being taken to resolve this imbalance but since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, the notion of absolute male power has been cemented. Where we see women present in the same jobs as men, it will have taken effort and courage, despite efforts by the Islamic Republic to deter them.”

Jafari’s recollections of her own time as a young lawyer in Iran are bitter ones. “From the moment you entered the courthouse,” she says, “you were harassed and attacked. You were criticized for the way you dressed. Some courts in the city did not even allow you to enter without a veil.

“I once went to Ardabil for a case related to finance. I remember the judge saying, ‘Have the men become so incapable that you women have entered this field, now?’. Another told me in a derogatory tone that I should fix my headscarf instead of doing the defense – and another, when you were reading the client's defense, would not look at your face. The atmosphere at that time was really humiliating and oppressive."

But Jafari does have one positive memory of a woman’s presence in court, and one she believes could be cause for optimism in a different, freer Iran. “The head of the order execution branch of one of the courts,” she says, “was a woman who behaved completely differently. Every time my case was sent to this branch it gave me energy. Her presence and polite demeanor softened the atmosphere. Every time I saw her, I wished there were more of this type of person in the judicial system – that we might bring about positive and fundamental changes we need, in the cruel and masculine atmosphere of Iranian trials."


Read other articles in the series: 

Iran’s Prolonged, Infernal Tunnel of Litigation

Is Iran’s Judiciary an Impartial and Independent Institution?

Endemic Corruption Renders Iran’s Judiciary Ineffective and Unjust

Who are Iran’s Judges and Who Gives Them the Right to Make Decisions About People's Lives?

Injustice Behind Closed Doors: Iran's Special and Revolutionary Courts



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Firouz Farzani
3 min read
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