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Iranian Women Fight the Odds to Shine in Local Politics

September 26, 2016
Aida Ghajar
6 min read
Tayebeh Nik-Khoo Deylami, City Council President, Daylaman, Gilan
Tayebeh Nik-Khoo Deylami, City Council President, Daylaman, Gilan
Jamileh Molazehi, City Council Member, Nik Shahr, Sistan & Baluchistan
Jamileh Molazehi, City Council Member, Nik Shahr, Sistan & Baluchistan
Marmar Firouzpour, City Council President, Babol, Mazandaran
Marmar Firouzpour, City Council President, Babol, Mazandaran
Akhtar Veisi, City Council President, Javanroud, Kermanshah
Akhtar Veisi, City Council President, Javanroud, Kermanshah
Election for City Council Board of Directors, Tehran
Election for City Council Board of Directors, Tehran

After years of discrimination and exclusion, an unprecedented number of women were elected to run councils in local elections across Iran in August.

Voters elected women candidates to run seven councils in the provinces of Mazandaran, Kermanshah, Khuzestan, Gilan and Sistan and Baluchistan.

“My most important goal for getting into the board of directors was to elevate the standing of women,” said Akhtar Veisi, who was elected president of the board of directors with the support of more than half of city council members of Javanroud in the western province of Kermanshah. 

City council members from Daylaman in the Caspian Sea province of Gilan voted unanimously for Tayebeh Nik-Khoo Deylami. The city council of Babol, a major town in the neighboring province of Mazandaran, elected Marmar Firouzpour as its president. Sh’oleh Mostafapour was elected in Nowshahr in the same province. “The men who were candidates for presidency raised no objections,” Mostafapour said.

Jamileh Molazehi was elected in Nik Shahr in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan and in the southwestern province of Khuzestan two women won the presidency: Mahnaz Keian Hosseini in Chamran and Sima Kamaei in Ramhormoz.

“A Woman Boss Would be Humiliating”

But despite male candidates apparently having "no objections," Iran has a long-standing problem with women in politics, and female candidates continue to face severe discrimination. They have historically been barred from council presidencies —even when they have received a high number of votes. For example, in 2013, Ziba Salehpour secured 35,000 public votes to run for the local election in the city of Ahvaz, but when she declared her candidacy, city council members refused to let her run. She says male council members insisted “it would be humiliating for us if the city council president is a woman.”

Under Iranian law, city councils are tasked with supervising the operations of city governments and the mayors. They are also expected to take part in key decisions for the council. But Sedigheh Vasmaghi, who served as spokeswoman for Tehran’s City Council for four years, told IranWire that the laws are not clearly defined and are essentially “defective.” Because of this, she said, “the city council has not played a major role in macro-management and has not been able to function as a parliament for the city.”

Vasmaghi believes that woman managers in Iran and around the world are less susceptible to corruption and favoritism. “I think women are less adventure-obsessed and corruptible than men,” she said. “Their nature as mothers and nurturers makes them less prone to corruption as macro-managers.”

Of course, the situation in Tehran’s City Council is quite different from that in provincial towns. “The councils in Tehran and other major cities are more political than professional,” said one reporter who regularly covers council matters. “As a rule, the council does not have much power over high-level decisions — and as a result women members have even less power. It is possible to get work done in such a system, but you cannot expect miracles.”

Vasmaghi, however, has had her own experiences at the city council. “A religious authority protested against the fact that the spokesperson for the city council was a woman,” she said. She added that gender discrimination comes from the top echelons of power, and most people in influential positions were even against selecting women as borough mayors. When Gholam Hossein Karbaschi was the mayor of Tehran, the office of the supreme leader warned him not to allow the appointment of women for these positions.

Undoubtedly, Iran suffers from a culture of discrimination when it comes to women working or even engaging in politics. When the first city council elections were held in 1999, it was hoped that city government would provide a chance for women to expand their participation in politics. The same hope was held out for village councils — and in fact, many women did take advantage of the new opportunity. It was an important symbolic step for women, but in practice a very gradual process. Vasmaghi says it is important that while this  “transitional period” is ongoing and shifts in traditional cultural attitudes toward women take place, women must continue to fight hard for their place in politics, particularly those at higher levels of government. 

There is also a cultural contradiction in the workplace. As more people move from big cities to small towns and villages, they are increasingly putting greater trust in local people running local government — but at the same time, the dominant culture seems to be less friendly or even hostile toward women playing more of a role in public life. It is reductive to generalize about all towns and villages in Iran, especially because most women who have been elected to run city councils live in smaller towns in regions where ethnic minorities have a greater presence. But the fact that Iran’s wider culture is generally resistant to women taking part in politics or holding responsibility in government matters cannot be ignored. Because this resistance is embedded within Iranian society, discrimination is not only rife in politics, but also across the media, culture and education sectors. Iranians are taught from an early age that women have no role in politics, in public office, or even in shaping their society. 

A Game of Power

According to Vasmaghi, otherwise progressive political movements have so far not stood up to what she calls a “narrowmindedness,” choosing instead to capitulate or retreat. She calls not only for an end to policies that discriminate against gender, but also for a total revamping of Iranian cultural attitudes and the obstacles it creates for women, which she says produces a vicious circle. 

“People are not convinced that women are equal to men in capability and competency,” she said, and this is largely because women have not been allowed to take on positions of management. “Women themselves have yet to gain this experience, and as a result they lack self-confidence. They must get self-confidence before the society can believe in them.”

Vasmaghi also highlights the damage caused by male-only business models, criticizing the “power games” inherent in such a system. “Men consider council management a kind of power game. So their ambition is to own this power. We see this everywhere — not only in city councils.”

Despite all the obstacles, whether they be political, cultural or ideological, women have played a big role in local politics. “When I was elected as president, nobody believed in me and nobody did as I said,” said Nahid Eskandari from the City Council of Serkan, Hamadan province. Regardless, she successfully secured a license for the first sonography and mammography center for the city of Tuyserkan in her province.

“How can a woman be the boss?” some people said when Tal’at Ragbar was elected president of the city council of Esfarayen in North Khorasan. But she succeeded in bringing an asphalt factory —  now a reliable source of income — into the town.

One new member of Tehran’s City Council is Fatemeh Daneshvar, who also heads a committee in Iran’s Chamber of Commerce. “At first, working for the committee was very difficult for me,” she wrote on her personal website. “I met with cultural resistance which originated from men’s unwillingness to accept a woman as the boss. Some resigned and left the committee. Some people repeatedly called me and wanted me to resign. They said, frankly, that it was because I was a woman. Many of those [who spoke up against her] are familiar names in our society.”

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