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What Rouhani Can and Must Do for Iran's Women

A supporter of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani gestures with a picture of him as she celebrates his victory in Iran's presidential election on a street in Tehran (REUTERS/Fars News/Sina Shiri).

Editor's Note: Mehrangiz Kar, an Iranian human rights lawyer, formerly served as a Ford Foundation Visiting Fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Saban Center at Brookings. She has also contributed a video interview (included at the end of this post) to the September 2013 Brookings Essay, and is the founding board chairperson of the Siamak Pourzand Foundation, which promotes freedom of expression for writers, journalists, and artists.

The Rouhani administration has been formed without a single female face appearing in the cabinet.  That said, a woman has been chosen as the spokesperson of the foreign ministry, one has been named vice president and director of environmental protection, and one has been appointed as vice president for legal affairs. 

What is the new president capable of doing for women? During the years of Mohammad Khatami's presidency, the Iranian public came to the conclusion that in the Islamic Republic system, the president is not all powerful, and other, higher powers will not allow him to put his proposed policies into action. But during the time of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration, legal experts - and regular citizens - were shocked and dismayed when they saw that the president can indeed exert great power and although his critics in the Majlis tried to challenge him, he remained defiant.  In fact, his exertion of power - with the support of the radical conservative establishment - was such that he was able to go beyond the legal limits of the presidency, overreaching his constitutional power without facing serious consequences for his actions and serving out two full terms, despite complaints.

The danger is that President Hassan Rouhani could cite the past two administrations as an excuse to claim that he lacks the legal power to boldly tackle some of Iran's most pressing problems. Most notable is the issue of women, which is one of the country's pivotal issues and which takes a toll on half of the population; the president, who according the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is endowed with great powers, and if he so desires he is capable of making an impact on the situation of women in the country.  Although the presence of women in his government is not as great as had been hoped for, the capacities of the executive office and the ministries are great enough to give President Rouhani the necessary power to ease the problems facing the women of Iran.

Taking a look at these capacities in detail, it is clear that President Rouhani cannot use the power structure of the Islamic Republic and its constitution as an excuse for insufficient action to improve the status of women in the country.  The women of Iran voted for President Rouhani, and they will be keeping a close eye on the actions of his administration on women's issues.

Hassan Rouhani must pursue policies that reflect the social norms of today’s Iran, in which technology has brought critics and dissidents together and amplified their voices. His administration can remove the obstacles from the path towards a mutually respectful relationship between the government and women. If he succeeds in making them feel secure, they will be able to constructively express their needs directly to his government.

There are many ministries within Rouhani’s government that have the power to directly impact women’s rights in Iran:

Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The most important request of women from this ministry is removal of the limitations that the Ahmadinejad administration insisted on, such as gender-based quotas in higher education and gender segregation in the universities. It appears that these moves were undertaken with the intention of decelerating the entry of women into the universities and guiding them toward staying at home. A modern administration cannot, instead of creating jobs for the educated women, abuse their rights for the sake of a value system. Which value system is there that surpasses the value of human equality?

The Rouhani administration must avoid following the previous policies of gender – not to mention ethnic – selection quotas in higher education, for the sake of women’s human dignity.

Ministry of Education and Growth. Iranian women have continuously, and correctly, declared that textbooks used in primary and secondary education build the nation’s culture.  Thus, the discriminatory content of these books must be changed.  There is no reason why women should be portrayed as cooking, cleaning, sewing, and sweeping in textbooks, when in real life they frequently have to earn an income by whatever means necessary, sometimes becoming the main breadwinners of the family, particularly given the lack of job security in Iran’s blighted economy. Hence, it is utterly imprudent to continue to institutionalize discriminatory images of women. Such cultural policies show the officials of the country have a deep lack of knowledge regarding the social dynamics of the country. It is time to leave behind this imaginary world in which all men are hard workers, have a job and adequate income, provide housing, healthcare, and welfare for their wives, children, and sisters and all women are comfortable consumers who gladly submit to serving the family. The president must express his opinions on this issue, plain and simple.

Ministry of Health. Although the Ministry of Health and Remedy has experienced successes in prenatal care and childbirth health and other areas, it has not been able to properly fund the welfare of single women and children or help them return to a healthy life. Building vocational centers for “alone women” (those lacking a guardian and the means to adequately provide for themselves) in collaboration with the education ministries would be a useful and influential action. Naturally, creating and executing such programs is not possible without any increase in the welfare office’s budget, and thus reckless spending in the Social Security Plan and excessive law enforcement budgets should be cut.  The existence of a husband or father does not necessarily guarantee that this man will feel the responsibility to prepare a comfortable life for his wife or daughter. Facilitating job creation for such women, as the constitution and norms dictate, is the responsibility of the administration.

Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. This ministry can play a role in combating homelessness among the aformentioned “alone women.” Such women are continuously being called to enter a market in which they have to exchange their dignity for a temporary shelter. It is vital that the Rouhani administration take the matter seriously and takes steps to resolve it by, for example, instituting incentives for commercial builders to build housing for free usage of the homeless women. A policy to provide shelter for alone women will only reduce their rate of victimization.

The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. Although officially independent, this body is headed by the president and therefore significantly influenced by his view points. Hence, Iranian women expect and hope that the president will collaborate with them to change the decisions of the Council with respect to the problems of women in the job market. The Council has pushed women’s financial needs to the sidelines by insisting on their role as homemaker. It has expressed its opinions as if it presumes that all Iranian men are financially supporting all Iranian women. As a result of this presumption, the important topic of collaboration of men and women in domestic matters, and on a broader scale in social matters, has been completely omitted from government plans.

Ministry of Intelligence. This ministry should change its patterns so that peaceful women’s rights activists are not constantly going in and out of prison. It is clear that, in their protests and peaceful demonstrations, women’s rights activists have always respected the national interest and have only expressed their desire for reform in women’s legal and social status. Iran is a country where over 60% of its students and educated population are female. Adding to that the increasing number of law students makes Iran a country with special needs that demand the creation of groups such as women’s rights organs. Hence, the crushing of peaceful protest by security forces under the Ministry of Intelligence in order to force silence on female activists and lawyers is at odds with the social realities of today Iran.

Athletic federations. The nation’s sports bodies are under the influence of the administration, and an increase in athletic opportunities for women, which are presently very insignificant, and the freedom for women to attend all sporting events are serious demands. If the Rouhani administration follows the path of the previous administrations and ignores these demands, it will lose the support of a large group of citizens.

Islamic Republic of Iran Radio and Television and the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. These government agencies that oversee the nation’s media must accept freedom of speech on issues of women in family and society. Without this, women will be unable to effectively spread societal discussion of their rights and have trustworthy channels of communication with the government administration and its organs. The press, internet capabilities, radio and television can only be effective in bettering the situation of women if there is freedom of speech.

What is clear is that the administration and its sub-organizations have plenty of opportunities and abilities to create a safe and healthy environment for providing welfare, education, occupation, recreation, and a public voice for women. There is no excuse for the president to claim he is powerless to advance women’s rights in Iran.