The Constraints of Pragmatism: Iran’s Stalled Gender Agenda

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(© Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, Flickr Commons)

(© Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, Flickr Commons)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, not unlike any presidential candidate would, made many campaign promises in the run-up to the June 2013 Iranian election. Seeking to reverse stringent international sanctions, Rouhani promised to resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West and revive the nation’s flailing economy. He pledged to promote transparent moderate policies; fight poverty, discrimination and corruption; and return Iran to the community of nations. To women in particular, Rouhani guaranteed that his administration would fight to promote female equality, promising that discrimination would be eliminated in all social arenas.

A year after his election, Rouhani has indeed kept a number of his commitments to the Iranian people. With regards to women’s issues, however, he has thus far come up short.  Much of Rouhani’s failings cannot be blamed solely on him; rather, tradition and politics have conspired to maintain the status quo. In Iran, gender issues are intimately tied to the ideological foundations of the Islamic government, and lie at the heart of the domestic factional divide that pits hard-line conservatives against reform-minded politicians. The former maintain a strict constructionist interpretation of Islamic law with respect to women’s rights, while the latter are judicial activists who allow for latitude and pragmatism in responding to growing demands for gender reform. Caught up in this factional divide, Iranian government policies towards women have been piecemeal and contradictory. Despite his rhetoric, this pattern of vacillation continues today under Rouhani.

Historically, Iranian women have been among the unintended beneficiaries of the Iranian Revolution due to their personal ambition and initiative. Despite the imposition of Islamic sharia law—which limited women’s rights relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, and the like—women retained the right to vote, which they gained in 1963, and remained vital to Iran’s social, political, and economic life. Today, women are active in all facets of Iranian life, from politics and agriculture to publishing and film. Over the years, women have overtaken men in average levels of education and academic completion rates, gaining the confidence and motivation to challenge the traditional role of Iranian women and simultaneously threatening the country’s ruling patriarchy.

This growth of gender consciousness has helped fuel women’s agency, which is today evidenced by the flourishing of women’s activism and the retaliatory effort on the part of the Iranian government to repress women. Recent examples of such repression include a 2013 ruling that officially barred women from running in presidential elections. In 2012, a number of Iranian universities banned women from the study of 80 academic disciplines. Amidst this societal context, Iranian women voted for Rouhani in the hopes that his platform of moderation would yield even modest gains.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, pictured 18 June 2014

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, pictured 18 June 2014

These hopes have not been entirely mislaid. Among Rouhani’s initial policy changes was the appointment of two women as vice presidents in his cabinet. He also appointed a woman to serve as the foreign ministry spokesman of his administration, and has criticized police enforcement of the Islamic dress code known as the hijab. At the same time, however, he has yet to create a ministry for women’s affairs or provide financial support for female heads of households—two additional campaign promises that have gone unfulfilled. Furthermore, Rouhani has been powerless to stop state-sanctioned executions and arrests of women, an impotence born of the constrained and factional nature of the Iranian government. Most egregiously, Rouhani has not yet put forth any plan to either promote or realize his campaign promise of female equality.

Rouhani’s strategic limitations are twofold. First, the current domestic political climate between hardline conservatives and political moderates—and their contested visions for the future of the Islamic Republic—has required that Rouhani embrace a policy of gradualism.  Beginning with the 1997 election of Muhammad Khatami and continuing with the 2009 presidential election that gave birth to the Green Movement and spawned subsequent popular protests, Iran’s conservatives have been repeatedly threatened by the specter of reformism at the ballot box. Given Iran’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany, and China (known collectively as the P5+1), talks that have already been hampered by delays and missed deadlines, Rouhani has sought to maintain governmental and factional unity at the expense of domestic policies like gender reform.

A second constraint limiting Rouhani’s ability to enact substantive change is the concentration of political power in the hands of the Supreme Leader—a position held since 1989 by conservative and strict Islamic constructionist Ali Khamenei. Khamenei commands and controls the vast bureaucracy of Iranian government through official powers of appointment as well as through formal and informal channels of influence. The Iranian president, while popularly elected and nominally in control of the economic and bureaucratic apparatus of the state, in practice remains largely deferential to the Supreme Leader on foreign and domestic matters of national importance.

Understanding the specifics of this dynamic between Rouhani and Khamenei is instructive to charting the future of women’s rights in Iran. Comparing the contrasting views on women’s role in Iranian society presented in speeches delivered by the two men during the celebration of Women’s Day in April 2014 is particularly noteworthy, as the occasion marks the first time Rouhani has publicly disagreed with the Supreme Leader. In his address, Khamenei stated that gender equality is “one of the biggest mistakes of Western thought,” and that female employment should only be deemed acceptable so long as it does not threaten family unity. Rouhani, however, countered with the assertion that “women should have equal opportunity, equal privilege, and equal social rights,” while at the same time reminding his audience that the road to equality will be long and difficult.

Although Rouhani’s Women’s Day statements unequivocally laid bare his idealistic ambitions, they also subtly exposed his pragmatic sensitivity to the larger national interests that have subsumed—and will likely continue to usurp—the hope for gender reform in Iran. As long as nuclear negotiations remain ongoing and factional differences continue to obstruct political reform, such pragmatism will likely guarantee that Rouhani’s gender agenda remains a hostage of the battle over Iranian domestic ideology.

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Sanam Vakil

Dr. Sanam Vakil is an Adjunct Professor teaching Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Europe. Her book-length investigation of female activism in Iran since the 1979 revolution, entitled Women and Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Action and Reaction, was published by Bloomsbury in 2013. Dr. Vakil has also taught as an assistant professor at SAIS in Washington, D.C., served as a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, and consulted on Middle Eastern affairs for CNN, NPR, ABC, the BBC, and the World Bank.

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