By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Iran's parliament has 290 seats, and only nine of them are filled by women. Women's rights activists want to change that. A group of Iranian activists is seeking to dilute the dominance of men in the country's parliament, pushing for a greater female presence in the legislature following elections in February 2016.
They also plan to promote candidates of both sexes who support greater rights for women -- and to "name and shame" those who do not, through a system of "red cards" and weekly reports parsing candidates' stances on gender equality.
Taking on Iran's patriarchal political world, organizers of the campaign hope to see the number of women in parliament eventually grow to at least 50, or 30 percent -- if not in the February elections, then in the future.
The campaign, called Changing The Parliament's Male Face, includes prominent activists and intellectuals such as publisher Shahla Lahiji and author Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, a leading figure in the Islamic country's women's movement.
The activists warn that the tiny female presence in parliament thwarts efforts to grant more rights to women in Iran. It is not "surprising" to witness "the passing of laws that make women weaker day by day, instead of empowering them," they said in a statement at the official launch last week in Tehran.
The campaign comes ahead of the February elections in which reformists are hoping to make a comeback in a country dominated by a conservative religious and political elite.
The nine women in the Iranian parliament make up about 3 percent of the legislature, far below what the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union says is a worldwide average of about 22 percent.
More Women No Guarantee
Members of the campaign realize that the mere presence of more female lawmakers will not guarantee of greater rights for women, because some female lawmakers have supported legislation restricting women's rights.
With that in mind, the campaign aims to support candidates who favor gender equality while drawing public attention to those whose records or statements show that they do not.
"We shouldn't allow candidates who do not support equal rights for women to enter the parliament; therefore we have to take steps to end the passivity among women," says Shiva Nazar Ahari, a rights activist and former political prisoner.
Members say they will scrutinize the life and work of potential candidates and offer weekly reports to the public, and will question them on women's issues and past legislation. They want to interview the wives and daughters of male candidates to get a taste of their attitudes toward women.
Campaigners also plan to educate the public and raise awareness through meetings, campaign materials, and video clips outlining their call for 50 parliamentary seats for women.
Nayereh Tohidi, the director of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at California State University, Northridge, says the campaign could have a positive impact on Iranian society even if it falls short of its goals. "The discourse, the different committees they're planning to create, giving red cards to antiwomen candidates, these are all an exercise in democracy," she says.
Tohidi, an expert on Iran's women's movement, believes Iran's political system -- in which a Muslim religious figure, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the "supreme leader" -- is the reason for the low representation of Iranian women in parliament and public office. "If you look at it symbolically, on top there's a father-figure, a dictator, who has absolute power. This in itself strengthens patriarchal relations on the political scene," Tohidi says.
Challenging The Status Quo
Despite state-imposed restrictions and discriminatory laws, Iranian women have made strides in recent years. They make up about 60 percent of university entrants and their economic role is also increasing.
Women have played key roles in elections, particularly the 1999 election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as president. In 2013, many women voted for the moderate President Hassan Rohani, who has spoken out against gender discrimination.
Speaking at the launch of the campaign in Tehran, researcher Pardis Ameri said women had played an important role in the country's political movements. But she added, "To this day, they have not reached a fitting share in the political structure, they have a weak role in this area."
Fatemeh Haghighatjou, a reformist who served in parliament from 2000 to 2004, says it will take time for women to have a greater presence on the political scene.
Haghighatjou, who now lives in the United States, says that her political activism as a student and her membership in Tehran's city council helped her gain a seat in the male-dominated parliament. "I was well-known and my background brought me the support of influential political parties," she tells RFE/RL.
Haghighatjou says that a quota system could help women gain seats in the parliament, and that women should have greater self-confidence. "Because I was a parliament member, I know that many of our women are more capable than some of the current lawmakers. But they have to put themselves out there and there should also be a change and growth in the society so that women get votes," she says.
Writing in the daily Bahar on October 29, Ahmadi Khorasani said that even if the powerful Guardians Council blocked candidates who support gender equality from running, their "numerous presence" could pose a challenge to those who don't.
"This is why we in the campaign Changing The Parliament's Male Face intend to use all the existing capacity and legal methods to directly challenge candidates who have a record of misogynistic views and background," Khorasani wrote.
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