On Aug. 5, Hassan Rouhani will officially start the second term of his presidency. Hossein-Ali Amiri, Rouhani’s vice president for parliamentary affairs, has said that three women have been asked to join the new cabinet.
Rouhani’s list of recommended cabinet members will be handed to the parliament (Majles) on inauguration day and the members are expected to take about two weeks to confirm the nominees. Amiri added that while Rouhani has always strongly believed in women’s abilities and their presence in his cabinet, the selection of women is also due to “public demand.” According to Amiri, several women have been nominated as gubernatorial candidates in different provinces as well.
The recent death of Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman ever to win the most prestigious honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal, has drawn attention to the high achievements of Iranian women in the diaspora. But within Iran, there is progress as well.
The Rouhani administration’s first appointment of a woman happened before his swearing-in, albeit not for the cabinet. On July 11, the first female CEO of Iran Air, the country’s major national airline, was appointed, succeeding Farhad Parvaresh, who was in that position for eight years. The woman who officially replaced him is Farzaneh Sharafbafi, a 44-year-old Iran Air manager, who holds a doctorate in Aerospace Sciences from Sharif University of Technology. Though she has been named as interim CEO, she is expected to be formally named CEO soon.
Analysts say that more women will be appointed to important leadership positions such as this one, which is highly significant. Since Iran Air’s inception in 1961, this is the first time that the company has ever had a woman overseeing its extensive operations. Considering the volume and value of Iran Air’s commercial deals, which is reportedly roughly equal to half of Iran’s oil revenue, the appointment of a woman at its helm seems especially significant.
Women also made gains in the 2016 parliamentary elections. This should help them pass legislation enhancing their rights, which have been curtailed since the 1979 Islamic revolution. One issue being worked on in the Majles is facilitating women’s solo overseas travel without having to have the consent of a husband or father. Under Sharia law, Iranian women are also discouraged from traveling overseas without male companions. Following recent complications in foreign travel for a group of Iranian women athletes en route to international competitions, the women’s caucus in the Majles has been pushing to reform passport rules for women.
In an interview with the Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Parvaneh Salahshouri, the head of the women’s parliamentary group, said that a bill to reform the passport law and facilitate overseas travel has been sent to the leadership of the Majles for consideration. This bill may be examined by representatives as early as next week. Salahshouri explained that the cases which would be exempt from the current passport law would be women leaving the country to compete in sports events, participate in economic ventures or academic events, and, in some cases, for urgent and/or medical purposes.
For the past 12 years, women’s presence in sports arenas has also been the topic of a multitude of discussions, debates, critically acclaimed movies and angry open letters and statements from a few hardline activists accusing women seeking to attend sports events of being prostitutes. Legally, there is no written restriction on the presence of women in stadiums. In practice, however, they have been prohibited at male events since 1979. Hardliners have constantly reverted to the pretext of women supposedly getting harassed by male spectators during the games to justify the ban. The Rouhani government and reformist parliament members have been lobbying to change the view of conservatives and find a way for women to be able to enter sports arenas as spectators of both male and female competitions.
On June 9, just two days after the terrorist attacks in Tehran, some 300 women showed up in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to watch a volleyball match between Iran and Belgium. That was, according to Tayebeh Siavoshi, a member of the Majles Cultural Commission, “the first of such appearances.” In an interview with ISNA, Siavoshi described this as a good start, adding, “We will continue our efforts to pave the way for women’s presence.” She also said that having families–women and men–watching games together in public arenas increases the sense of togetherness and familial affection.
Compared to developed countries and compared to Iran itself before revolution, when there were many female judges, ministers, police and military officers and ambassadors, these developments are considered minor and the progress, if attainable, very slow. In the Islamic Republic, though, some hardliners go so far as to compare women in search of further personal freedom to prostitutes, which makes even minimal progress seem promising.
Whether such small, shaky steps finally become steady and certain remains to be seen. Still, two points seem rather well established. First, a large group of educated, progressive women from all socio-economic groups are showing a will to pursue their basic rights. Despite the odds, there are efforts made by citizens, a number of representatives, as well as the Rouhani administration to gain rights for women. Second is the fact that Rouhani and his reformist base have so far resisted and not given in to the constant pressure from hardliners on all fronts.
Mehrnaz Samimi is a journalist and simultaneous interpreter based in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @MehrnazSamimi