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Women Activists in Iran Pressing for Female Minister in Cabinet

President Rouhani Having ‘Reservations’ Despite Campaign Promises

Supporters of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani carry pictures of him as they celebrate his victory in the presidential elections, in the streets of Tehran, Iran, May 20, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

President Hassan Rouhani is expected to introduce nominees for his second-term cabinet in the coming weeks, and the question on many minds is whether a woman will be appointed minister.

During the election campaign, Rouhani passionately defended women’s participation in the public sphere, saying his administration “does not accept gender discrimination and injustice.” The women and family chapter of his draft comprehensive plan for his next administration included several steps, such as “increasing women’s participation in high-level management positions.”

But the president is said to be having “reservations” about appointing a female minister, according to Fatemeh Saeedi, a female parliamentarian from Tehran who met with the president about cabinet appointments. Now, alarmed by the prospect of women being shut out of a senior cabinet position, women’s rights defenders are pushing back. Two days ago, they released a video in which they argued the importance of appointing a female minister.

Since the 1979 revolution, only one woman has served as a minister, in 2009, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi to head the Health Ministry. Rouhani, during his first term in 2013, did not go beyond appointing four women to his cabinet, none of whom were at a ministerial level. The Guardian Council – an all-male body of Islamic jurists responsible for vetting candidates for elections – has never approved a woman to stand in presidential elections or elections to the Assembly of Experts, despite the fact that women have registered for both.

Several women’s rights defenders now see appointing a female minister as the next step toward more equal representation in high-level offices, and they are not alone. Last week, 157 members of Iran’s parliament wrote to Rouhani asking him to appoint capable women as ministers to his cabinet.

While women in Iran have limited presence at senior decision-making levels, they also confront discrimination in numerous ways both in law and in practice – whether it’s unequal rights in marriage and divorce or their testimony amounting to only half of a man in court. Despite their impressive achievements in higher education, women are also marginalized in the economy in many ways.

Having a female minister will not alone solve discrimination against women in Iranian society. Nor is it sufficient to close the gender gap on economic and social fronts. But appointing women to ministerial positions would be a recognition by the president in action – not just words – that women who constitute half of the society should not be excluded from senior positions on the basis of their gender. 

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