Iran election: Women make gains in new parliament

At least 14 women secure seats in upcoming parliament while seven more have qualified for runoff voting in April.

Iran female candidates
Women's rights groups had envisioned a 30-percent female representation in parliament [Mohammad Ali Najib/Al Jazeera]

During an international volleyball tournament in Iran in 2014, Fatemeh Alia, a member of the country’s current parliament, caused an uproar when she supported banning women from watching the games live, saying that a woman’s primary duty was to “stay at home” to serve her husband and children.

As results of Iran’s first round of parliamentary election emerged, it appeared the conservative MP’s words had come back to haunt her, as she was voted out of office.

In contrast, eight female reformists prevailed, all coming from the same Tehran district as Alia – one of them is a 30-year-old MBA graduate, Fatemeh Hosseini, who campaigned on an economic reform platform. 

According to official results reported on Thursday, 14 female candidates, all reformists, won seats across the country, five more than the current nine members.

In addition, seven are headed for a runoff in April, potentially bringing the number of female MPs to 21 – in what could be the largest female delegation in the history of Iran’s parliament, including the pre-1979 revolution assembly.  

READ MORE: Moderates dominate council of clerics in Iran elections

While the number of women represents only a tiny fraction of the 290-member parliament, analysts said the increase represents progress, even if it did not hit the 30-percent benchmark envisioned by women’s rights groups prior to this year’s election.

“The most important thing is there are women,” Fateme Karimkhan, a Tehran-based journalist with news agency ISNA, told Al Jazeera.

“It could be a chance for women to have their own voice in parliament.”

Overall, reformists increased their number in parliament winning all 30 contested seats in the capital. However, they failed to achieve an outright majority, with conservatives winning outside of Tehran. About 64 seats are being contested in the second round.   

Of Iran’s estimated 81.8 million population, 49 percent are women. But in the recent polls, only 586 of the 6,229 parliament candidates, or 9.4 percent, were women. 

In the parallel Assembly of Experts election, all female candidates were disqualified, including a top Islamic law expert and educator from Qom, Zohreh Sefati. The 88-member council of clerics is empowered with choosing the nation’s supreme leader in the event of a vacancy.    

Only 586 of the 6,229 parliament candidates were women [Mohammad Ali Najib/Al Jazeera]
Only 586 of the 6,229 parliament candidates were women [Mohammad Ali Najib/Al Jazeera]

‘New blood’

Despite the most recent victory of female deputies, there are reasons to be sceptical given the conservative leanings of previous parliaments, said Karimkhan. She said it remains to be seen, whether the new female MPs can do “something revolutionary”.

“I am not too much optimistic,” Karimkhan said. “Most of them are young, some of them have no clear political background, so maybe we have to wait and see what happens next.”

Among those young contenders who won was Zahra Saeidi, a 29-year-old industrial engineer, who beat 10 male candidates in the constituency of Mobarakeh, in the province of Esfahan.  

Karimkhan said what is more significant is that reformists will be coming in the next session.

“I do not look at this as an opportunity for women, but still there is a chance for new members to show something fresh in this situation.”

Still, feminist activists are happy because of this “new blood”, she said.

Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and commentator born in Tehran, told Al Jazeera that in Iran, being a woman in parliament does not automatically translate to being supportive of women’s rights.

Citing the case of Fatemeh Alia, Mortazavi said that most of the current female members of parliament are aligned with the ultra-conservative wing of Iranian politics.

“They actually introduced and voted for some of the very traditional and limiting laws concerning women and family,” she said.

Referring to the electoral loss of Alia, who advocated for women staying at home, Mortazavi said it was ironic given that she is a member of a male-dominated parliament.

“There’s a joke going around with people saying, ‘We heard your [Alia’s] message and we let you stay home and focus on your family’.”

‘Opportunity to make change’

Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science professor at the University of Tehran, agreed that the current female MPs have been very conservative and done little for women.

But still, he said, the victory of the female reformists means there is a new opportunity for women to make change in the country. 

Iranian youths hope for a better future

“This is really significant progress,” Zibakalam told Al Jazeera. “We are hoping that the winners would advance the cause of women’s rights.”

Current laws that need reform include the improvement of social conditions of female workers, promoting better working hours for women, child custody, as well as free movement of women without the supervision of a male family member, he said. 

Overall, the results are favourable to President Hassan Rouhani, who is facing re-election in 2017, said Mortazavi.

In 2013, female voters were credited for his first-round victory in the presidential race. In last Friday’s election, Rouhani also won a seat in the powerful Assembly of Experts.

In the upcoming parliament, Karimkhan said she expects female MP Soheila Jelodarzadeh to take a leadership post, given her strong showing in the race. Jelodarzadeh was placed third among 30 winners in Tehran district.

Parvaneh Salahshoori, another reformist winner, also made headlines after suggesting that “the time will come” when wearing a veil in the country would be voluntary. The video was widely circulated on social media.

Karimkhan said she hopes the outcome of the elections will give women more self-confidence to run or participate in the political process. 

“Seeing more women in the political roles can change the image of politicians. Step-by-step people would not look at this as a man’s job any more.”

Follow Ted Regencia on Twitter @tedregencia

Source: Al Jazeera