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By Leigh Crossett, NID Intern

On 19 May 2017, Iranian voters took to the polls to elect their new city and village councilors in tandem with the presidential election. While the power of city and village councils’ are limited as they are only able to affect change on a local level, they do hold somewhat significant power in terms of these affairs. In major cities like Tehran, city council budgets can reach into the billions of dollars, meaning those that are in control of these budgets can exert considerable financial influence (Vahdat and Gambrell, 2017). City councils are also responsible for providing “local oversight of municipal activities”, such as selecting their mayor, their budgets and developmental projects to pursue (Vahdat and Gambrell, 2017).

Women in Iran are prevented from running for the presidency; however, they comprise a sizeable portion of municipal council seats (“Increasing Number of Iranian Women”, 2017). City and village councils are thereby an avenue in which women are able to exert greater influence over local policy decisions and policy implementation.

For the 2017 local council elections, there were a total of 287,425 candidates vying for 39,575 seats. Of these candidates, 17,885 were female (“Increasing Number of Iranian Women”, 2017). The female candidates constituted 6.3% of all candidates, an increase from 5.4% in 2013 (“Increasing Number of Iranian Women”, 2017).

In Tehran alone there were 8,000 candidates competing for 21 seats (Erdbrink, 2017). Of the 2,722 approved candidates to stand for election to the City Council of Tehran, women comprised one-fifth, some 522 candidates (“Increasing Number of Iranian Women”, 2017).

While in 2013, only 3 women were elected to the City Council of Tehran, the 2017 elections saw 6 women elected to the council (“Women win highest ever seats”, 2017). The women elected were Shahrbanoo Amani (4th place), Bahareh Arvin (5th place), Zahra Sadrazam Nouri (11th place), Nahid Khodakarami (16th place), Zahra Nejad-Bahram (17th place) and Elham Fakhari (19th place) (“Women win highest ever seats”, 2017).

Boasting many achievements, the female councilors of the City Council of Tehran represent the abilities that women have to contribute to the success of the country.  For example, Zahra Sadrazam Nouri, who came 11th in the election, was the first female governor of the Tehran Province, appointed in 1996 (“Female Former Council Member”, 2017). Furthermore, Zahra Nejad-Bahram, who came 11th in the city council elections, was the founder of a non-profit organisation that aids vulnerable women (“Female Former Council Member”, 2017).

All of the 6 women that were elected to the City Council of Tehran are members of the ‘List of Hope’, also known as the the ‘Pervasive Coalition of Reformists: the Second Step’, which is formed of reformist and centrist candidates. This coalition associates itself “with the success of the nuclear deal, lifting of international sanctions, and the increasing normalization of Iranian political and economic relations with the outside world, as well as supporting greater personal and political freedoms” (Kishi, 2016).

These results were not only seen in Tehran, but also throughout other major cities and rural areas compared when compared to previous elections. For example, in the province of Sistan-Baluchistan, the most underdeveloped and one of the poorest provinces, a record number of 415 women were elected to councils, up from 185 in the previous election in 2013 (Esfandiari). In 14 villages in the Khash County within Sistan-Baluchistan, two-thirds of council members are now women (“Increasing Number of Iranian Women”, 2017).

Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, argues that the increase of women in both rural and urban managerial systems “indicates a significant growth in the number of women willing to be involved in local governance… and [they] should not be underestimated” (“Increasing Number of Iranian Women”, 2017).

Women are an essential part of a functioning democracy. In fact, the Convention on the elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, reminds us that, “ the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require that maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields” (“Convention on the Elimination”).

Ensuring an increased participation of women in the political system is essential, particularly in Iran, due to the fact that women are “severely underrepresented in senior public positions”, Human Rights Watch has found (Far, 2017). Despite making up over 49% of the country’s population, Iran’s percentage of female participation in the labour market is 17%, compared to the average of 20% for the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (“HRW Says Iranian Women Underrepresented”, 2017). Furthermore, only 6% of the Iranian Parliament is female, while the world average is 23% (“’HRW Says Iranian Women Underrepresented”, 2017).

Some argue that despite an increasing number of women in the political process, this does not necessarily translate to increased rights for women, as their role remains limited. They argue instead that, what we need is a critical mass of the general public to want that agenda of change in our core values” (Miranda, 2005). From this perspective, the election of a few more Iranian women than in previous elections will not effectively alter the country’s attitude toward an increased role of women in civil society and politics. On the other hand, the increased election of women to positions of power arguably means that social views regarding the role of women are improving, in order for them to be elected in the first place.

Others argue that even a small increase of women in elected positions helps the overall status of women in the country. For example, Zahra Nejad-Bahram, a political activist and urban management expert who was elected to the Tehran City Council in 2017 views the growth of women in elected positions as beneficial since it demonstrates that women “feel more competent with the support of the general public” (“Increasing Number of Iranian Women”). Women may thus be more confident in seeking a position of power if they see that they have the public’s support.

Furthermore, seeing other women in high-level positions has encouraged other women to go out and seek an elected position. For example, Maryam Ahmadzehi, who was appointed mayor of Afzalabad, a village in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, was praised for her good work, such as paving more roads and creating more parks (Esfandiari, 2017). Once men in the village were able to see the benefits that Ahmadzehi brought to them, they were able to see that “women can also do good work in the council” (Esfandiari, 2017). Other women in Afzalabad took Ahmadzehi’s example, leading them to me more “motivated… to study and work” (Esfandiari, 2017). In this sense, the participation of women in local politics directly improved the male perception of women’s abilities, and further encouraged other women to pursue their career goals.

Former councilor for Tehran City Council, Sedigheh Vasmaghi, argues that the role of women in council elections is essential in combating gender discrimination. Holding elected positions gives women “political skills” as well as “the ability to make decisions that will help the status of women throughout the country” (“Female former council member”). Therefore, women that are elected are more likely to hold the power and knowledge for pursing legislation that will benefit the standing of all women in Iran.

Significantly, all of the women that have been elected to the City Council of Tehran are part of the reformist party. This implies that these elected women are more likely to pass legislation that would help to promote the status of women in the country, as reformists are more generally associated with equal rights for women. This is demonstrated by the last period in which the reformists were in power in the Iranian Parliament, from 1996 – 2004, which also saw the largest portion of women elected to the Majlis to date (Moinifar, 2011). Over this time, there were 37 bills passed that directly related to the status of women, such as the reduction of the official marriage age for Iranian girls (Mousavi, 2009). These eight years witnessed the highest number of bills passed that promoted the status of women in the country (Moinifar, 2011).

In this sense, the increase of women into elected positions such as the city and village councils are likely to further the status of women, because they are more likely to pass legislation that improves women’s rights and their ability to participate in the political process. Therefore, it is key that women continue to be more involved in the political system. Some scholars argue that since women are still faced with “impeding laws and gender biased attitudes”, they are unable to fully participate. Thus, “women’s political participation and their presence in power and
the decision-making process is one of the most important and critical areas of concern” in order to ensure that social attitudes towards women evolve to ensure their greater involvement in the political process (Moinifar, 2011).

The increase of female participation in the Iranian political sphere is incredibly significant in terms of the furthered democratisation in the country. We are able to see that the public is taking a more enthusiastic stance to the increased involvement of women after more than a decade of conservative control in the elected political bodies, and therefore, a desire to ensure women acquire of a voice. With the increased participation of women, the country is driving towards greater democratisation, which can only be achieved with the full involvement of women in the decision-making process.

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