What comes to mind when thinking of Iranian women? Oppressed, covered head to toe and confined to the home? These stereotypes, however, are far from the real life of women in Iran. Iranian women have dominated the universities for the past 15 years or so, and are becoming more involved in the political process and decision-making. But despite their considerable achievements in higher education, women are facing major obstacles to find a job. Only 17 percent of women were able to secure a job and no more than 5.8 percent (17 out of 290), the highest percentage since the 1979 revolution, found their ways into Iranian parliament. Women are barred from becoming president and are largely excluded from the key positions in the government. Such discriminatory acts have placed Iran at the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap ranking (141 out of 145).
Yet there are indications that the situation could change for Iranian women who have never given up their hopes in the face of numerous social, familial, and economic obstacles. Before and after the 1979 revolution they have worked hard towards improving the status of women and human rights. To that end, Iranian women have seized every single opportunity that has come along. The unprecedented participation of women in the city and village councils is the result of their persistence to play an active role in the society.
The number of women elected in the 2006 city and village councils was 1,491. In 2013 this number quadrupled to 6,092. Women constituted only 6.3 per cent of candidates who registered for 2017’s city and village councils elections (17,885 women versus 269,540 men). Notwithstanding their marginal participation, there has been a steady increase in the number of women who registered and elected in the city and village councils elections since its inauguration in 1998. This could be promising for the further participation of women in the labour force, political process and decision-making.
There are two points about this achievement which are worth to be made: firstly, the majority of women elected for the city and village councils did not enjoy the support of a father, brother, or husband in a position of power. Secondly, the successful experience of women’s involvement in decision-making in the city and village councils can transform the society’s attitude towards women and their ‘appropriate’ role in the family and society.
Surprisingly, it was in the underdeveloped provinces that greater number of women found their ways into the city and village councils. In the Sistan and Baluchestan province, the most underdeveloped and poorest of Iran’s 31 provinces, 415 women were elected, well over double the number of women elected in the 2013 election and far more than other provinces in the country.
The first challenge for these women was to convince their families and the society that they are as capable as male candidates. For instance, Fateme Kazemi, the village council member in Bashare, Qazvin province, told Yalda network that, “when I wanted to register in the city and village councils elections, the neighbours were laughing at me and told me, ‘Ms Kazemi how can a woman become a member of the council?’ But I didn’t give up and said to myself, ‘With God’s help, I will register.’”
Women face other obstacles after they are elected as members of the city and village councils. They are often dismissed by their male colleagues. Nahid Eskandari, member of the city council of Twiserkan, Hamadan province, said that “no one [her colleagues] believed in me, but I changed their attitudes.” Ms Eskandari and other women’s success could be ascribed to their hard work and brining different skills and new perspectives to decision-making which changed their colleagues and their community’s attitudes towards them.
The significance of women’s successful presence in the city and village councils is not confined to the positive changes that they are making to their villages and cities. Equally, women’s great performance in Sistan and Baluchestan and some other cities and villages has made headlines in the country which can encourage other women from other cities and villages with no or few women council members to enter the race and shake men’s long-held dominance. This, in turn, can pave the way for more women to win parliamentary seats and key positions in the government, and maybe one day we will have a woman president of Iran.
Originally published in OpenDemocracy: “Iran’s city and village council elections and women’s political participation”