Iranians went to the polls on the 19th of May to cast votes in presidential and local elections. Of the 287,425 candidates registered to run in Iran’s local elections, 17,885 were women, making up 6.3 percent of all candidates. The re-election of moderate Hassan Rouhani as president alongside an increase in registered women candidates, as well as the number of elected women officials, signals hope for an Iran where women’s voices matter at both the national and local level.
Results for the number of women elected to office across the country have been mixed; however, there was a 34 percent decrease in the number of women elected to councils compared to 2013. Notably, although the number decreased in 16 provincial capitals, three capitals remained the same and 11, including the city of Tehran, actually saw increases in women in office.
Among the areas that saw an increase, 415 women were elected to office in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province in the southeast, a province marked by underdevelopment, poverty and the highest percentage of illiteracy among girls in Iran.
In Afzalabad, a village in the province’s Khash district, all 10 candidates on the council ballot were women. While the participation of women in Sistan-Balochistan was rumoured to be the result of high rates of drug addiction and imprisonment among men in the province (inferring a lack of qualified male candidates), women’s participation in the province was more likely the result of efforts by civil society and local government to foster women’s greater political representation.
In Tehran, six women — Shahrbanoo Amani Anganeh, Bahareh Arvin, Zahra Sadrazam Nouri, Nahid Khodakarami, Zahra Nejadbahram and Elham Fakharinejad — were elected to office, doubling the number of women councilors on Tehran’s council from previous rounds.
Political campaigns led by women candidates focused on a number of issues, including women’s civic engagement, citizens’ rights, employment, education, health and social security and welfare. Nejadbahram focused her campaign in Tehran on combating gender-based discrimination and creating safe public spaces for women. Elham Fakharinejad, also an elected council member in Tehran, focused on the mental health of citizens as well as welfare and health issues. Roghieh Gazmeh, an elected village council member of Seymoun, a small suburb in the outskirts of Eslamshahr and mother of seven, focused on employment and promised to create job opportunities for stay-at-home women in her village.
More women registered at the village level (11,142) than the city (6,743), perhaps because of easier access to decision-making. The following six provinces had the highest number of registered women candidates: Kerman: 1,840; Sistan and Baluchestan: 1,397; Tehran: 1,337; Fars: 1,189; Khorasan Razavi: 1,116; and Mazandaran: 1,005. More than 100 women registered to run in the presidential election, but none passed the vetting process headed by Iran’s Guardian Council.
In the months leading up to the elections, much anticipation circulated among Iranians and supporters of women’s greater political participation about the prospect of getting more women into Iranian politics. The local elections presented an opportunity to put more women in decision-making roles, paving the way for women to have a direct say in the laws and policies impacting them, their families and communities.
On 6 May, advocates of Iran’s women’s movement conducted a roundtable discussion on the role of women in the elections. In a concluding written statement addressed to Iran’s next president-to-be, the group highlighted the importance of women’s political participation and the role that women in office can play in drawing attention to and addressing such issues as public safety for women, sexual harassment, women’s health, welfare, and homelessness. They also underscored the need for the implementation of a quota reserving at least 30 percent of ministerial positions for women.
A prominent women’s rights activist noted in the statement that both the presidential and local elections are critical; the outcome of the presidential elections would impact ongoing change in support of women’s rights on a national level while local elections would offer an opportunity to further foster women’s public participation across Iran’s city and village councils.
Issues addressed in campaigns led by women candidates demonstrated that women’s political participation can benefit all citizens via the prioritization of policies addressing ‘quality of life’ issues. Whether women are able to build on their successes to date will largely depend on the ongoing efforts of women’s rights’ advocates to encourage more participation, the ability of the women elected to assert their role on councils and the creation of new opportunities for women to play active and constructive roles in public life.