April 21, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Presidential Election and the Role of Women

More than 130 women and nearly 1,500 men registered to run in the Iranian presidential election next month. But on Thursday, Iran’s Guardian Council – an unelected, 12-member body that screens candidates for loyalty to the regime’s Islamist ideology – rejected all of the women and allowed only six men to compete. Women’s exclusion from the presidency reflects their second-class role across the Islamic Republic, where they face a range of discriminatory laws.

All women in Iran must wear a hijab in public. In court, a woman’s testimony has half the value of a man’s. The law consistently favors men in marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. A married woman may not leave the country without her husband’s permission. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2016 ranked Iran 139 out of 144 countries in economic participation and opportunity for women.

Iran’s gender restrictions even extend to sports. Women may not enter stadiums to attend men’s games. Earlier this month, the regime prohibited women from running with men as part of Tehran’s first international marathon, instead consigning them to a separate race on an indoor track. Likewise, it required contestants in this year’s Women’s World Chess Championship, held in Tehran in February and March, to wear hijabs, prompting several non-Iranian players to boycott the event.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has described such policies as religious imperatives originating in the Islamic Republic’s founding ideals. In a 2014 speech, he denounced the West for adopting a “materialistic and non-divine epistemology” that regards women solely “as a means for satisfying lust.” This perspective, he continues, arises from its misguided commitment to “sexual equality,” which obscures the natural differences between the sexes, thereby leading to women’s objectification and humiliation.

Consequently, Khamenei argued, Tehran’s treatment of women constitutes not subjugation but immunization from “fossilized and pseudo-progressive” Western values that threaten Iran’s spiritual identity. As he put it in a 2013 address, if foreigners ask why Tehran constrains women’s freedom by requiring the hijab, “we should answer, ‘Why do you give them this harmful and threatening freedom?’”

The supreme leader fears that Iranians who promote women’s rights seek to further an insidious Western effort to subvert the regime from within. In a speech last month, Khamenei declared that the campaign to make women “an object of gratification in the Western world is most likely among Zionist plots aiming to destroy the society.” As such, Tehran last year arrested more than a dozen women’s right activists on charges of espionage. It also detained Homa Hoodfar, a Canadian-Iranian academic specializing in the role of women in the Middle East, for 112 days, accusing her of “dabbling in feminism and security matters.”

Women’s status in Iranian society is a key battleground in the regime’s larger campaign to promote Islamist supremacy in the region. Washington should respond by increasing human rights sanctions on Iran, thereby sending Tehran the message that it cannot advance its revolutionary ambitions with impunity.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.