Iran’s presidential election is offering a flicker of hope to activists hoping to revive women’s rights after they deteriorated during the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
The ailing economy, hit hard by international sanctions against Iran’s vital oil income which has sparked high inflation, has grabbed the spotlight in the short election campaign.
But activists say that despite the sidelining by the authorities of reformists who advocate women’s rights, there is still hope that the situation of the country’s 35 million women, more than half the population, can be improved.
“The election is providing an opportunity,” said activist Minoo Mortazi, who urges women not to let emotions influence their voting decisions.
“Even a candidate who is promising a better situation for housewives, by providing financial security merits a vote,” she said. “It will gradually build a platform allowing women to reach higher.”
Fereshteh Rouhafza, who is campaigning for conservative candidate Saeed Jalili, the top nuclear negotiator, has called for ‘housewife’ to become an officially accepted job, and for the promotion of women as “mothers and wives.”
“The ground is not prepared for women to focus on having kids and raising them,” she said at a debate on the situation of women in the Islamic republic.
But Maryam, a 28-year-old private company employee, said she sees no point in voting as “women have no voice within the regime.”
Moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani, who is also being backed by the reformist camp, has vowed that “discrimination against women will not be tolerated” by his administration, should he be elected.
“Today we need movement in the society to achieve developments. For that we need to pay attention to women,” Rowhani said during his campaigning.
His pledges however have little chance of being implemented as he is not expected to be able to blunt the conservative challenge for the presidency.
Meanwhile the only reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, pulled out of the race on Tuesday, under pressure from the reformist camp who believe Rowhani stands a better chance of mounting a credible bid against the rival conservatives.
Aref had urged Iranian women to cast their ballot, saying “without their participation no government could execute development plans,” according to his women affairs advisor Zohreh Alipour, speaking to AFP.
Aref wanted to “revise the law to eliminate discrimination against women,” Alipour said.
Although better than those of many regional Arab countries, Iran’s laws since the Islamic revolution three decades ago are criticised as unfair to women in marriage, divorce and inheritance.
And although women hold key posts, including in parliament and the cabinet, they are yet to be allowed to stand in presidential elections.
They are also barred from working as judges, while married women can be prevented by their husbands from working and need his consent to obtain a passport.
Iran’s clergy, which holds sway within the country, defends the laws, saying they are designed to protect against a Western lifestyle that they say takes advantage of women.
According to the Iranian constitution, the laws are aimed at shielding women from being treated as “a mere thing” or “being a mere tool for work.”
In the lead-up to the election, a non-governmental organisation, the Iranian Civil Society, called for the removal of “discriminatory policies” against women.
The body says “discrimination and gender segregation in regulations, micro and macro political, economic, social and educational plans” should be lifted.
Its call has gone unheeded however and according to women’s right activists the situation has deteriorated since Ahmadinejad took power in 2005.
During his term, activists have been arrested, rights curtailed and a “morality police” unit formed, tasked with checking women in the street to ensure their dress does not violate Islamic values.
For some female voters however, the issue of women’s rights is of secondary importance.
“I will vote in the election only with the hope of securing a better economic future for my children,” said 44-year-old Fatemeh, a mother of two who fears her children will have to struggle for years with economic difficulties.
“With this battered economy and astronomical rise in prices, I see no future for my children,” Fatemeh added, pointing to her teenage daughter studying for a final exam in their small apartment in southern Tehran.