A woman belonging to Iran’s Baluch ethnic group has been chosen as the mayor of a provincial city, in a rare example of a minority politician being promoted in the Islamic republic.
Samieh Baluchzehi, 26, has become the mayor of Kalat in the southern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, where women often face gender descrimination in their social and private lives.
Although women have previously been mayors in the Islamic republic, it is unprecedented for an Iranian minority woman to lead a city such as Kalat, situated in one of the country’s most impoverished provinces. Her appointment is even more notable as she is a Sunni Muslim in a Shia-dominated country.
Baluchzehi, who is unmarried, comes from a family of eight in the nearby Sarbaz area but moved to the capital, Tehran, to continue her studies. After finishing a master’s degree in natural resources, she made the rare decision for a young woman enjoying Tehran’s freer society to return to her home town and campaign to become mayor.
On Thursday Shargh, a prominent reformist newspaper, featured the mayor in hijab and wearing makeup on its front page. “I’m a Baluchi woman who has broken the spell over women in management positions,” she said in an interview with Shargh, which described her as someone “who has broken the red lines”.
The five members of the city council in Kalat, which has a population of 1,200, unanimously voted for their first ever female mayor and the country’s first ever female minority mayor.
“I decided to become mayor … because I didn’t want the next generations to face the sort of shortcomings that I dealt with myself,” she said. “Our city has nothing. I don’t want my nephews and nieces or the children of our city to be brought up in a city without parks … I want men and women to be able to walk freely in our city.”
After returning to Kalat from Tehran, she said, she faced many restrictions. “From the beginning, I had no decision to stay in Tehran, I always wanted to go back and serve my people … The restrictions in my city are annoying and I am trying to lift them.”
She said men and women in her city had strongly supported her appointment. “I hope my mayorship becomes a new chapter in the self-confidence among Baluchi women and a revision in [our] male-dominated system and an improvement in women’s rights and their role in the society,” she said. “My hope is for a green city with blue skies.”
Sistan and Baluchistan, Iran’s largest province on the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, is home to a big population of Iranian Baluchis and Sunni Muslims. It is also a hub for drug smugglers as well as insurgent groups fighting against the Islamic republic, including Jundallah, which Iran considers a terrorist organisation.
In October, 14 Iranian border guards were killed in an ambush by armed militamen in Saravan, near the Pakistan border. Iran retaliated by hanging at least 16 people it branded as members of an armed rebel group, although it was not clear if they were linked to the group involved in the ambush.
During his campaign for the presidency, Hassan Rouhani promised to improve the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
After taking office, he appointed Ali Younesi, a former intelligence minister, to serve as his special assistant in minorities’ affairs.
“They [our minorities] should also become directors, governors, ministers and they should be considered for these jobs based on merit and without any descrimination,” Younesi has told the reformist Arman daily, adding: “No Baluch for being Baluch, or Arab for being Arab or Christian or Jew for being Christian or Jew should be deprived of holding jobs.”
Iran is home to diverse ethnic minorities including Arabs, Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmens and Armenians, as well as religious minorities such as Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians (who are officially tolerated) and Bahais, who are banned and face much persecution in the country.
In recent years, Iranian ethnic and religious minorities have spoken out against discrimination and inequality in spheres such as access to education, welfare and funds.
As promised during his election campaign, Rouhani has recently released a citizens’ rights charter aimed at protecting the rights of Iranians including minorities, but because the rights rely on the Iranian constitution and Islamic law, it excludes certain minorities such as gay people and Bahais.
Nazila Ghanea, a professor of international human rights law at Oxford University, who has written a critique of Rouhani’s rights charter has warned that it needs major revisions in order to uphold the rights of all Iranians, or else it “will only serve to camouflage continuing and serious human rights concerns”.