Anita Anand | Can election of a reformist leader lead to winds of change in Iran?

In Iran’s just-concluded presidential election runoff, the two final candidates were the moderate Masoud Pezeshkian and the ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili. A total of six candidates had stood for election.

A week earlier two conservative candidates had dropped out. None of the four remaining candidates reached the 50 per cent needed for a win. Mr Pezeshkian and Mr Jalili, with the most votes, qualified for the July 6 runoff, where Mr Pezeshkian got 16.3 million votes, a clear three million more than Mr Jalili.

This is an important turn of events in Iran’s leadership. Since 1979, when theocratic Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the monarchy of the Shah of Iran, the country has been under ultra-conservative rule. Women’s rights and freedoms in and out of the home are severely restricted and by law, they are forced to wear the head covering hijab.

Mr Pezeshkian, in his campaign, advocated limited social reforms and engagement with the West, including with the United States over the lifting of sanctions and Iran’s nuclear programme. And more space for women’s rights. In the presidential debate, he said he agreed with the mandatory dress code and that all women in his family wear the chador, the long, loose black cloak that covers the entire body from head to toe. But he also questioned the way women’s dress codes are enforced in Iran, adding that he wouldn’t tell anyone how to dress. He said in Iran women are seen as second-class citizens, created only for the sake of the family, and this needed to change, and that women exist side by side with men in the economy, science and industry, and they should be returned to this position. This is obviously good.

While media coverage outside Iran has focused more on sanctions which affected the economy and Iran’s nuclear programme during the campaigns, women too put their demands forward. The political and economic issues in Iran weigh heavy upon the citizenry and people are demoralised over the theocratic regime’s control over their lives. Both civil society groups and the women’s movement have increasingly become vocal on the need for change.

The women’s movement has challenged the theocratic regime since it began. Women organised the first anti-theocracy demonstration on March 8, 1979, just weeks after the regime’s foundation. Since then, Iranian feminists and women’s rights activists have been organising and are well-positioned to lead the larger demands for democracy, justice, and freedom. Today, many are articulating the steps necessary to reach their goals for liberation.

The government naturally sees the women’s movement as a threat. In the early 2000s, hardliners declared involvement in the women’s movement as a threat to national security.

But women have persisted, despite the threats, kidnappings, arrests and deaths.

Among the many campaigns started by women, in 2006 the One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws, also known as Change for Equality, was a campaign to collect one million signatures in support of changing discriminatory laws against women. The campaign looked to secure equal rights in marriage and inheritance, an end to polygamy, and

stricter punishments for honour killings and other forms of violence. Activists of the movement were attacked and jailed by the government. No surprise here.

But women’s protests and organising continued despite the crackdown of the government.

Iranian women reached out to women in other Islamic countries and put before the international community what they call the “gendered apartheid” of women in their countries.

These are laws that discriminated against them based on their sex, depriving them of their human rights.

In more recent times, the protests have become much more personal and individual. The number of women and girls violating the hijab laws have increased considerably. There are estimates that at least 20 per cent of Iranian women appear in public unveiled despite the State’s threats of arrest and harassment.

University campuses, student and faculty organisations, labour unions, teachers’ associations and arts communities are the focal points for activism and exchange. To prove solidarity and their frustration with the State, the protesters have been non-violently organising nationwide strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts in support of the women-led protests. Many businesses, particularly restaurants and cafes, risk closure by continuing to serve “improperly” veiled women in defiance of State pressure. There is support and sympathy for women and the public defiance is an interesting turn in the women’s movement, aided and abetted by the public. How long can people be suppressed?

The Pezeshkian win is a good sign that it may be possible to open up a dialogue about Iran opening up to the West, talking with the United States over the nuclear programme and extending human rights to its citizens, especially women. While analysts and sceptics point out that he may not be able to do much, given that absolute authority still resides with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who is the highest power in the land, appointing the heads of the judiciary, military and media. He also confirms the election of the President.

But we may yet be surprised. If the election win is a sign to go by, there could be more positive surprises. In 2023, members of the Iranian feminist movement drafted and publicised an Iran Women’s Bill of Rights outlining their demands for absolute gender equality and justice in 20 articles, to be included in the future constitution of Iran.

Could this become a reality?

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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