Campaign to Increase the Representation of Women in the Iranian Majlis

Raz Zimmt analyzes the efforts on Iranian social media to increase the number of female representatives in the Iranian Majlis.

In late October, a few dozen Iranian social and women’s rights activists launched a public campaign designed to significantly improve the representation of women in parliament (Majlis), ahead of parliamentary elections expected on February 26, 2016. Only nine women (out of 290 members) serve in the current Majlis. The largest representation of women after the Islamic Revolution was in the fifth Majlis (2000-1996), which had fourteen female members.

The announcement launching the campaign stated that increasing the representation of women in the Majlis is necessary in order to fight discrimination against women in Iranian law. It further noted that it is despicable that only three percent of the representatives in the Majlis are women, particularly as the number of women in parliaments around the world is rising steadily. The campaign, entitled “Struggle to change the masculine face of the Majlis,” aims to help elect at least fifty women who support gender equality. To this end, it initiated a variety of political and PR activities, including encouraging women to submit their candidacy in the elections, promoting the inclusion of women on the candidate lists of various political factions, and supporting and endorsing the election campaigns of female candidates who support gender equality.[1] On December 8, the campaign's activists held a conference at Tehran University on the changing status of women in Iranian parliamentary history.[2] During the conference, the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, expressed support for having reserved seats for women in the Majlis, and said that worldwide experience proves that this step has a positive impact on the promotion of women’s rights.[3]

Social networking sites (SNS) occupy a central place in the management of the campaign. At the outset, the founders launched a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account for the campaign,[4] which publish regular updates about public activities and the regular interviews activists give to the media. Moreover, with the aid of shared posts and photos illustrating discrimination against women in Iran, the campaigners hope to raise public awareness of the issue. Another campaign with a similar goal, named “Women Vote for Women” was launched by activists affiliated with the reformist opposition in Iran. It also makes extensive use of social networks for information purposes.[5] Through this new campaign, activists appeal to citizens, especially women, and call for them to support the candidacy of women committed to equality.

The campaign is led by women’s rights activists, who oppose “the male monopoly” in Iranian politics and who present increasing the representation of women in the Majlis as a prerequisite for ending discrimination against women. Some emphasize that it is insufficient to call for electing women to Majlis. Rather, it is necessary to ensure that the women elected advocate gender equality.[6] In an interview, one activist contended that low representation of women in politics is a sign of a backward country. She noted that although there has been progress in the participation of women in society, the economy, education and health services after the Islamic Revolution, their participation in the political arena is still very low, despite the growing number of women graduating from academic institutions.[7]

The campaign launch sparked lively public discourse about women’s rights in Iran generally and their political involvement in particular. Debate on the subject quickly took on a political tinge when activists affiliated with the moderate reformist camp in Iranian politics sided with the initiators of the campaign, while elements associated with the conservative right criticized it. Its supporters include two former presidents, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who expressed support for increasing political involvement of women and improving their representation in the Majlis.[8] Conversely, conservative right-wing elements criticized the campaign, stressing that its founders were inspired by feminist, Western concepts and driven by a political plan for a reformist take-over of Majlis. Women identified with the conservative establishment in Iran, like the Vice Chair of The Women’s Social-Culture Council, joined the critics, claiming that the campaign reflects the “enemy infiltration into the field of ​​women and the family.”

The debate over the entry of women into politics provoked mixed reactions among users of social networks (SNS) and news sites. Some users support increasing women’s political involvement, while others expressed a conservative approach with respect to their role in society. On the Alef news site, one user argued, for instance, that it’s wrong to believe that it’s possible to compete in the international arena in the 21st century, when the role of women is limited to sleeping late and preparing soup for their husbands. Another user said that as long as there is discrimination against women, there is no alternative but to allocate reserved places in Majlis for women, so they can advance their own status. Yet others insisted that women should be involved only in matters related to the management of home and family. A few even claimed that women working outside of the home leads to negative social consequences, such as increased divorce rates.[9]

The campaign to increase women’s representation in the Majlis is part of a larger, multi-year campaign in Iran to amend legislation that discriminates against women in various fields, including their legal status, rights in the areas of ​​marriage and divorce, integration in the labor market, and the enforcement of hijab. A large part of the struggle is being conducted on SNS, because human rights and civil society activists understand that cultural and social changes are a necessary condition for political and legislative changes. Therefore, they consider it crucial to increase public awareness of these issues through comprehensive, online public relations activities.

[2] “Report from the conference on the history of women in the Iranian Majis,” Kalemeh, November 11, 2015.

[5] “What do women want in the 10th Majlis,” Kayhan, November 30, 2015.

[6] “Women’s participation in politics is a need, not a worry,” Aftab Yazd, December 8, 2015.

[7] “Reserving places for women: From the daughters of Hashemi to the Vice President,” Fars, October 29, 2015.

[8] “Founders of the campaign to change the masculinity of the Majlis are an enemy influence on women’s issues,” Dana, November 30, 2015.

[9] “Reserving places for women on electoral lists: feminist or reformist?” Alef, December 3. 2015.