According to rights groups, Iranian women have been taking two-steps forward and one step back in their push for equality, particularly the right to equal employment opportunities and to hold public office. Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women could serve as judges, elected representatives to the Iranian Parliaments, and even members of the Cabinet. But when Iranians took to the streets in opposition to the Pahlavi Dynasty, women saw the future of Iran as even more promising. Young female students in particular viewed the Shah’s regime as a monarchy heavily influenced by Western Powers that had no tolerance towards alternative political parties or ideologies. The Islamic Revolution was indeed a message of change for many Iranian women. Yet soon after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country, the hope for more civil liberties quickly dissipated, particularly the evolution of women’s right to equal employment opportunities.
The existing legal framework of the Islamic Republic may deny women the ability to hold high decision-making positions. Under Iran’s Constitution, many of those positions are “exclusively tailored for Shi’ite fuqaha (jurists) and mujtahids (Islamic jurists who are capable of an independent derivation of Islamic rules from the primary sources).” For example, Article 99 of the Constitution gives Iran’s Guardian Council the authority to supervise the elections of “the Assembly of Experts for Leadership, the President of the Republic, the Islamic Consultative Assembly [Parliament], and the direct recourse to popular opinion and referenda.” The Law No. 1234 of 1991 interpreted that provision to give the Council a sweeping power to monitor public elections, including the rigorous process of vetting candidates. According to Majlis Monitor, an Iranian watchdog organization, “[t]his aggressive vetting, which at times has prevented entire political groups from running in elections, persists today and has been a cornerstone of continued conservative dominance of Iran’s parliament.” This process in effect has barred many women candidates from participating in the decision-making process of the country. While Article 115 of the Constitution does not expressly bar women from running for presidency, the Council in 2004 declared that it “has not changed its interpretation of Article 115 and women still may not be elected as President.” According to the United Nations Statistics Division, since 1997, Iranian women have held less than five percent of parliamentary seats. Specifically, during the course of nine parliamentary terms, out of 2700 members of Parliament, only 73 were women.
Women’s right to participate in Iran’s judiciary system is also limited. While women may acquire legal education, the existing laws bar them from serving as judges. Under Article 163 of Iran’s Constitution, the conditions and qualifications to serve as a judge must be in accordance with “the criteria of fiqh [Sharia law or Islamic law].” Soon after the 1979 Revolution, conservative clerics made a series of religious pronouncements removing women, including Shirin Ebadi, the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, from their positions as judges. While an amendment to the Process of Appointment of Judges Act of 1982 recognized the possibility of women “as counselors and investigators,” the role of judicial decision-making continues to remain exclusively with men.
Iran has ratified multiple international treaties relevant to women’s rights. It is currently a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Under Article 25 of the ICCPR, every citizen “shall have the right and the opportunity . . . without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; [and] (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections . . . .” Similarly, Article 6 of ICESCR calls on States Parties to recognize “the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts.”
In response to Iran’s third periodic report on the implementation of the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee expressly requested Iran explain why the country continues to exclude women from decision-making positions including the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, and the judiciary. The government of Iran replied to the Committee by claiming that “there is no gender limit stipulated for membership on the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council.” With respect to judicial opportunity for women, it provided statistics indicating that in 2003, “there were exactly 161 women judges and 4 women deputies of Judicial Complexes.” According to Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, however, the “so-called women ‘judges’ [were] not permitted to make substantial decisions in any case,” and none of the 100 branches of General and Revolutionary Courts included a female judge.
While Iran’s existing legal framework continues to hinder women’s participation in the county’s decision-making process, rights groups and international organizations believe that by amending current laws, the government can still take positive steps in realizing the equal rights of Iranian women promised 36 years ago when the Islamic Revolution took place.