Iranian Women and the Tenth Presidential Election

The tenth Iranian presidential election will be on 12th of June 2009. This election is significant for various reasons, one of which is the possibility of discourse between USA and Iran that increases by the minute. This means that the future president of Iran may play an important role in these talks which is enough reason for a heightened level of attention to this election. As far as the internal politics are concerned, this president can be influential in three different areas, the worsening economic situation (inflation and increasing prices), the worsening human rights situation, and the on-going seriously discussed demands of the Iranian women.

Considering the importance of this election, I would like to discuss the degree to which women are going to play a role in electing this president and the opportunities they will be presented with to candidate themselves.

Importance of Presidential Office

Article 113 of the constitution states, “After the leader, the president is the highest formal official of the state and is responsible for the implementation of the constitution and management of the executive branch in areas other than those which are directly under the leader.” Thus, the importance of the office of the president in policy making is clear and it is advisable for women to consider their opportunities for holding that office. Currently, over 65% of the students who enter universities in Iran are women. Hence, it is natural for such a group of highly educated people to want to increase their opportunities for holding this office so that, while at that office, they can remove or find a solution for at least some of the discriminations women struggle with today.

However, one should keep in mind that the office of president in the legal and political system of Iran is not like it is in the west. As evident by the article cited above, president holds very limited authority in Iran; it is the supreme leader who is the highest power in the state with his extensive authority listed in article 110 of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Constitution. Article 110 lists the authority of the leader as follows:

Article 110 - [Leadership Duties and Powers] (1) Following are the duties and powers of the Leadership:
1. Delineation of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran after consultation with the Nation's Exigency Council.
2. Supervision over the proper execution of the general policies of the system.
3. Issuing decrees for national referenda.
4. Assuming supreme command of the Armed Forces.
5. Declaration of war and peace and the mobilization of the Armed Forces.
6. Appointment, dismissal, and resignation of:
a. the religious men on the Guardian Council,
b. the supreme judicial authority of the country,
c. the head of the radio and television network of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
d. the chief of the joint staff,
e. the chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and
f. the supreme commanders of the Armed Forces.
7. Resolving differences between the three wings of the Armed Forces and regulation of their relations.
8. Resolving the problems which cannot be solved by conventional methods, through the Nation's Exigency Council.
9. Signing the decree formalizing the election of the President of the Republic by the people. The suitability of candidates for the Presidency of the Republic, with respect to the qualifications specified in the Constitution, must be confirmed before elections take place by the Guardian Council, and, in the case of the first term of a President, by the Leadership. 10. Dismissal of the President of the Republic, with due regard for the interests of the country, after the Supreme Court holds him guilty of the violation of his constitutional duties, or after a vote of the National Assembly (Majlis) testifying to his incompetence on the basis of Article 89.
11. Pardoning or reducing the sentences of convicts, within the framework of Islamic criteria, on a recommendation from the Head of judicial power.
(2) The Leader may delegate part of his duties and powers to another person.

A look at the article 110 and 113 of the constitution, as well as a survey of the last 9 presidential terms shows that where the president’s ideology has been harmonious with the supreme leader, his power had maximized and where they were contradicting, the president’s power had minimized.

Rights of voting

Men and women alike can participate in voting for the presidential election. Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution, article 114 states, “The president shall be elected by a direct vote of the people for a four year term of office. His consecutive re-election is allowed only for one term.” Hence, gender is not a deciding factor in the issue, the term ‘people’ that is used encompasses men and women with no limitations. Therefore, all Iranian women are able to participate in June 12th election.

Right of Candidacy

Before we enter the discourse of women’s rights of participating in election, we must mention that the election in Iran is not completely free and democratic, rather it is competitive. Free election means the ability of citizens to choose their government and the ability to be represented by the ones they choose via the executive, legislative or other important organs of the state. Political freedom allows people to criticize the policies of the rulers and to form political associations, groups and parties. It also allows them to join such groups without inhibition. With political freedom comes free participation in the political process. In the modern world, the realization of developmental objectives has been identified with an increased recognition and acceptance of the importance of political freedom. The question, therefore, is to what extent the existing political structures in Iran recognize political freedom. There are many areas in which obstacles to political freedom readily operate. Some examples are freedom for political parties, freedom of associations, freedom of NGO’s and civil society, freedom of urban and Rural councils, and freedom of speech, observing the rights of the political prisoners in courts, and free elections. Here I shall discuss the latter and discuss why elections are not free in Iran.

Obstacles to Free Elections

In the area of free elections, major problems persist. Free election means that, first, anyone—no matter what his/her political orientation happens to be—has the right to stand as candidate or introduce a candidate; second, that all citizens, irrespective of race, gender, religion and ideology, must be allowed to take part in elections. In present day Iran, such freedoms are not guaranteed.

For instance, several sections of Article 28 of the Majlis Elections Act deprive a part of the population from introducing or supporting the candidates of their own choice. According to this article, candidates must have the following qualifications when they register for election campaigns:

1. Belief in and practical devotion to Islam and the scared regime of the Islamic republic.
2. Citizenship of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
3. Expression of loyalty to the principle of velayat-e faqih.
4. Education at the level of post-high school diploma or equivalent (the equivalent is useful for members of the clergy who have only attended seminaries)
5. No criminal record in the province in which they stand.
6. Physical health to the extent of having the faculties of sight, hearing and speech.
7. Being no less than thirty years and no more than seventy years of age.

It is clear that sections 1 and 3 of this article prevent those who think differently and may not subscribe to the principle of velayat-e faqih from putting up a candidate and testing political support for their social views. In short, a large section of the Iranian people who do not express undivided allegiance to the requirements of sections 1 and 3 are deprived from having the deputies of their choice in the National Assembly (Majlis). The institution that assesses the qualifications of the candidates and rejects those who are not qualified is the Guardian Council.

Another restrictive law is Article 3 of the Amendment to the National Assembly (Majlis) Elections Act of 1995, which extends the supervisory power of the Guardian Council so far as to give it the position of absolute supervision and even decision-making about who may or may not stand as a parliamentary candidate. The role of the Guardian Council is defined in the Constitution. According to Article 91, “With a view to safeguarding the rules of Islam and the Constitution, and to see that the approvals of the National Assembly (Majlis) are not in contravention with them, a council known as the Guardian Council shall be established consisting of the following: Six just clerics acquainted with the needs of the time and problems of the day.” These individuals will be appointed by the Leader, six jurists who are qualified in various branches of law, from among Muslim jurists introduced to the National Assembly (Majlis) by the head of the judiciary and appointed by the approval of the National Assembly (Majlis). Article 99 of the Constitution further states, “the Guardian Council is charged with the responsibility of supervising the elections of the President, the National Assembly (Majlis), general elections and referendums.” With the 1995 amendment, this supervisory role is interpreted to include the right to reject the competence of any potential candidate without being obliged to offer any reasons or evidence. Thus, even those who declare their allegiance to the principle of velayat-e faqih may be deemed untruthful and be rejected by this council. Indeed this is precisely what has happened in the past few elections. Many candidates that were approved for previous elections were disqualified without explanation.

All the limitations mentioned above hold true for presidential election as well and so, one cannot assume that all the Iranian people have a representative amongst the candidates. Contrarily, the candidates who are competing in the election debates are only representing a portion of Iran’s population. This is true to the extent that it can be said that a large number of Iranians have been eliminated from political participation due to such laws. These people only have the right to vote for the candidates that are already selected. However, they do not have a voice in the system. Example of such people are those who adhere to the thought process of separation of religion from the government and those who have a history of disagreement or criticism of the state in there political background. Furthermore, in the presidential election, all candidates must be Shi’a Muslim and hence, the non-Shi’a Muslims do not have the right to candidate themselves for presidency. However, the right of women in this area is shrouded in ambiguities and conflicting interpretations of the aforementioned article of the constitution to which a solution is yet to be presented.

Obstacles to Women’s Candidacy

According to article 115 of the constitution, “The president must be elected from among distinguished religious and political personalities having the following qualifications:

Must be of Iranian origins, must have Iranian citizenship, must be efficient and prudent, have a record of good reputation, honesty and piety and must be true and faithful to the essentials of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official faith of the country.”

Also, this article is explicit that the president must come from among religious and political “rejal” (which in Arabic language is the plural of rajol, meaning a man), the law foresees such qualities for the candidates but does not stress that they must be men. Some of the interpreters of the article hold that the word “rejal” as used in this context, refers to prominent political and religious figures and not just men of such qualities. Yet, it is difficult to ignore the gender implication of the word. What is certain is that the law-makers have so far deprived half of the population from contesting the office.

Also, from the point of view of Islamic law, condition of masculinity as a requirement for holding the office is not logical. Nor does is conform to the international principals of human right, much of their designating documents have been signed by the Iranian government. The Iranian government has signed the International Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, as well as the Convention for the Rights of the Minors. Moreover, the subject of presidency involves election, and election implies representation where sexual discrimination has no basis. On the other hand, the presidency is a new concept in the Shi’a culture, was born of the Islamic revolution in Iran and has no base in traditional ruling. Therefore, it is impossible to claim that there are canonical obstacles to candidacy of women for presidency.

Obstacles to Women as Ministers

It is true that such debates and disagreement persist about women’s candidacy; however, there has never been a legal obstacle for women to be ministers. Even before the revolution, there were two female ministers in the cabinet but we are yet to see a female minister in the cabinet after the revolution. This is unacceptable since the 1979 revolution came to fruition with the extensive and effective participation of the women. Hence, women deem it to be their right to express their malcontent of the political system that has deprived them from many political rights and demand that it ends the discriminations. Obtaining the position of minister in the governments and in particular the tenth government is one of the significant demands of the Iranian women, especially that there is no legal obstacle preventing it from happening.

According to article 133 of the IRI constitution “ministers are chosen by the president who introduces them to the Majlis, requesting votes of confidence for them …” What is clear is that, in laws concerning the appointment of ministers, condition of masculinity is not mentioned. Nonetheless, there has not been even one women minister serving in successive cabinets. Before the revolution, there were two women ministers. Therefore Iranian women can serve in the post of minister and are in a position to demand their right or criticize the opinion of those individuals or groups who deny them the right despite the existence of the legal opportunity available to them. Iranian constitution does not created a barrier on way of women who wish to become ministers, rather, what has so far prevented women from holding this post is the patriarchal inclination of the Iranian political sphere.

Conclusion

As detailed above, once again Iranian women are re-defining themselves within the limitations of the 10th election with three demands:

1) Iranian women want to gain a positive interpretation of the article 115 of the constitution that will bring them one step closer to the office of presidency. If they do not manage to do so, once the election is over, the Iranian women will give themselves the right to seriously demand a reform within the constitution so that the term “rejal” is completely removed;
2) Iranian women contemplate the important question ‘will the current candidates elect a female minister or not’; and
3) The Iranian women are pressuring the candidates to publish their plans as it relates to women simply and in detail. A summary of such demands is available at http://www.mehrangizkar.net/english/archives/000446.php.

Hence, the tenth Iranian presidential election will be of high importance when it comes to the issue of women’s right.

According to its article 177, the constitution can be revised and amended. The road of reform will never be an easy one but one beset by numerous legal obstacles. To remove these, it is necessary to update the constitution. In particular, amending article 115 of the constitution and correcting the role of the guardian council as a judicial entity charged with the duty to protect the constitution without being involved in political and factional disputes will give greater authority. This will give the council a status on par with similar institutions in the rest of the world and move Iran one step closer to obtaining an equitable system.