By Sanam Naraghi Anderlini and Sina Azodi

In Washington, the policy of Iranian regime change that blossomed during the Bush years and withered under Obama has flowered again in the Trump administration. But those advocating regime change and those arguing vociferously against it are both losing sight of the fact that profound change is already happening in Iran.

In the Iranian political arena, differences of opinion and vision among reformists, centrists, and hardliners are daily on public view. Two strands of influence have shaped the political system of the Islamic Republic since 1979. The clerical establishment has wielded authority and determined laws and policies according to a deeply patriarchal and paternalistic approach that assumed that “the people” needed guidance. But the revolution also rekindled the idea of public reason and people’s power to shape their own destiny. These two divergent ideas came together in the state’s identity as simultaneously Islamic and a republic.

Tensions between these two tendencies have been evident since the 1990s, and the balance of power is now shifting. At a July 19 cabinet meeting, President Hassan Rouhani reminded his team of the demands of the public and the democratic process to which the officials are accountable. These shifts in attitude are critical indicators of change occurring within the system.

The change in the political sphere is prompted by the dynamic transformation of Iran’s social and cultural space since 1979. One of the best indicators of this transformation is the status of women, who have been key players all along. In the 1970s, the reform of family law that gave women increased rights under the shah helped to rile up the traditional clergy against Iran’s westernization. The clergy in turn mobilized women from poorer and more conservative communities to support the revolution. But the suspension of the family law, forced imposition of the hijab, and early attempts to take away women’s rights to vote prompted a fierce backlash from women across the social spectrum. In the 1980s, barred from certain university degrees, women fought back and reclaimed their spaces, so much so that in 2015 some 70% of science, technology, engineering, and math graduates in Iran were women. The late, great Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman to win the Fields Medal in mathematics, was among the generation of girls born after the revolution into a system that overtly discouraged gender equality. Mirzakhani’s ascendance was not unique. On July 11, 2017, Iran’s flagship airline, Iran Air, appointed 44-year-old Farzaneh Sharafbafi as its first female CEO.

Women have also fought their way into politics. The 2016 parliamentary elections led to a new majlis with the largest number of women since the revolution. Similarly, in the 2017 city council elections, there was a 6% increase in women’s victories. In the highly conservative Sistan and Baluchistan province, some 415 women won council seats. Meanwhile, there is outcry at the absence of women in the newly appointed cabinet, despite President Rouhani’s election promise to appoint more women to ministerial posts.

This article was originally published on LobeLog

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