Iran’s women in the 2013 election: the portrait of a housewife

Since the last Iranian election, women’s rights activists in exile have largely monopolized depictions of the women’s movement in Iran. The 2013 presidential electoral debates have brought forth new domestic women’s activists who have been previously excluded. In a debate planned at the Alzahra University in Tehran, these women were representing the different presidential candidates in a discussion of the key question: “What is the main women’s issue in today’s Iran?” However, the presidential candidates’ debates on TV portrayed women as housewives and mothers. This positioning towards women’s rights has created debates among Iranian women’s rights activists. Many discuss the representation of women as mothers in relation to the candidates’ political background. Here I will draw the attention towards the need to understand women’s representation in the 2013 debates in relation to national and international “threats” that have been claimed by the presidential candidates in the debates.

As Peyghabarzadeh (2013), an Iranian women’s rights activist, states candidates’ viewpoints on women’s roles in Iranian society are a nationalistic view which seeks to represent women as the symbol of national identity for the interests of the nation. “These viewpoints are not looking after women’s interests, but rather following what many nationalists would call national interest … women’s duty as being the symbol of national identity or producing the next generation …” (my translation).[1]

If we try to understand the discussion on women’s issues in the context of presidential debates, we see at least three national threats that might have caused the need to emphasise the role of women as mothers: 1) economic and political sanctions and the international threat of war have been the main themes of discussions in the debates. Though Iran has faced American political sanctions in the last decades, the recent economic sanctions have caused many difficulties for the citizens’ daily life; 2) candidates that have been supported by reformists have brought the internal conflicts of the nezam (regime) into the debates. They have criticised osulgarayan principlists for the ways in which they have handled demonstrations since 1999 and in the aftermath of the election in 2009. They have claimed that Osulgarayan have caused conflict in the nezam and its relation to the nation; and 3) another threat to the nation[2] that has been discussed is that ethnic and religious minorities do not see themselves as part of the nezam. Thus, concerns about ethnic movements for equal citizen rights entered into the presidential election debates.[3]

These three aspects of Iran’s economic and political situation might not say everything about Iranians’ social condition, but they illustrate the kind of perceptions that have been seen as legitimate threats in the presidential election debates. In addition, they implicitly and explicitly seek for a unity of the “nation” and have created nationalistic rhetoric in the debates. As a result, this might also explain other aspects of the focus on women as mothers and housewives in the presidential election debates of 2013.

Though many Iranian women’s activists have been jailed or fled to exile since 2009, there have been forces driving the discussions on women’s issues into the presidential election of 2013, similar to the previous election debates. In 2009, the Presidential candidates were challenged to discuss their policies relating to the plight of women in the society. One important impetus for these discussions was the coalition called “The Coalition of the Iranian Women’s Movement for Voicing their Demands in the Election”, consisting of several groups of women’s activists which created the coalition to pursue their goals. The coalition stated that gender equality was the pre-condition for democracy and required that the presidential candidates took position in relation to their two demands: 1) “to actively pursue the re-joining of the Convention of Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)”[4] and 2) “to eliminate discriminatory laws against women, specifically Articles 19, 20, 21 and 115 of the Constitution with respect to the principle of unconditional gender equality”.[5] By doing so, the coalition not only made their legal demands clear to the future president, but also the demand and expectation that the presidential candidates should have a plan to compete for women’s votes.[6] In the 2013 election campaigns, the candidates’ positions in relation to women were also voiced on TV.  The different positions range from Jalili’s policy, which advocates greater sex segregation and a focus on culture that prioritises women’s role in child care rather than in the workforce, to Aref, who sees the need to change discriminatory laws, to give women’s access to fair trials and women’s empowerment through women’s cooperatives and NGOs.

The so-called “Green Movement” and the demand for political rights in Iran following the 2009 election accelerated the development of two contradictory sides of the Iranian public sphere. On the one hand, we have observed the deployment of nezam’s (regime) internal disagreements into the public sphere, and on the other hand, the oppression of journalists, human and women’s rights activists and reformists. Hundreds of women’s rights activists have been persecuted and imprisoned and dozens of women’s rights activists have fled into exile. This is also apparent in the presidential election debates of 2013. Though it has been said that the policies of TV channel IRIB1, which airs the debates, were devised to maintain control over discussions, the debates have the same characteristics as those in 2009. This was due to the perception that presidential election TV debates gave rise to the uprising and the mobilization for election 2009, and in which the anxiety for Iran’s future was exposed by reformist candidates. The 2013 debates show disagreements on policies related to Iran’s international affairs and internal conflicts in the nezam.[7] But unlike what happened in 2009, the debates in 2013 have showed that the reformists want to solve the conflicts.

Despite the internal conflicts in nezam, it seems that all candidates now agree on women’s place in the home and their role as mothers, although the candidates have raised some issues regarding rights and problems. Abasghalizadeh, an Iranian women’s rights activist in exile, believes that all candidates agree that women are primarily housewives and should receive insurance coverage. Moreover, she believes that representations of women in the debates show the way in which women’s issues have become the main axis through which candidates expose their political domination.[8] Although the candidates’ viewpoints currently are discussed in relation to their political backgrounds, the need to represent Iranian women as mothers and the symbol of the nation should also be seen in the context of the debates and backgrounds of Iran’s economic and political situation.


[2] The word “nation” was sometimes mentioned as equal to the nezam and other times outside the nezam in the debates.

[3] The discussions on ethnic movements have increasingly shown the anxiety of separatism in the public spheres in recent the years.

[5] ibid

[6] Mansooreh Shojaee (June 1st 2013) in the seminar “A Review of the Performance of the Feminist Movement in Iran after the Revolution of 1979” organised by the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights in London .

[7] Though in the TV debates of election 2009 it was displayed that all candidates followed Ayatollah Khomeini’s path but the conflict was about the disagreement on interpretation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s path in policy making, in 2013 all candidates have clearly mentioned that they believe in the system of Velayat Faqih and Khamenehi as the vali.

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