Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat—Faezeh Hashemi has been working extensively on social, political and cultural issues for over 20 years. She was a member of parliament from 1996 to 2000, while active in the Kargozaran party to which her father, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, also belonged. She founded Iran’s first newspaper focused on women’s issues, the short-lived Zan, in the late 1990s. Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad she briefly served as the head of a government sports council before it was disbanded. Having taken part in anti-regime protests in 2009 and 2011, she was arrested in 2012 and imprisoned for six months on charges of disseminating propaganda.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that sparked heated debate in the Iranian parliament, Hashemi strongly criticized what she sees as a rigid attitude to women on the part of both conservatives and reformists in her country.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How would you characterize the political and social participation of Iranian women following the 1979 Islamic Revolution?
Faezeh Hashemi: I see women’s participation from two perspectives. One is regarding women themselves: [Iranian] women have always been active and they have always looked to the future. The second is regarding the role of rulers and officials: I think their performance has not been consistent with the conditions of Iranian women. Their performance is far removed from the experiences of women. Over the 35 years since the Iranian revolution, conditions for women have improved slowly and inconsistently . . . Unfortunately, both conservatives and reformists and Rights and Leftists—all the different political groups—have been closed-minded with regard to [issues that affect] women. They favor a male-dominated culture.
Q: How do you compare the political and social participation of women before and after the revolution?
I was 16 when the revolution happened, so I don’t have accurate [i.e., first-hand] information about women’s participation at that time. My information is based on what I have heard and on written documents. Politically speaking, I think that the situation was better 35 years ago than it is now. If we had two female ministers [the Minister of Education and the Minister for Women’s Affairs] at that time, we should have had more female ministers by now. But we don’t have even a single woman minister. Furthermore, the number of women sitting in the National Assembly and the Senate was much higher than it is now. If we take globalization and the improvement in the position of women over the past three decades into account, we will see that we [in Iran] have been lagging behind in terms of the political participation of women. From a political standpoint, there has been no progress; we have even moved backward.
I hold a different view of social participation, because the observation of Islamic principles has affected the social activities of women. Before the revolution, most families were not comfortable with their daughters being active in society, and therefore the presence of women was more limited.
In general, we can say that women’s social participation has grown after the revolution, specifically in university education, sports, the arts, and even in the workplace. It is inconsistent with the backwardness in the political sector.
Q: Given the first steps taken with regards to women’s affairs during President Hassan Rouhani’s seven months in office, what do you think the future holds? Have these first steps been effective?
No! I think that the new administration has not had a good start in this regard, and I sense a sort of misogyny in this government.
Q: One of Rouhani’s campaign promises was that he would create a Ministry for Women’s Affairs, but this promise has apparently been forgotten. Do you think such a ministry is needed?
I don’t believe a Ministry for Women’s Affairs would be effective. Currently, the president has a Deputy [Vice President] for Women’s Affairs, and her authority is no less than a minister’s. Furthermore, a minister faces more restrictions than a vice president, due to the interference from parliament, particularly in the current circumstances where the parliament is looking for pretexts to hinder the government’s work. For example, I believe that the transformation of the Office of the Vice President for Physical Activity into a Ministry of Sports and Youth was not a successful move. It did not benefit sports—it has even prevented progress.
Q: Do you mean that creating a Ministry for Women’s Affairs would be ineffective?
The Office of the Vice-President for Physical Activity was no different from the current Ministry of Sports and Youth. The Physical Activity Organization had branch offices in all cities, and even in the villages, but the new ministry has not changed anything. It has even got worse in a way, because the minister is regularly summoned to parliament and is facing restrictions. If the parliament was in harmony with the government, this move might have been helpful. But when the parliament is not in harmony [with the government], it becomes obstructive. By all this, I mean to say that a ministry would not be stronger than a vice-presidency.
Q: Do you think that more work could be done in the Office of the Vice-President for Women’s Affairs?
A: Yes, of course. This office can implement any plan it deems appropriate.
Q: The number of female MPs has been declining. Why would you say that is?
Some may say it has nothing to do with the rulers, because people just do not vote for women. That could be true, but there are certain things you need to win votes. For instance, a director-general, a provincial governor, a mayor, a university chancellor or anyone else who is regularly seen by the public can muster votes more easily than women, who are often far from the public eye. One cannot expect people to get familiar with female hopefuls during the short campaigning period, especially when campaigns based only on posters. Moreover, one cannot ignore the male-dominated culture of Iran. Men are not the only advocates of this male-dominated culture: our women, our mothers and our families have also been influenced by this culture.
Furthermore, political parties are instrumental in the legislative elections. Our parties are all dominated by men and there are few women on the party lists. Unfortunately, women in Iran have mainly served as the regime’s infantry. Women work shoulder-to-shoulder with men, but when it comes to the rewards they are denied any share. Women are marginalized.
Q: Do you think female MPs have been influential in spite of their limited numbers?
When the women’s share of parliament is less than 5 percent, you cannot expect more from them. In the parliament, the number of votes plays the most important role. But I believe these few female MPs have been more influential than could be expected of them. What can be done when there are so few women in parliament? For any proposal they make they will face a majority that might be opposed, especially if the issue is about women. One cannot expect the few women in the parliament to do something extraordinary.
Q: One question we have to ask is if women actually want to participate in politics, or is it just that they are sidelined by men?
A few women have been offered top government posts which they have refused, but there are very few such cases. There are also women who have made huge efforts to be active in many different sectors, but they have been marginalized. After the victory of Mr. Rouhani in the election, women—individually and in groups—became more active, and they even set up a working group. But it was very disappointing that the government appointed [few] women to key posts.
Q: Some European countries, and also non-European countries like Philippines, have an equal number of male and female ministers. How can women in these countries reach the top positions, while in Iran women cannot?
I don’t agree with what you say [that women are invisible in Iran], and I have already answered this question. In our society, the male-dominated leadership has had to engage women in management affairs. But women have to start from the lower level of the management hierarchy to reach higher levels. They need to serve as a junior employee before becoming a director or a CEO. But in our country, after women reach a certain point, they hit the glass ceiling; they have to jump over hurdles put in their path specifically because of their gender.
Women’s potential is ignored, and I say that is why fewer women are participating in political affairs. Beyond politics, women have made some headway. Look at the universities, for example. Nearly 70 percent of those entering universities are women, but there are only a few women chancellors. Are there so few educated woman able to run a university? How come men can, but women can’t?
I’ll give you another example. I introduced two experienced women to a provincial governor to be considered for different posts. What do you think the response I got was? I was told two women are too many. So I asked them how come the number of men they had was not too many, but two women was?
Unfortunately, such attitudes prevent women from making progress. I could provide you with a long list of women capable of handling top jobs in fields I am involved with. Others could provide a list of women specializing in other fields. It would be wrong to say that we don’t have qualified women. It would be better to say that competent women are often unknown. We would even have many choices for ministry portfolios, if we decide to pick from among them.
Q: Women have recently been appointed mayors of some smaller cities. Do you think it is a positive development or are they just isolated incidents?
This relates to the slow pace [of progress for women] I have already mentioned. Women have grown more rapidly [in their experience and expertise] than the pace of their appointment to management posts. I don’t think there are more than three or four female mayors across the country, and Iran has more than 500 cities. These are isolated examples, and things will not change significantly. Realistically speaking, more women were serving as managers under Mr Ahmadinejad.
Q: Do you think this was just a symbolic measure taken by Ahmadinejad?
It was not for show. But even if we think it was just for show, women were appointed to management posts, and we had even a female minister.
Q: Is the Islamic dress code for women part of what is preventing women from getting top positions?
I don’t think so. Look at Mrs [Masoumeh] Ebtekar [the head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Agency]. She did not wear the chador in the past, but she started wearing it when she was named vice-president. We have also women who got posts even though they did not wear chador. You have to take into account that anyone named to a government post belongs to this regime. Even men chosen for top posts are never weak in their religious conviction. There are many women currently working in universities, offices and factories, and the dress code is no obstacle.
Q: What would be your solution to the difficulties women face in getting the top government jobs?
Given 35 unsuccessful years [for women], I think that a quota system should be considered. It has been done in many countries around the world. For instance, it could be legislated that women must be given at least 30 percent of top government positions or seats in parliament. After more than three decades, we need to have a share set aside for women.
I didn’t believe we would need a quota system until recently. I believed that women should work hard and strive, but now I see that women have done their best and they are still barred from getting top posts. Therefore, I think that the only solution would be to allocate a quota to women. That is what is done in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In the first stage of development, these countries adopt such laws. They adopt a quota for women in their parliament or cabinet, and then the president has to look for qualified women. I think that we have reached a position where we have to enact such laws. I have come to this conclusion because of my disillusionment.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Persian.