Middle East

Iran election: Could women decide the next president?

Iranian women walk past mural in Tehran (file photo) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Women form nearly half the electorate in Iran

When Iranians go to the polls to choose a new president next Friday, all the names on the ballot paper will be male. In the nearly four-decade history of the Islamic Republic, no woman has been allowed to stand for the top office.

But it's certainly not for want of trying.

This year, 137 women put their names forward. Most famous by far is Azam Taleghani, a 72-year old former MP and daughter of a well-known ayatollah.

She has registered to stand in most presidential elections since 1997, determined to challenge the archaic and ambiguous wording of the Iranian constitution which has traditionally been interpreted as meaning only men can become president.

Ms Taleghani argues that the criteria can apply to both men and women and that, as an experienced politician, she is eminently qualified.

But the electoral supervisory body, the Guardian Council, disagrees and has disqualified her at every attempt.

This March, now frail and walking with the help of a frame, Ms Taleghani once again determinedly made her way up the stone steps of the interior ministry to register. And once again she failed to qualify.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Women's civil liberties are curtailed in Iran

Even though they are not allowed to stand, women comprise just under half the electorate, so their vote is important and presidential candidates usually make an effort to reach out to them.

Early on in the campaign the incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, posted a photo of himself on social media which caused a flurry of comment.

He was out on a weekend walk in the mountains standing next to two young female hikers, both of whose hijab is far from what would be considered proper by the hardliners.

It was a clear message to young, modern female voters, that he was the candidate who was not overly bothered about the country's restrictive dress code and other curbs on social freedom.

Image copyright Hassan Rouhani
Image caption President Rouhani (left) was pictured with casually dressed women

Mr Rouhani's campaign video makes a point of praising Iranian women's achievements in the worlds of both work and sport, and offering his support.

He is also the only candidate so far to have held a rally specifically for female voters.

Sideswipe

He was given a rapturous welcome by thousands of young women gathered at Tehran's Shiroudi stadium this week.

Many were wearing purple headscarves - the colour of his campaign - and many held placards demanding more rights and freedoms.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Women are poorly represented in politics and government in Iran

Well-known MP Parvaneh Salahshouri was cheered when she told the crowd that the morality police should leave women alone and focus on fighting corruption instead.

Flanked by female MPs, Mr Rouhani took to the stage and indirectly rebuked his hardline rival Ebrahim Raisi over the conservatives' view that women's employment is less important than their role as wives and mothers.

"Aren't you the one trying to stop women from going out to work?" he asked. "If you really believe in female employment then why haven't you done anything about it?"

As an ultra-conservative, Mr Raisi clearly has a harder job appealing to young, modern-minded female voters.

But that hasn't stopped him from trying. On the campaign trail he makes frequent mention of his wife - who has a PhD and is a university professor.

"I don't mind eating a cold dinner when my wife has to work late," he told a journalist recently.

Mr Raisi's critics are sceptical about his sudden interest in women's rights.

A photograph of a recent campaign rally in which his supporters are clearly segregated by gender, has prompted much mockery from moderates.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi has also been courting the female vote

Many suspect Mr Raisi's real views are actually closer to those of the man he's widely tipped to succeed Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Mr Khamenei is famous for dismissing gender equality as a "failed Western idea", and stressing the importance of Iranian women's role in the home and family.

The other key candidate in this race, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, is also using social media to reach out to women.

He recently posted a photo of himself surrounded by young ethnic Kurds, including girls wearing colourful headscarves with their hair clearly visible.

But on social media he has been constantly reminded of his past proposals to segregate men and women in the workplace in Tehran. And President Rouhani has made several swipes at him for the same reason.

Rhetoric and reality

Alongside the presidential poll, voters will also be electing new local councils and here women are involved and having more impact.

Record numbers of women won seats in local elections four years ago, and many are hoping to repeat that achievement this time round.

Overall representation by women both in local councils and in parliament is still low - Iran ranks 177 out of 193 on the United Nation's 2017 Women in Politics report.

But the involvement of women on local councils has made an impact and it is here that they are clearly able to make a difference.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iranian women are politically active in local councils

Back on the campaign trail in Tehran women voters are listening hard to the pledges now being made to them by the candidates.

Many are wondering whether the rhetoric will translate into policies that will really address the many pressures of their everyday lives.

Veteran would-be presidential candidate Azam Taleghani has been taking part in an election meeting at Amir Kabir university.

She pledged to continue her campaign for women to be allowed to stand for president, but said that this time round she would be casting her vote for President Rouhani.

"Maybe we will never have a female president," she told students, "But it doesn't mean the right to stand should be taken away from us."

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