When the new spokeswoman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was named at the end of last month, I couldn’t help feeling optimistic: Marzieh Afkham is not only a seasoned diplomat, she is also a woman. For a conservative, male-dominated society like Iran’s, choosing a woman as its public face is encouraging, to say the least.
News of the appointment of a female ambassador as well as a ministry spokeswoman was welcomed as a positive step towards women by President Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani, the moderate cleric who succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month, is reported to have pledged to give women more prominent roles in public life, and promised during his election campaign that while he was president “discrimination against women will not be tolerated.”
There may not be a woman in the cabinet, but it is the first administration since Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 to have a spokeswoman and a female ambassador, the latter yet to be named.
Although the appointments were received positively in some quarters, they came in for criticism from women activists and women’s rights groups in Iran, and it has proved difficult to understand what they really mean, and whether they mark the beginning of delivery on election promises and a new dawn for Iranian women’s rights.
The promotion of women in Iran’s diplomatic service has been a silver lining during a very disappointing period for Iranians in general, and women in particular, and there is still a long way to go before women are adequately represented in the country’s political life.
“The general perception among Iranian women of women’s participation prior to President Rouhani ... was generally sceptical and not very positive,” an article carried by the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) said.
Its author, former cabinet minister Fatemeh Rakei, expressed her “deep concern over the lack of female political participation in President Rouhani’s cabinet.”
“Our expectation from our elected president is to consider women’s capacity as ministers in his cabinet, expecting him to nominate at least five women as ministers,” she wrote.
Rakei said parliament’s Women and Youth Committee had put forward the names of three prominent women politicians, who had all been politically active in government positions before and after the revolution, to join Rouhani’s first cabinet.
Despite promising repeatedly during his election campaign to promote women’s rights and advance equality for women, including increasing women’s participation in the political sphere, he failed to appoint a single female minister to his cabinet.
In a country where the feminist movement has been active for nearly a century - winning, for example, hard-fought battles for divorce and child custody rights - this raised uncertainty and alarmed many women’s rights advocates.
Even his predecessor, hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had one female MP and two female deputy ministers in his cabinet.
The appointment of two women to diplomatic posts can be considered as hopeful, but does not satisfy the expectations of women who voted for Rouhani. What Rouhani has done so far for women certainly isn’t what Iranian women were hoping to see.
It took the country nearly a decade after the 1979 revolution to appoint the first female deputy minister, 17 years to nominate a female vice president and nearly 30 years to appoint its first female minister.
If progress seems slow at present, Iranian women certainly expect it to continue and hope for more public posts for women in the future.
Rouhani may be hesitant on women’s rights, but he appears to be moving faster in other areas.
On Wednesday Iran freed human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, seen by campaign groups as the country’s highest profile political prisoner, and this was seen as a sign that some hardline policies may be easing under Rouhani’s leadership.