Many women who helped vote Hassan Rohani into office as Iran’s new president did so in the hope that he would push for equality. Yet, when Rohani released his proposed new cabinet on inauguration day on August 4, his list had the makings of an all-male club.
In an apparent response to the criticism that followed from female voters and rights watchers, the cabinet now has its first woman. Elham Aminzadeh, a former conservative lawmaker who reportedly teaches at several universities, has been named vice president for legal affairs.
Rohani said in an August 11 decree that Aminzadeh was given the job because of her “scientific competence” and “legal qualifications” and also for her “moral virtues,” Fars reported.
Susan Tahmasebi, a prominent Iranian women’s rights activist, welcomed Aminzadeh’s appointment as a positive step.
Yet she says it still falls short of her expectations for Rohani’s presidency.
“It’s women’s right to have female ministers appointed as well,” Tahmasebi says. “[Former Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad introduced three female ministers, one of whom was actually approved by the parliament. We expected more from Rohani, especially [since] he came in promising to have a positive view on women’s issues, whereas Ahmadinejad’s presidency, all eight years, was marked with serious setbacks for women.”
Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi was nominated in 2009 by Ahmadinejad to serve in his second term as health minister. She was approved, becoming the Islamic republic’s first female minister. She was dismissed in 2012 for criticizing a colleague.
President Mohammad Khatami brought the first woman into a top government post in 1997, when he named Massoumeh Ebtekar to a vice presidential post and as head of the environmental protection organization.
Rohani’s proposed all-male cabinet led to protests among women’s rights advocates and intellectuals in Iran, including Ashraf Geramizadegan, a journalist and lawyer.
“We women don’t want from Rohani and his government our share of the cabinet. It is rather our right,” Geramizadegan was quoted as saying during a meeting held in Tehran in early August to discuss the shape of the future government.
At the same meeting, journalist Shahindokht Molaverdi said the all-male cabinet list leaked to the media ahead of Rohani’s inauguration exhibited the “very tall walls” keeping women out of politics.
“Everywhere in Rohani’s programs, there was talk of equal participation for women, and we were expecting to see — in the framework of moderation — the presence of women along with men in the cabinet,” she said.
Rohani campaigned on a platform of moderation, spoke in favor of gender equality, and pledged to create a ministry of women’s affairs.
In his first press conference after taking power, the Iranian president addressed criticisms over his cabinet and said he would work to eliminate inequalities against Iranian women.
“Even if a woman is appointed as minister, it doesn’t mean that women have achieved equal rights,” Rohani said. “All the inequalities must be compensated at different management levels. The aim is not to have a woman in the government, just to say, ‘Look people, we have a woman, so they got their rights.'”
In Washington, Tahmasebi agrees. But she says appointing a female cabinet minister would have sent a strong message.
“It shows that he recognizes that half of the population is [made up of] women. That a lot of people who voted for him are women. That he wants to have a cabinet and a group of ministers that are somewhat representative of the general population of Iran,” Tahmasebi says. “And yes, of course, it’s not going to solve the problems. I think all the ministers really need to be aware of women’s issues and they need to be committed to the issue of empowering women, women’s equality, and advancing women’s rights.”
It is not clear to what extent women’s issues will be part of Aminzadeh’s work agenda.
Much of the discrimination women face in Iran is enshrined in Islamic laws that have been enforced over the past three decades.
Aminzadeh received her doctorate in international law from the University of Glasgow. Her thesis was titled “The United Nations And International Peace And Security: A Legal And Practical Analysis.”
Reports say she is currently an assistant professor of law at Tehran University and that she also teaches at the University of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and Imam Sadegh University.
Aminzadeh was a parliamentarian from 2004-08 and served as deputy head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.
The semiofficial Fars news agency wrote that during her time in parliament Aminzadeh introduced and defended several laws, including one on women’s rights. Fars did not provide more details.
Several women’s rights activists reached by RFE/RL said they did not know much about Aminzadeh. One described Aminzadeh as a conservative who in the past was open to consultations with reformists.
The news website Ayandehonline wrote that “it seems that for Rohani the fact that she is a woman is more important than her political orientation [as a] moderate conservative.”
For additional reading on this topic please see:
Democracy, Like Revolution, Is Unattainable without Women
Iran after Ahmadinejad
Islamic Women’s Activism in the Arab World