Iran's Female Dynamos

December 16, 2015

Katayoun Kishi

Despite legal and social limits, Iranian women play dynamic roles in politics, the arts, education, the environment, the media and human rights. They are players. President Hassan Rouhani campaigned specifically on a platform of improving women’s rights. He named four female vice presidents—on the environment, women and family affairs, and instructed his all-male cabinet to each appoint at least one female deputy; women have more rights than many other women in the region. But Rouhani has fallen short on other campaign promises, including the creation of a Ministry for Women’s Affairs. Iranian women remain restricted in their travel, work, study, and dress, and also face obstacles in divorce cases and child custody laws. The following are profiles of prominent Iranian women in politics, journalism, business, and other fields.

Government Officials
 
Shahindokht Molaverdi was appointed Vice President for Women and Family Affairs in 2013. Rouhani cited her “valuable experience in the field,” making her the third female vice president in his cabinet. In June 2015, Molaverdi gained international attention for her stern criticism of hardline groups’ opposition to female attendance at sporting events. In reference to groups that threatened violence if women were allowed at a volleyball event, Molaverdi said the comments came “from those who were denounced two years ago by voters, and who had crawled into their cave of oblivion for eight years.” Molaverdi holds a Master’s degree in international law from Allameh Tabatabaei University.
 
Masoumeh Ebtekar was appointed Vice President of Iran and head of the Environmental Protection Organization in 2013 by President Rouhani. She previously held the same position from 1997 to 2005, when she was the first female vice president of Iran. In 1981, she was made the editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper, Kayhan International. During the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, Ebtekar served as the students’ spokesperson and interpreter. She was referred to as “Mary” by the foreign press. She holds a doctorate in immunology.
Marziyeh Afkham, a career diplomat, was appointed as Iran’s first female foreign ministry spokesperson in 2013. In October 2015, she was appointed as the ambassador to Malaysia, making her the Islamic Republic’s first female ambassador. Prior to these appointments, Afkham served as the Deputy Director-General of the Public Diplomacy Department and had a long career (1982-2011) in the Foreign Ministry.
 
Nasrine Soltankhah was appointed Vice President for Science and Technology by the Ahmadinejad administration in 2009. She was also head of the Center for Women and Family Affairs (formerly called the Center for Women’s Participation) and an advisor to the president on women’s issues. As of 2015, she was a member of the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran political organization.
 
Fatemeh Javadi was appointed Vice President of Iran in 2005 by President Ahmadinejad. In this role, she headed the Environmental Protection Organization. Javadi and Nasrine Soltankhah were the only two women in Ahmadinejad’s first term cabinet. Javadi was succeeded by Javad Mohammadizadeh in Ahmadinejad’s second term. As of 2015, she was teaching at the University of Shiraz.
 
Activists
 
Zahra Eshraghi, an activist and one of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s grandchildren, has been an outspoken advocate of women’s rights in Iran. She opposed the mandatory dress code and reportedly signed the One Million Signatures petition in 2006, a project intended to change discriminatory laws against women. She was barred from running in the 2004 parliamentary elections, along with some 2,000 other reformist candidates. In the 2009 presidential election, she supported Mir Hossein Mousavi and the Green Movement. She married Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the younger brother of former President Mohammad Khatami (pictured below) and founder of the Islamic Iran Participation Front.
 
 

A photo posted by Zahra Eshraghi (@zahraeshraghi) on

 
 
Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer in Iran, represented Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi as well as women’s rights activists, minors on death row, journalists, and Kurdish rights activists. In January 2011, she was arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison. She was charged with “propaganda against the system” and “acting against national security.” Her sentence was reduced to six years after international outcry by the United Nations and various human rights NGOs. She was released without explanation in 2013, after three years in prison.
 
Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, became a symbol of women’s expanding roles in the 1990s. She founded the Islamic Countries’ Women’s Sports Solidarity Council in 1992. Hashemi was elected to parliament for one term in 1996. In 1998, she founded the first women’s daily newspaper, Zan or “Woman.” The paper was closed by the authorities in 1999. She publicly supported Mir Hossein Mousavi and protested the 2009 presidential election results. Her criticism of the regime resulted in a six-month jail sentence in 2011 for “spreading propaganda” against the Iranian government.
 
Zahra Rahnavard was the first female university chancellor and wife of former Prime Minister and 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Appointed by Khatami, she was removed from her post in 2006 when former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power. In 2009, Ahmadinejad questioned her academic credentials during the televised campaign debates, a move that backfired on him among women. She was the first wife to campaign for her husband. She later became a spokesperson for the opposition Green Movement after her husband lost the election. Rahnavard has been under house arrest along with her husband and Mehdi Karroubi, another opposition leader, since 2011.
 
Journalists, Writers, & Publishers
 
Shahla Sherkat, a prominent journalist and feminist, served as editor of Zanan (“Women”)the leading magazine on women’s issues in the Islamic Republic, and its successor, Zanan-e Emrooz (“Today’s Women”). Zanan was shut down by the Ahmadinejad administration in 2008, after 16 years of publication, for publishing “morally questionable information.” In June 2014, Sherkat resurrected the publication under the new name Zanan-e Emrooz. It too was banned in April 2015, after only 11 issues. The Press Supervisory Council cited “encouraging the anti-social and religiously unsanctioned phenomenon known as white marriage [unmarried cohabitation]” as the reason for the magazine’s closure. Sherkat had previously been called to appear before the Press Court in September of 2014 for “promoting un-Islamic ideas and feminist views” and had served four months in prison on anti-Islamic charges.
 
Shahla Lahiji became the first female publisher in Iran in 1983, establishing Roshangaran, a publishing house focused on women’s issues. In 2015, she became part of the Changing the Parliament’s Male Face campaign, which has promoted women’s participation and issues in Parliament. She boycotted the annual Tehran International Book Fair, Iran’s most significant publishing event, from 2011 to 2015 in protest of the government. From 2014 to 2015, the government refused to issue licenses for 55 books that Roshangaran suggested for publication.
 
Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, a journalist and women’s rights activist, was a founder of the One Million Signatures campaign (also known as One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws), a campaign by Iranian women to collect one million signatures in opposition to discriminatory laws against women. She also joined the Changing the Parliament’s Male Face campaign. In 2012, she was sentenced to one year of suspended imprisonment and five years of probation for “propagation activities against the regime.”
 
Masoumeh Abad, author of the book I’m Alive, wrote about her time in Iraqi prison and the roles of Iranian women in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. During the war, she had worked with the Iranian Red Crescent Society to construct and manage hospitals and medical clinics. She was imprisoned by Iraqi forces in 1980 and released three and a half years later. Supreme Leader Khamenei praised the book in 2014, calling it a “great service.” It also won the Holy Defense Year Book Award that same year. She was elected to the Tehran city council in 2013.
 
Enterpreneurs
 
Nazanin Daneshvar, a young entrepreneur, is the co-founder and CEO of Takhfifan.com, the Iranian alternative to “Groupon.” Daneshvar and other online entrepreneurs were able to take advantage of sanctions to introduce startups based on existing Western businesses like Groupon, Amazon, and YouTube. Prior to her success with Takhfifan, Daneshvar had launched a grocery delivery service. This venture was eventually unsuccessful, due in part to overwhelming demand.
 
Artists
 
Leila Araghian, architect of the Tabiat (“Nature”) Bridge in Tehra, designed the innovative structure at age 26. She was the winner of a local contest for planning a way to connect two parks separated by a highway. The pedestrian bridge – the largest of its kind in Iran – has won numerous awards since it opened in 2014, including an Architizer A+ award. Araghian’s first architectural project, the bridge boasts three floors of walkways, eateries, and sitting areas. It has become a popular landmark for hangouts, sports, festivals, and picnics.  
 
 
 
Hila Sedighi, a poet and social activist, is known particularly for her poem titled “Autumn’s Rain” about the oppression of Iranian students. She was active in Mir Hossein Mousavi’s 2009 presidential campaign, and was reportedly questioned extensively by the Intelligence Ministry following the election protests. In 2011, she was sentenced to four months in prison, to be postponed for five years.
 
Leila Hatami, an award-winning actress, is best known for her role in the film Leila about a woman whose marriage falls apart after she is unable to conceive. She also acted in the film A Separation which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. It was the first Iranian film to win an Academy Award. She was selected to be on the Jury of the 67th Cannes Film Festival in 2014. At the festival, she was criticized by Iran’s Deputy Culture Minister Hossein Noushabadi for shaking hands with the festival’s president and kissing him on the cheek.
 
Samira Makhmalbaf, a film director, was named by The Guardian in 2003 as one of the 40 best directors in the world. Her first film, The Apple, told the true story of two young girls, imprisoned by their parents for 11 years, facing the outside world for the first time. The film was screened at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, making Makhmalbaf the youngest director to participate in the official section of the festival, at only 18 years old. In 2000, Makhmalbaf won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her second film, Blackboards. She is the daughter of the celebrated Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
 
Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, considered one of Iran’s premier film directors, began her career making documentary features for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting network. Since then, she has made a number of films dealing with social and economic issues that focus on people’s daily lives. In particular, her films deal with the issues facing the poor and marginalized, regardless of gender. She was the first female filmmaker in Iran to make a movie about the Iran-Iraq war. Her films often feature strong female characters, and she has been referred to as the “First Lady of Iranian Cinema.”
 
Naghmeh Kiumarsi, a leading women’s fashion designer, first gained national and international attention in 2003 after she launched her first line of scarves and manteaux, the long coats worn over clothing in public. Kiumarsi’s design inspiration came from Iranian heritage and culture, often incorporating calligraphy, poems, and illustrations. Kiumarsi also designed a line of abayas specifically for Emirati women. Like Kiumarsi, designers Farnaz Abdoli and Shabnam Rezaei also challenged women’s fashion norms in Iran by introducing brightly colored fabrics and modern silhouettes.    
 
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, one of the most prominent artists of modern-day Iran, became famous for her large-scale mirror sculptures. During her formative years, Farmanfarmaian spent time in the United States, meeting artists like Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol. After the Islamic Revolution, she spent 26 years in exile in the United States. She returned to Iran in 2004. In addition to her mirror sculptures, Farmanfarmaian creates plaster reliefs and paints on mirrors and paper. Her work was featured in the Guggenheim Museum in 2015, marking the first U.S. exhibition of mirror works and paintings by an Iranian artist.  
 
Athletes 
 
Niloufar Ardalan is the captain of the Iran women’s national futsal team. She began playing for the “Zob Ahan Banovan” futsal team in 2001 and joined the national team in 2007. In September 2015, she was barred from leaving the country to participate in the Asian Football Federation Women’s Futsal Championship in Malaysia because her husband refused to allow her to renew her passport. Ardalan became an outspoken critic of this travel law, saying she wished “authorities would create [measures] that would allow female athletes to defend their rights in such situations.” In November 2015, the Iranian Judiciary granted Ardalan a single exit visa to travel with the national team to Guatemala to participate in the world futsal championship. The Judiciary confirmed that Ardalan left the country without her husband’s permission, but with the consent of the futsal federation and “a number of supervisory agencies.”
 
Behnaz Shafiei was among the first group of women to be granted official permission in the 2000’s to ride motorcycles on off-road circuits. Iranian women are banned from riding motorcycles in public, and are not allowed to compete or ride on official race tracks. Shahiei and the other female riders are restricted to clubs. In March 2015, she was featured in a series of photographs in a leading national newspaper, which attracted widespread interest in Iran.
 
Zahra Nemati was the first Iranian woman to win a gold medal in any Olympic Games. She took the gold for archery in the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. The former taekwondo black belt took up archery when a car accident left her paralyzed in 2004. In November 2015, Nemati won the Asian Para Archery Championships, securing a place in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. That same month, Nemati landed a slot in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil after her performance in the Asian Archery Championships.
 
Shirin Gerami became Iran’s first female triathlete to participate in the International Triathalon Union’s (ITU) world championships in 2013. Gerami spent four months persuading Iranian officials to allow her to compete, arguing that she would respect Islamic requirements. Ultimately, Iran’s sports ministry permitted her to compete in full Islamic dress after the ITU agreed to set up a tent where Gerami could change into cycling and running clothes after the swimming portion of the race. President Rouhani congratulated Gerami on her accomplishment via Twitter.
 
 
Elham Asghari allegedly broke the distance record for a woman swimming in the Caspian Sea in 2013. Asghari claimed she swam for eight hours and a distance of 20 kilometers in June 2013. Iranian officials, however, refused to recognize the record, claiming that she swam wearing un-Islamic attire.
 
Female Members of Parliament
 
There are nine women in the 9th Majlis, out of a total 290 members. Together, they comprise just 3 percent of of lawmakers. Eight of the nine belong to the conservative “Principlist” faction. The inclusion of women in parliament, however, has not necessarily led to an improvement in women’s rights in Iran. In fact, many of the laws that women activists decry as discriminatory have been strengthened under the leadership of these female MPs.
 
Fatemeh Alia, a conservative principlist, has represented the Tehran, Shahr-e-rey, Shemiranat, and Eelamshahr constituencies since 2004 in the seventh, eighth, and now ninth Parliament. She serves on the Councils and Interior Affairs of the Country Committee. In 2009, she was nominated to be Minister of Education in the Ahmadinejad administration. She was also previously the Vice-Director of Women’s Affairs at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) network.
 
Mahnaz Bahmani, a conservative principlist, has represented the Sarab constituency since 2012. She sits on the Economic Affairs Committee.
 
 
 
 
 
Zohreh Tabibzadeh Nouri, a conservative principlist, has represented the Tehran, Shahr-e-rey, Shemiranat, and Eelamshahr constituencies since 2012. She is on the Education and Research Committee and was previously a faculty member at Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences.
 
 
 
Fatemeh Rahbar has represented the Tehran, Shahr-e-rey, Shemiranat, and Eelamshahr constituencies in the seventh, eighth, and now ninth Parliament. She is part of the leadership of the Islamic Coalition Party, one of the oldest political factions in Iran. Previously, she was the Secretary of IRIB’s Internet Policy Making Supreme Council.
 
 
 
Laleh Eftekhari  has represented the Tehran, Shahr-e-rey, Shemiranat, and Eelamshahr constituencies in the seventh, eighth, and now ninth Parliament. In December 2015, she wrote a letter to the First Lady of Turkey criticizing her son’s appearance in a photo with “ISIS ringleaders.”  The men in the photo, however, were later identified as restaurant owners in Istanbul.
 
 
Nayyere Akhavan has represented the Isfahan province in the fifth, seventh, eighth, and now ninth Parliament. She is on the Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee. She was previously the head of the Women’s Affairs Department at the Trio Centers of the IRIB.  
 
 
 
Halimeh Aali has represented Zabol, Zahak, and Hirmand constituencies since 2012. She serves on the Health and Medicare Committee and was previously a physician specializing in internal medicine. She was the first female to represent Sistan and Baluchistan provinces in Parliament.  
 
 
 
 
Sakineh Omrani has represented the Semirom constituency in Isfahan province since 2012. She serves on the Agriculture, Water, and Natural Resources Committee. Before being elected to Majlis, Omrani was a teacher.
 
 
 
 
Shahla Mir Galoy Bayat has represented the Saveh and Zarandieh constituencies in Markazi province since 2012. She serves on the Health and Medicare Committee. She was previously a gynecologist and surgeon.
 

 

 

Katayoun Kishi is a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

 

Photo credits: Shahindokht Molaverdi via President.ir; Masoumeh Ebtekar via President.irMarziyeh Afkham via Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Zahra Rahnavard by Hamed Saber from Tehran, Iran (6th Day - Mousavi n His wife) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Hila Sedighi (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons; Leila Hatami by Georges Biard [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Samira Makhmalbaf by Ozgur Poyrazoglu via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); Rakhshan Bani-Etemad by Masih Azarakhsh [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmian By David Heald (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons; Fatemeh Alia via Islamic Parliament of Iran; Mahnaz Bahmani via Islamic Parliament of Iran; Fatemeh Rahbar via Islamic Parliament of Iran; Laleh Eftekhari via Islamic Parliament of Iran; Nayere Akhavan Bitaraf via Islamic Parliament of Iran; Sakineh Omrani via Islamic Parliament of Iran; Shahla Mir Galoy Bayat via Islamic Parliament of IranHalimeh Aali via Islamic Parliament of Iran