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Islamic Feminist Scholar: No Better Time For Rouhani to Nominate Women to His Cabinet

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 Jila Movahed Shariat PanahiCHRI - President Hassan Rouhani should honor his campaign pledges to women and nominate them to serve in his second-term cabinet, a scholar of the Quran and women's rights activist told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).


"Social conditions are ripe for female ministers," said Jila Movahed Shariat Panahi, the author of "A New Interpretation of Women's Rights from the Quran's Point of View," in a recent interview.

"Mr. Rouhani was elected by a stunning margin," she added. "The majority of legislators are reformists and moderates who are considered his supporters, so therefore he should nominate several competent women to Parliament for approval."

Women are not legally barred from serving in ministerial positions in Iran, but except for Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, who was the minister of health during the second term of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2009-13), no other women have served in ministerial positions since Iran's 1979 revolution.

Rouhani did not nominate any women for his cabinet after he was first elected in 2013. At the time, Parliament was dominated by his conservative opponents, who rejected several of his ministerial appointments on the grounds that his nominees were too moderate.

However, Iran's parliamentary elections in February 2016 resulted in a legislature that was more amenable to the president's policies, strengthening the possibility that a female minister could be approved—if Rouhani decided to nominate one.

"Mr. Rouhani could nominate at least three women to lead the ministries of health, education, and labor, among others," Shariat Panahi, an Islamic feminist, told CHRI.

"Parliament seems receptive and, God willing, MPs will give their vote of confidence," she said. "We know there are many educated women with substantial expertise, so it would appear to be reasonable and logical to nominate three female ministers."

Continued Shariat Panahi: "If Mr. Rouhani does not nominate any women, he will get negative points because as president he can appoint anyone he wants to his cabinet."

"Today he can't use circumstances as an excuse to justify his failure," she added. "Ahmadinejad tried and broke the taboo."

On April 18, 2017, almost a month before the presidential election, Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Mowlaverdi said Rouhani's hands were tied by the political climate during his first term, but "now circumstance are totally right" to pave the way for more women in his government.

"Introducing women into the cabinet has been one of Hassan Rouhani's goals and right now it would be unjustifiable if he did not do so," she said in an interview with the semi-official Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA).

After Rouhani's comfortable re-election on May 19, Mowlaverdi predicted he would nominate "two or three" female ministers during another interview with ISNA on May 28.

In her conversation with CHRI, Shariat Panahi said ministerial nominations should be reviewed on the basis of meritocracy, but women should also be given a chance to show their worth.

"It is Parliament's right to evaluate ministerial nominees based purely on their academic, professional and managerial qualifications, regardless if they are men or women, and then decide to approve or reject them," she said. "But if Mr. Rouhani does not nominate any women, he would be reneging on his promises to women."

A signatory of the One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws campaign and a member of a coalition of Iranian civil rights activists known as the National Peace Council, Shariat Panahi applied, unsuccessfully, to run for president in 2009 with a pledge to allocate 30 percent of all government positions to women.

The Guardian Council, which vets all presidential and parliamentary candidates, disqualified her from running. While women are not explicitly banned from running for president, no woman has ever been approved by the Guardian Council.

At the start of his second term in 2009, Ahmadinejad nominated three women to serve as ministers in his cabinet. Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi received the vote of confidence as minister of health, but Fatemeh Ajorlou and Sousan Keshavarz were rejected for the ministries of welfare and education.

At the time, conservative member of Parliament Mohammad Taghi Rahbar claimed senior Shia theologians, including Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, had strong reservations about women serving in ministerial posts.

The reservations were echoed by other conservative ayatollahs.

"Appointing women as ministers is wrong for many aspects that do not conform with Islamic principles," said Isfahan's Friday Prayer leader, Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabaienejad, in a sermon on August 21, 2009.

However, Shariat Panahi told CHRI: "The Quran says, 'The believing men and believing women are allies of one another."

"The Quran does not deny women's participation and in fact it says women can manage society's affairs," she said.

"Also, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei has issued a fatwa [Islamic decree] declaring that there are no restrictions on women becoming ministers, presidents or even supreme leader," she added.

"Therefore, no obstacles are left for Mr. Rouhani to respond positively to the wishes of women, who make up half the population," she said.