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Iranian Elections: Hold Your Breath and Hope

Iranian elections are a little like Henry Ford’s first line of Model-T cars. His customers, he famously said, could have their cars painted any color they like as long as it’s black. It came as no surprise to the Iranian people that all eight candidates in the most recent presidential election including president-elect Rouhani were among the handpicked candidates that were approved by the Guardian Council, the most influential body in Iran whose members are appointed by the supreme leader. Although when taking the oath of office there is no mention of the supreme leader as the one which the president must follow, the constitution provides that only the supreme leader has legal authority over key state institutions, not the president.

From the outset, women and non-Shia Moslems were precluded from running in the presidential election. This amendment was written into the Iranian constitution in 2000 when some women challenged the preclusion of women in the presidential run as unconstitutional.

Time magazine and The Guardian were among the first Western magazines that wrote and welcomed Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the Iranian presidential election as positive and hopeful to stabilize the much strained relationship with the west. “It opens a window of hope for an easing of tension between Iran and the west on the strained nuclear issue but also on the more urgent issue—the self-destructive clash between Shia and Sunni Islam that is killing thousands in Syria and Iraq and threatens the entire Middle East region.”

On Tuesday, June 18, the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper reported on Dr. Rouhani’s first news conference in Tehran, quoting him as saying, “We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries.” Dr. Rouhani got his master’s degree and PhD from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland in 1999.

How about building trust at home with Iranians ?

On the issue of Syria, since his election Rouhani has offered only the formulaic non-answer that “the Syrian people should decide their own future through elections.” However in 1999 Rouhani spoke in support of the harsh crackdown on student protesters at Tehran University, which later explained away by saying that he was in the government at the time and could have not done otherwise. But then again when security forces brutally crushed protests following the contested 2009 presidential elections he offered no explanation but that the protesters were obligated to act within the laws.

During my last visit to Iran in 2005, then the newly elected Ahmadinagad at the sermons, which I attended, he consistently appraised women and the importance of their role and participation in the society. My most favorite code by him was “women’s hijab is in their own hands” which made headlines in Iranian newspapers and soon it was slogans written out on side of buses and billboards to gain support among women.

During his eight long years of presidency, he did absolutely nothing to elevate women’s struggle for equality in Iran and he and his cabinet hindered women’s issues such as freedom of movements including increasing the age of women requiring permission from their male guardian to leave the country. Not even one single policy/law was put in place during his presidency to ensure women’s safety through tougher sentencing and more effective legislation against acid throwing and forced marriage. Yet Iranian women’s hijab pathetically continues to be a constant push/shove battle between the government enforcers (morality police) and women themselves.

And do you remember the charismatic President Khatami (1997-2005), whose first election to the presidency attracted global attention during which he captured almost 70 percent of the vote mostly by women supporters? Then Khatami had run on a platform of liberalization and reform and inclusion of all Iranians in the political decision-making process. However, his policies of reform led to repeated clashes with the hardliner and conservative Islamists in the Iranian government. For example, Khatami presented the so-called “twin bills”—the bill on presidential powers and the election law—to the parliament, during his last years of office; the Guardians Council rejected those bills, and he simply retreated. Khatami lost credibility with Iranian people and specially women by the end of his presidency when none of his promises were implemented.

Iran in recent years has been on the verge of a war and the national rift has widened, unemployment (20 percent) and inflation (34 percent) have crippled the economy but the main concern of Iran’s government through morality police remains the number one priority: the women’s headscarf! Let us hold our breath with positive thoughts that the elected president Rouhani will “follow the path of moderation and justice, not extremism,” as he has said during one of his sermons.

- Nadia Shahram, Williamsville

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