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Female Lawmaker Vows To Take A Gavel To Iran's Political Glass Ceiling

Reformist legislator Parvaneh Salahshuri cites lower-level gains but blames discrimination and sexism for an absence of women in leadership positions in parliament.

Iranian lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshuri, a sociologist, says that when she decided to apply for one of a handful of influential posts in parliament, she realized she didn't have a chance.

The reason, as the 55-year-old reformist sees it, is that she's a woman.

"The lawmakers saw it as a man's position and they wouldn't accept the presence of a woman," Salahshuri told the news site on June 7.

Salahshuri is one of 17 women voted into the 290-seat parliament in 2016, a record number in Iran since an Islamically fueled revolution ushered in conservative religious leadership four decades ago.

Women there routinely face legal and cultural discrimination that gives less weight to their testimony in court, bars them from many sports arenas, enforces a strict dress code, and in some cases bars them from traveling unaccompanied.

Salahshuri said she and other female lawmakers have faced added resistance from male colleagues, who have dismissed their proposals, pressured them for speaking out, and locked them out of senior positions.

Several women have made bids for senior positions on the parliamentary board in the past three years, but none successfully.

"In these situations, it becomes clear to what extent men are supportive of women and, more importantly, how much they believe in women," Salashshuri said.

She cited a proposal that would set a one-sixth quota for women on electoral lists but said it was "strongly" opposed by men.

Iranian women wearing the compulsory hijab walk down a street in the capital, Tehran. (file photo)
Iranian women wearing the compulsory hijab walk down a street in the capital, Tehran. (file photo)

President Hassan Rohani won election in 2013 on a platform of relative moderation, including calls for "equal opportunities for women" and a relaxation of some curbs on media. But his critics say he has mostly fallen short in both areas.

"The parliament is part of the discriminatory macrostructure of the country," Salahshuri said.

But she also said female lawmakers had successfully raised the collective voice of women while highlighting some of the issues they face, including compulsory Islamic dress, or the hijab.

A draft bill banning the marriage of girls under the age of 13 was rejected by the parliament's Judiciary Committee amid opposition by opponents of the bill who claimed it contravened Islamic law.

A bill was recently adopted that toughens punishment for acid attacks, which more often target women. But it still requires approval from the hard-line Guardians Council, a vetting body that exclusively comprises elderly men.

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Salahshuri and her colleagues have proposed other measures, including a bill that could facilitate travel for female athletes and others to attend international cultural, scientific, and sports events outside the country.

Under Iranian law, women need the permission of their fathers or husbands to travel outside the country. In 2015, the husband of one Iranian soccer player refused to grant her permission to attend a tournament in Malaysia.

They have also pushed for a greater role for female judges who currently serve in an advisory capacity.

The outspoken Salahshuri has repeatedly been criticized for raising women's issues and calling for the release of opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, all of whom have been under house arrest since 2011 for challenging the Iranian establishment and highlighting alleged human rights violations.

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Salahshuri reportedly faced vicious online and offline attacks and sexual slurs for a September 2018 speech in which she criticized the lack of freedom in Iran, as well as poverty and corruption, and suggested that "military bodies" should not interfere in politics.

Her colleagues said at the time that Salahshuri had been "shocked" by the intensity of the verbal attacks she faced. A male colleague, Gholamreza Heydari, who had also been critical of state policies in a speech delivered the same day, was said to have been spared such attacks.

"The reactions were awful," lawmaker Tayebeh Siavoshi said, suggesting that "even common and uneducated men" feel more important than women in Iranian society.

"This society has not yet accepted the presence of women on the political scene or in the highest echelons of the establishment," Siavoshi told the semiofficial ISNA news agency in 2018.

Salahshuri told Khabaronline that she and her colleagues would continue to pursue women's issues in parliament.

"The system acts in a way that humiliates women," she said, adding that laws need to change to end such discrimination.

But she also suggested that there had been slow progress.

"I think we have managed to be effective to a certain extent, not fully," she said.