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In Remote Iranian Province, Women Make Gains At Ballot Box


Iranian women cast their ballots for the presidential election at a polling station in Tehran on May 19.

Iran's sprawling southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province is notorious for insecurity, poverty, drug trafficking, and deadly clashes between security forces and militants.

More recently, however, it made headlines this month for sweeping a record number of women onto city and village councils.

Officials say the number of women elected to local councils in the Sunni-majority province, which shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, more than doubled.

"Four hundred and fifteen women have been elected to the city councils in the province," Governor Ali Osat Hashemi was quoted by Iranian media as saying on May 23, up from just 185.

In one village, Afzalabad, in the district of Khash, all 10 candidates on the council ballot on May 19 were women.

The numbers remain low nationally. Of the more than 287,000 candidates registered for last week's elections, just 6 percent were women, according to official figures.

But moderates and reformists, bolstered by the rise to power of President Hassan Rohani and their success in the 2016 parliamentary elections, have aimed at ending the tight grip of conservatives on local politics.

Rohani, a veteran politician who has risked crossing Iran's powerful unelected establishment with calls for modest reform inside the country and on the international scene, was reelected on May 19 with 57 percent of the vote. The victory was widely seen as a blow to political and cultural hard-liners and an expression of Iranians' desire for interaction with the world.

"Despite having university educations, [women] don't have freedom of speech. I want to defend them," Esmat Irandagani told the Iranian daily Shahrvand. She said she did very little campaigning and owed her victory to the women in her village who encouraged her to run "to help them" get their handicrafts more recognition.

"I was a volunteer for the Red Crescent. I also worked one year as a reporter. Now I want to do work for the women in my village," Irandagani said, adding that men had not successfully developed the village.

Women Taking Charge

Gains on city councils follow the appointment in recent years of more women to senior posts in the region, including as governors, mayors, and prefects.

Khash Governor Mohammad Chakerzehi credited Rohani's administration with advancing the political role of women, saying the government in Tehran's effort to increase the number of women in decision-making positions across the province contributed to women's success in the city-council elections.

"One-third of women who had registered to run were elected to city councils," Chakerzehi said. "Many of these educated women registered to run in order to strengthen the position of women in society."

Abdol Sattar Doshoki, a Baluchi political analyst who heads the U.K.-based Center for Baluchistan Studies, says the high-level appointments have inspired women to seek a greater role in the society. "The [city-council election] has provided Baluch women, many of whom have obtained university degrees in past years, with an opportunity to show themselves and play a role in political and social life," Doshoki explains.

Baluch make up a majority in the province, which is said to be one of Iran's poorest.

Doshoki says he believes that the high participation of women also helps combat discrimination in the province, which is among Iran's poorest. "Baluchi people suffer from different types of discrimination, including ethnic discrimination, religious discrimination, and also gender discrimination, which is common for [other regions] in the country," he says.

"In places where women stood, men and women had the power to say no to gender discrimination," Doshoki says.

Setting An Example

Afzalabad Mayor Maryam Ahmadzehi, a woman, has been held up in local media coverage as a successful example of a woman in a senior post and, presumably, a key factor encouraging men to vote for women when they step into the voting booth. Roads have been paved, new parks have been created, and the village has been connected to the electricity grid.

"The day Ahmadzehi became mayor, the village was in ruins, but things have changed significantly since then," a local school principal told the daily Etemad in April. "We're satisfied with our mayor, so we reached the conclusion that women can also do good work in the council."

The principal added that since many local men are out in the field farming or on duty guarding Iran's border, they are happy to cede "care of the village issues" to women.

One of the female candidates for the village council in Afzalabad told Etemad that Ahmadzehi was indeed a role model. "Her efforts motivated all of us to study and work," she said.

Across the country, initial election results suggest that reformists and moderates ousted conservatives and took control of councils in at least six major cities.

In the capital, Tehran, where all 21 seats went to reformists in this month's vote, women doubled their presence on the city council from three to six.

The hard-line election supervisor, the Guardians Council, imposes an effective ban on women running for the Iranian presidency, but parliament vets those running for city-council seats.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently accused Iran of systemic discrimination and other obstacles in the workplace, saying Iran lags in gender equality.

Local media report that there are around 150 women in managerial positions in Sistan-Baluchistan, a province of around 2.5 million people.

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