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Iran Vote Likely To Usher In Record Number Of Women

Women casting their votes in the election in Tehran.

Long-beleaguered reformists weren't the only grouping to have gained ground in Iran's February 26 elections.

Women, most of them reformists or independents, also made strides.

As many as 20 women are expected to win seats in the parliament, or Majlis, which would be a record number for the Islamic republic.

There are only nine female lawmakers in the current legislature, or about 3 percent -- well below what the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union says is a worldwide average of about 22 percent.

And they have been wholly excluded from the other Iranian chamber that was up for elections this month: the Assembly of Experts, whose theologian members pick and supervise the supreme leader.

But with the final results of the parliamentary election still pending, 14 female candidates have already been declared winners. That equals the most women in parliament since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Runoffs are slated for 34 seats in late April in races in which no candidate won the required 25 percent of the vote. More than a dozen of the initial winners in those contests were women.

Among the women to be elected is reformist candidate Parveneh Salahshori, who was running in the capital, Tehran.

In a candid conversation with Italian journalist Viviana Mazza on February 29, Salahshori said Iranian women want change.

“We want to empower our women,” she said in the interview, which was conducted in English. “We are here to fight against [gender] discrimination.”

Salahshori, a sociologist, said women should be allowed to choose whether to wear the hijab, the Islamic head scarf that is currently part of the country's dress code. She also criticized female lawmakers who have supported legislation restricting women’s rights, suggesting that “these women are not women.”

Some women vying for parliament were on the so-called List Of Hope, the bloc of pro-reform and relatively moderate candidates that included President Hassan Rohani and pragmatist ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Other women, however, represented conservatives.

In the run-up to these elections, Iranian women’s rights groups launched a campaign -- called Changing The Male Face Of Parliament -- aimed at getting more women into the legislature. In a challenge to Iran's male-dominated and culturally conservative establishment, the activists also handed out "red cards" to both male and female candidates who opposed gender equality.

The campaign reflected the uphill battle that Iran's female lawmakers have faced for gender parity.

Of the around 5,000 candidates in the parliamentary field, only about 10 percent were women.

In parallel voting for the Assembly Of Experts, currently made up exclusively of male members, the constitutional watchdog that vets election candidates, the Guardians Council, had excluded all 16 women seeking seats.

Not since the first Assembly of Experts after 1979 has that body included a woman, Monireh Gorji.

But despite state-imposed restrictions and discriminatory laws on anything from attending sports events to testifying in court, there are signs that Iranian women have made strides in recent years. They make up about 60 percent of university entrants, and their collective role in the economy appears to be on the rise.

Women have played key roles in elections, particularly the 1999 election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as president.

In 2013, many women voted for Rohani, who made issues of gender discrimination part of his platform for office. He has continued to speak out since taking office, vowing that "we will not accept the culture of sexual discrimination" and calling out "those who consider women's presence [in] society a threat."

Rohani's appointment of female vice presidents -- who hold the portfolios for women, legal affairs, and the environment -- has also been widely seen as a positive step.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.