As Iran is gearing up to hold its next presidential election, scheduled for May 19, incumbent President Hassan Rouhani has also kick-started his re-election campaign. On Twitter, Rouhani wrote, “Here I come for the second time for Iran and for Islam. I would like all Iranians to come for the second time [to the ballot box to support me] for Iran, for Islam.”
However, what is worrisome about Rouhani’s recent tweet is his deliberate attempt at overlooking the fact that not all of Iran’s 80-million people are Muslim. It is both mind-boggling and unacceptable for a president that is presiding over a country like Iran, known for its religious diversity, to plead with everyone (including the religious minorities) to come to the ballot box and vote for the sake of Islam.
Furthermore, Rouhani’s words are even more painful to digest for women. Although women constitute half of Iran’s population, they have been stripped of the right to run as candidates for these elections in the name of these Islamic precepts for which Rouhani purportedly stands.
In addition to women, Iran’s Sunni minority (despite being Muslim as well) in this Shiite majority state, have long been complaining about religious discrimination. The present campaign slogan also completely ignores Iran’s Zoroastrian, Christian (Assyrians and Armenians), and Jewish minorities, whose presence is officially recognized within the constitution, not to mention those who are not even recognized.
Based on the most recent statistics, Iran is home to between 300,000 to 370,000 Christians. There are also an estimated 11,000 Jews living in the country, along with 5,000 Zoroastrians.
To add more insult to injury, the present campaign slogan also completely ignores a growing number of non-religious Iranians whose priority no longer revolves around Islam; the slogan simply presumes that everyone in the country is a practicing Muslim, thus displaying a stark departure from the day-to-day realities of millions of Iranians. Unfortunately, Iran’s constitution has yet to recognize these people’s beliefs.
Factoring in all of Iran’s minorities (Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Bahais) along with women, more than 50 million of Iran’s population of 80 million people are ineligible to field candidates for the presidential election. It is quite peculiar that under current circumstances, these approximately 50 million people are being urged to vote.
The Islamic Republic’s perennial interference in people’s private lives has created a huge chasm between the country’s ruling elite and the younger generation. Yet, given that most Iranians are scared of the possibility that a conservative candidate might win the elections should they boycott it, they are being compelled to participate in a bid to let a slightly more moderate candidate win so that they can get some breathing space. By doing so, they are also legitimizing a system that does not necessarily have the aspirations of the population as its priority.
Besides Rouhani, Iranians will also have Ebrahim Raisi as a candidate. Raisi is known to have very cordial ties with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Moreover, as someone who has held a key position in Iran’s judicial system, Raisi was also involved in the execution of thousands of the regime’s opponents during the summer of 1988.
Compared to the two other candidates’ track records of repression and intolerance to dissent, Rouhani is being cast as the only remaining choice that rational Iranians should vote for. The sad reality is, when it comes to elections, the candidates pay no heed to the agency of the voters. After all, they consider the electorate as numbers who are there to legitimize the system and their genuine concerns about human rights, and their urges to see the Sharia law lifted are not issues worthy of attention for these candidates.
As you might know, all women in Iran, regardless of their religion, have to wear the compulsory veil. The clerics’ way of life has so thoroughly permeated Iranians’ lives that even Fathers’ Day in Iran is celebrated in honor of a Muslim imam. In other words, even Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish kids at school are being forced to pay lip service to this imam. Baha’i students (a religion officially banned in Iran despite its many adherents) cannot openly state their religion on university forms without risking expulsion.
The Iranian president’s message boils down to the following: You could be a Baha’i, Christian, an atheist, and you could have shown your loyalty to Iran by going to the battlefield when the war with Iraq was being fought — however, you should still vote while keeping Islam in mind. You could be a woman whose rights have been trampled upon due to Sharia law, but you should still vote for more Islam. In a show of how marginalized women in Iran are, what has become of Iran’s first lady? Amid all the electioneering, it is odd that there has been no sign of Sahebeh Rouhani; it is as if Rouhani is a single guy, a bachelor even. This problem is not unique to Rouhani, of course. Iran’s first ladies are often invisible, they are neither seen nor heard from.
Women are called to come out and vote “for Iran, for Islam.” For the Iran and the Islam that, by law, values my worth to be half of any man or boy. If ever I was to be killed while pregnant with my son, my blood money would be worth half of that of my unborn son. If ever I were to divorce my husband, I would lose all rights to our children and he would receive full custody. As a woman, I don’t have the right to choose my own attire, as men have decided on a pre-determined dress code for me. As a woman, I can’t enjoy the right to apply for a passport or leave the country without my husband’s consent. I neither have the right to become a judge, nor can I run for president, for I am a woman. As a woman, I have been made a tool unby men who have the right deprive to me of the rights they take for granted. I am expected to cast my vote “for Iran, for Islam,” for a male candidate who will maintain the unjust environment that treats women, minorities and non-Muslims as second-class citizens.
In this election, Iranians have truly not been given a choice.
Masih Alinejad is a journalist, women’s rights activist and the founder of My Stealthy Freedom, a campaign to oppose compulsory hijab in Iran.