Iran's Invisible Candidates

Shahla Hare

If they [the male Guardian Council members] prove . . . that a woman by no means can become president, and that this is ordained by God [i.e., it is in the Qur'an], then we can't do anything about it. But even now, I don't agree that the term Rijal means men and specially men whose abilities are more than women.—Fatemeh Fadaei, an Iranian presidential contender, 2001

When in summer 2001 some 47 women from all over Iran filed applications for the upcoming presidential election, neither their sheer number nor their courage or bravery—or their masquerade?—seemed to capture the attention of the United States press. Women seeking presidential office in the Islamic Republic of Iran? The idea seems to have been as inconceivable to the insatiable American news media as it was to the political and religious hierarchy in Iran.

Why have these women and many thousands of other political and professional women like them from the Muslim world remained relatively unknown, with their discourse unheard outside their own countries? Who are these women? This inattentiveness to the news of women's candidacy for the presidency in Iran was yet again another example of the enigma in the West of the "invisibility" and the long silence—almost conspiratorial in its historical persistence—about professional, educated, middle- and upper-middle class women from the Muslim world.1

Before I describe the logistics of making the film Mrs. President: Women and Political Leadership in Iran,2 I want to discuss briefly my methodological and ethnographic approaches to researching, observing, and recording the lives and activities of women politicians in Iran.


In the fifteenth century, the Persian Sufi poet Jami is reported to have recited a poem in praise of the Arab mystic Rabi'a. Were all women like Rabi'a, Jami declares, they would be shining like the sun—brilliantly and publicly visible. Jami seems to be saying that women such as Rabi'a should not be hidden by either their own veils or their society.

Since Rabi'a's time, many thousands of women in Muslim societies such as Iran's have occupied a variety of public spaces through professions and their engagements with the state and civil society. But where are they in the social science literature on women from the Muslim world? The women portrayed in the growing feminist literature on Muslim societies seem to lead lives very distant from the lives of the authors who write about them. In this literature, one sees veiled women, peasant women, tribal women, urban poor women, but very few middle-class, educated, professional women, despite the latter's visible national profiles. It is paradoxical that precisely those women who have managed to move into the public space and to "shine" in their own societies have been rendered invisible in Western academic and cultural portrayals of "Muslim women."3

Aware of the gap between what educated Iranian and Pakistani women have experienced in Iran and Pakistan and their representations outside their country, I have shifted my attention away from the lives of the downtrodden and the subaltern, currently the dominant anthropological focus, to conduct research "among equals"—the educated, skilled, middleclass, and upper-middle-class Pakistani and Iranian women, most recently among women political elite in Iran. In my book on Pakistan, No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women, I laid out the groundwork for and utilized what I call shared ethnography, which involves research conducted among and reflecting the lives of equals from another society. I argue that my theoretical model of shared ethnography offers a new way for anthropologists to develop knowledge of "the other," especially in highly complex societies where many informants are highly educated and conversant with social sciences.

Conducting similar research techniques in Iran, I aimed to make my taping of women presidential contenders a shared creation, a shared ethnography, in which women close to me in education and profession reflected, represented, and reinterpreted issues surrounding their society, politics, religion, and gender. From the viewpoint of my academic discipline, the professional Iranian women whose lives and narratives are the focus of my video documentary articulate a "native's point of view," which may be as highly informative, insightful, and critical as those of the anthropologists' own analysis, even if one may not be in agreement with their analysis at all times.

In Mrs. President: Women and Political Leadership in Iran, I use an audiovisual approach to ethnography to communicate knowledge of other people and cultures in a way that may be more effective with some audiences than a textual ethnography. Given its subject matter, the film represents another example of shared ethnography.


On April 15, 1997, Azam Taleghani, daughter of Ayatollah Mohammad Taleghani, who died in 1980, and a former member of the first parliament after the revolution of 1979, became the first Iranian woman to announce her intention to campaign for the presidency in the election of 1997.4 As I've said, her quest did not stir the media in the United States. But here she was, a tightly veiled woman who was determined to challenge the long-entrenched religious-political hierarchy in Iran and run for the highest office in the executive branch. Taleghani astutely laid her claim to legitimacy squarely on the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This constitution is ambiguous on the question of whether women can become president, because of the use of a gender-ambiguous term, and this ambiguity has been the basis for the challenge that presidential contenders such as Azam Taleghani pose to the political structure in Iran. Article 115 of chapter 9 of the constitution reads: "The President must be elected from the religious and political elite, rijale mazhabi va siasi, who must possess the following conditions: be Iranian, reside in Iran, be capable and have managerial expertise, have a clean record, be trustworthy and pious, and believe in the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the state's official religion."

Invoking Article 115, Taleghai took issue with the commonly used meaning of the term rijal. A word borrowed from Arabic, rijal means men in Arabic. Because the Persian language, unlike Arabic, makes no gender distinction, however, rijal, in its Persian usage, can mean the elite, as in the political elite, rijal-e siasi. Taleghani contended that, by virtue of holding other public offices, women are also a part of the elite, and so gender should not be a barrier to any political office. In a bbc interview conducted immediately after she filed her application for the presidency, Taleghani was asked whether she felt her candidacy would be approved by the Guardian Council. She responded that Article 115 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran "does not say that only men can be candidates for president," and that she would wait and see what decision the council would make.

The power to approve or reject candidates for the presidency and the parliament rests with the Guardian Council, an exclusively male body composed of 12 men, mostly clerics. Six of these men are directly appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenie, and the other six are elected by the parliament from a pool of 12 men, also recommended by Ayatollah Khamenie.

That they have to be veiled in Iran at present has not reduced these women to oppressed, mindless individuals.

Taleghani's application for presidential candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council. But her challenge to the constitution and the male hierarchy became a public debate, and it motivated 47 other women to file applications for the presidential election of 2001. These women's stories—their motivations to run for the highest office in the Islamic Republic of Iran, their hopes and visions for a more egalitarian society—were the basis for my documentary.

Exactly why the Guardian Council allowed so many women to register for the election of 2001, when four years earlier it had turned down the application of one of the most distinguished women in the country, is not quite clear. The news media in Iran did not pose this question to the Guardian Council, and the council finds itself under no obligation to publicize or justify its rationale for confirming or rejecting certain candidates. Because the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami was still popular in 2001, however, one could argue that the Guardian Council found it politically expedient to allow women to file their presidential applications with the interior ministry, which oversees the election. Knowing that all these women—and many men, too—would eventually be disqualified, the Guardian Council perhaps was simply purchasing some cheap publicity, hoping to divert votes away from Khatami.


When I left Boston for Tehran in summer 2001, on my annual trip to Iran, I had no idea that before the summer was out I would be making a documentary about women who were seeking the presidency in Iran. I arrived in Tehran two days before a huge rally was planned for Khatami, the incumbent, and was immediately caught up in the political fervor and the public enthusiasm surrounding the election. The time period allowed for the presidential campaign is no more than two weeks, so the opportunity for the candidates to make their faces known and sell their agendas is very limited. The stakes are high and competition stiff.

I grabbed my camcorder and, in the company of my young cousin, headed toward a big stadium that is directly across from the sprawling complex that once housed the United States Embassy. Crowds were pouring in from every direction. Young boys briskly handed out colorful posters of Khatami or his political opponents. Buses decorated with images of Khatami had brought in supporters from all over the city. People from all walks of life were either already in the stadium, patiently waiting for the big moment when Khatami was to address those gathered, or hanging out around the entrance marked "sisters," a small, cramped side door, or the major and main entrance, marked "brothers." Many others were simply lounging along the nearby streets, or watching events from the safety of their porches and balconies.

The male guard at the "sisters" entrance did not allow me to enter the arena with my camera and without a press permit. So I stayed outside in the street and started filming the eager people rushing to get into the stadium. A few days later, I was, however, able to enter another event—also without a permit—at another venue in south Tehran. This political rally was organized for women only (though an orchestra that was invited to entertain the crowd was exclusively male). That I was not prevented from entering this event may be due to the fact that, unlike a majority of Iranian women who wear black headscarf and overcoat (which blend in within crowds, lessening the chance of harassment by uncouth locals or over-zealous revolutionary guards), I wore a white scarf and jacket: I had the prerogative of age and gray hair, and the security guards must have assumed that, with two cameras hanging from my neck, I was a foreign correspondent. As the days went by, I hired a car and a driver and drove around the streets of Tehran, filming from the safety of the vehicle and then getting out occasionally to shoot available scenes.

With the help from some friends, including the senior editor of Zanan (women) magazine, I was able to get a list of some 27 of the would-be female presidential candidates. I called primarily those who lived in Tehran, and was able to arrange interviews with six women who agreed to appear on camera. Additionally, I solicited commentaries from two well-known female journalists, one from a religious background, and the other from a secular, bourgeois, and leftist background.

Of the six women I interviewed, one was a professor of anatomy at Shahid Beheshti University, one was a poet and a publisher, and another was a founder of a high school and a public speaker from a pedigreed religious background. One was a writer and a businesswoman (her family owned and managed a pharmaceutical company), another a middle-school teacher, and another a teacher of English. I interviewed them individually, in homes, offices, store, and schools. I did not have a camera operator, or light or sound technicians. Sadly, I was not in a position to command "lights, camera, action!" I wanted to keep the interviews intimate and to give these women a chance to feel comfortable enough to talk as freely as possible. Even as my interviews stacked up, I did not yet have a script for a documentary. Shortly after starting the interviews, however, I did know that I must give a form to these very interesting, honest, and engaging narratives.

I interviewed each woman for more than two hours, and asked them many questions regarding their motivations for running, their political platforms, their agendas for economic development and social justice—particularly regarding women—and educational reform, and their visions for improvement of the country. I asked them how they assessed their chances of success and who they thought would vote for them. I wanted to know what their ideas on religion and gender equality were, how they thought they could ensure individual rights, and whether they were supportive of women's choices (to wear a headscarf, for example). I asked them whether they were affiliated with or supported by any party organization or women's movement. Did they think women could make good leaders, and, if so, how effectively could women politicians mediate between the state and their constituencies, if they had such?

The Guardian Council rejected women candidates' en mass, regardless of their qualifications. On the day of the election, June 8, 2001, I drove around the city only to find the streets of Tehran uncharacteristically empty: an overwhelming majority of the public had gone to the polling booths to wait patiently in long lines, to fulfill their civic duty and elect a president from what had turned out to be a pool of 10 male contenders.

In the end, I had some 17 hours of taped interviews with women candidates, as well as footage from the campaign and election day. As with books, films require scripts, themes, and analysis, and must go through a process of extensive editing and re-editing. This was the hardest part: narrowing down the amount of "data" I had collected. Ultimately, I decided to focus on the women's critique of the constitution's Article 115, and on their demand that the Guardian Council define the term rijal as understood in its Persian usage. The final cut of the film is 46 minutes; it was made over nine months.

When I decided to edit my interviews into Mrs. President, I thought of my students as my primary audience. I wanted them—and, I hoped, a larger audience—to have a chance to see Iranian women as active social agents in their political milieu—women who are highly articulate, share some of the larger feminist ideas and ideals, engage with institutions of power in their society, and do not shy away from challenging their country's highly religious and patriarchal institutions. That they have to be veiled in Iran at present has not reduced them to oppressed, mindless individuals. Because the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the Shari'a, Islamic law, these women presidential contenders formed their arguments within a religious framework to legitimate their objections to being excluded from the presidency.

Mrs. President has attracted much interest in educational institutions, and has been shown at many universities across the United States. Going against the grain, the film addresses the anomaly of the under-representation or "invisibility" of professional, educated, middle- and upper-middle-class Muslim women in the news media and in the mounting literature on women from the Muslim world. The incessant focus on veiled Muslim women and the fetishization of the veil in the electronic and print media, and the automatic equating of veiling with oppression and female passivity—if occasionally erotic—has led simultaneously to fascination with and fear of veiled women. Mrs. President challenges such assumptions by bringing to light the active engagement of women, whether veiled by choice or by force, with the structures of power. With brave eloquence, the Iranian women in this documentary speak of human dignity and gender equality, of political deprivation and social justice, of a religious basis for gender justice and equality, and of their frustration and disappointment with the male religious and political elite in their society.

Notes

  1. Elsewhere I have written on the subject: see No Shame for the Sun (Syracuse University Press, 2002.)
  2. Mrs. President is distributed by Films for the Humanities and Sciences, a well-established network of distributors of academic films and documentaries in the U.S. and Canada.
  3. Excerpts taken from my book, No Shame for the Sun.
  4. Azam Taleghani has been involved in politics before the revolution. Her involvement landed her in jail in 1975 with a life sentence which was lifted with the revolution in 1979. She is the founder of one of the most successful women ngos (Association of Muslim Women) in Iran, and published the monthly magazine Payam-e Hajar. Along with other "reformist" publications, Payam-e Hajar was banned several years ago.

Shahla Haeri, director of the Women's Studies Program and Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Boston University, is a Visiting Associate Professor of Women's Studies and World Religions at HDS this academic year.

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