Can a Woman Become President in Iran? It’s Complicated. 

Can a Woman Become President in Iran? It’s Complicated. 

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The recent helicopter crash and death of President Ibrahim Raisi have spawned immense interest within Iran over the upcoming presidential election and its possible impact on Middle Eastern and global affairs. The Guardian Council, in this context, has approved six candidates to run its 28 presidential elections. Interestingly, all the candidates are men with five hardliners and one reformist in place. Together this brings sharp attention to accumulated questions of whether Iranian women can ever hold, much less seek, the country’s top position.

This issue, however, goes beyond the eligibility of female candidates to the very core of Iranian politics and culture. It deals more with the interpretation of the constitution, the position of the Guardian Council regarding women, and the general belief of society about gender roles in politics.

The Constitution of Iran, adopted after the 1979 Islamic Revolution does not directly exclude women from being eligible to run for the presidency. Yet, this document refers to the presidential candidate’s qualification as the “rajol,” which is an Arabic word and can be translated not only as “man” but also as “person of distinction.” Due to such an ambiguous designation, different interpretations have been made by the Guardian Council— a powerful body of the Islamic Republic that vetoes the eligibility of candidates that has so far interpreted “rajol” as man, thereby effectively barring women from running for the highest office. Not restricted to that, the Guardian Council constitutes an important component of the electoral process. The Council consists of six clerics, who are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists, proposed by the judiciary and confirmed by parliament. It has the power to interpret the Constitution as well as Islamic law and has been generally conservative through the years on several issues, among them the qualifications of women for the presidency. It consistently has cited various legal and doctrinal reasons to bar women from running as a candidate for president.

Public opinion on gender roles is greatly influenced by the traditional and religious values that are deeply ingrained in Iranian society. While women have made progress in education, few participate at the higher levels of politics, as well as in professional fields of employment. The political climate is another factor. Reformist movements, usually open to greater gender equality in politics, face strong opposition from conservative factions. The political spectrum is enmeshed in discords in which each faction is shaping public discourse on women’s participation as presidential candidates in political elections. Despite such obstacles, Iran is also seeing women’s rights and gender equality movements that signify greater interest in political participation by women where female activists, scholars, and reformist politicians are persistently challenging the status quo. The election to local councils and the increasing number in the parliament demonstrates a slow but steady shift in societal attitudes towards women’s involvement in politics.

In recent years, some attempts have been seen to re-interpret the term “rajol” in the Constitution. Proponents argue that, in modern conditions, the word should be understood only to mean a “person of distinction,” without any gender implication. If this interpretation is accepted, it will open the way for women in the future to stand as candidates in presidential elections.

At the international level, by excluding women from the presidency, Iran has faced criticism concerning women’s rights to participate in the political process and hold leadership positions. International organizations and human rights campaigners put pressure on the Iranian administration to reform its laws and practices to enhance gender equality in the country’s political process. 

The road to a female presidential candidate in Iran is not a smooth ride but it is not impossible, not with changing societal attitudes, legal reforms, and sustained advocacy expected to yield significant headway. The past century in Iran shows a gradual, and at times fiercely opposed, broadening of women’s rights: in 1936, Iran opened its first university, admitting both men and women; in 1963 women were given the right to vote.  Even when many women’s rights established under the monarchy were revoked after the Islamic Revolution, progress was made, with women being appointed vice presidents, later named cabinet ministers, and even becoming provincial governors.  Although advocacy of women’s rights has typically been associated with political reformists in the Islamic Republic, the fact that politically conservative women have sought to become presidential candidates for the current election shows that the idea is percolating across factional lines.  Though the road ahead will be much more difficult, Iran’s history of hard-won, gradual progress on women’s rights provides grounds for hope that the campaigners for equality will persist. It is perhaps no longer a question of whether Iran will also elect a woman as president but more of when. Until then, the fight continues with every step enabling that great day for the country.


For more on the presidency in Iran, read The Evolution of the Presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Insights from Iran 1400 Project Contributors. This article provides a comprehensive analysis into the intricacies of the office; the power struggles with the supreme leader, and the shifting dynamics of foreign policy over the years.

International Conflict Management Ph.D. Candidate | + posts

Richa Bhattarai is an emerging scholar and expert in international conflict management, counterterrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Middle Eastern politics. Currently a PhD candidate at Kennesaw State University, she is dedicated to exploring nuanced dimensions of international relations and U.S. foreign policy. She holds an MSc in Criminal Justice and an LLM specializing in international law, reflecting an academic journey marked by a blend of legal and social science disciplines.

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