The Election of Ebrahim Raisi in Iran Threatens to Undo Decades of Feminist Organizing

Updated Monday, June 21, at 9:20 a.m. PT.

A closed Iran led by Ebrahim Raisi—known for squashing any and all attempts at human rights—will deal a devastating blow to feminist organizing.

An Iranian protester at the End Male Violence Against Women rally at Trafalgar Square in 2010. (Garry Knight / Creative Commons)

Iran’s presidential election—or what some feminist activists are referring to as a “selection”—has cast a dark shadow on the feminist movement in the Islamic Republic.

It started with the selection of candidates earlier this year. Over 130 women (and almost 1,500 men) put their names forward to be considered for the election. In April, the Council of Guardians, a group of 12 clerics tasked with protecting the values of Islamist supremacy, discounted all but seven candidates. None were women. Of the seven men chosen, five are extreme hardliners.

Women’s rights and feminist organizing have long been on the battleground in the Islamic Republic. The Iranian revolution that brought the hardliners to power elevated a platform to “restore moral order” to Iran. Not surprisingly, women’s bodies were the heart of that moral order. Mandatory veiling laws were imposed and women’s movements outside the home were restricted.

But feminists fought back.

Dating back to the election of President Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s, a battle has been waged between young people—led by feminists and pushing for social change—and conservative Islamists. President Khatami, elected in 1997, was the first reformist president and cleared a path for increased feminist and youth organizing to bring about meaningful transformation in Iran. The majority of university students were women, women held more positions in Parliament and public service and several women’s magazines were established. But as pendulum swings around the world can attest, the progressive Khatami was followed by conservative hardliner Mahmood Ahmadinejad.

After the fraudulent elections in 2009 that re-appointed Ahmadinejad, Iranians poured into the streets igniting what became known as the Green Movement. It was fueled by social media movements like #WhereIsMyVote and #MyStealthyFreedom. Their movement set off a chain reaction with the Arab Spring following in 2011.

Thanks to feminist organizing, Ahmadinejad was replaced by the moderate candidate, Rouhani, in the 2013 presidential election. He was re-elected in 2017 thanks to high voter turnout and was known for his openness to dialogue with social change agents.

This year, Iran’s election had the lowest voter turnout in decades—due in large part to the fact that the candidates put forward by the Council of Guardians clearly favored one hardliner candidate: Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi, a former judiciary chief, is known for his chilling record on human rights in general and women’s rights in particular.

Over the weekend, the top judge won Iran’s presidential election by a landslide. The election of Raisi—a key member of the execution squad for political prisoners—is almost guaranteed to result in a closed-off and darkened Iran. Deploying rhetoric similar to his mentor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and echoing the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, Raisi’s platform was one of anti-westoxication.

The Council of Guardians’ intervention to put forward only certain candidates set off a social media hurricane. Feminist and youth activists who deployed the Twitter handle #WhereIsMyVote in 2009 are now using the handle #WhereIsMyCandidate to signal that this election, far being free or fair, rings more like a selection. A new social media campaign #NoWayIVote has also been sent out by activists, almost guaranteeing low voter turnout. In Iran’s case, low voter turnout has always favored the hardliners.

During the past five years, feminist organizers have led to major social upheaval in Iran since the 2017 election. The last four years have seen increased waves of protests from the capital to the most rural parts of the country as Iranians take up the invitation of feminists to push for equality and rights for all. And these protests have caught the attention of the global community. Feminist organizing in Iran has finally emerged on a global stage.

But Raisi threatens to undermine all of that.

Political prisoners, including noted women’s rights activists such as Nasrin Sotoudeh, Yasaman Aryani and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, are more likely now to be executed than released. And a harsh clampdown on social media and any organizing is coming.

Nasrin Sotoudeh and Reza Khandan. (Courtesy of Jeff Kaufman)

A closed Iran, led by a president known for squashing any and all attempts at human rights, is a devastating blow to feminist organizing. Since the late 1990s, feminists have been gaining traction in Iran. Not only did their organizing to push for women’s rights help set the stage for the first reformist president, but their work over the decades has been an inspiration for feminists across the Middle East. Notably, they have had the opportunity to be in conversation with feminist organizers around the world who have become allies.

Feminist organizers are already scrambling to get their message out to the world. They are asking for allies to join them in the push for equality. The elections threaten that, but global allies can ensure that their message is heard and amplified around the world.

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Pardis Mahdavi, PhD, is director of Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. She is the former acting dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and previously served as professor and chair of anthropology, director of the Pacific Basin Institute and Dean of Women at Pomona College. She has authored five books, one edited volume and numerous journal and news articles and been a fellow at the Social Sciences Research Council, the American Council on Learned Societies, Google Ideas and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.