Disqualifying the Qualified: Female Candidates & the Assembly of Experts

When all female candidates who had registered for the upcoming Assembly of Experts elections were disqualified, two important considerations arose: the question of women’s qualifications and their experience of discrimination. Exploring these considerations will offer a better understanding of Iran’s political system and the Assembly of Experts.

Women & Ijtihad

The spokesman and members of the Guardian Council have always indicated that the Assembly of Experts is not limited to men, and that “Mojtahedeh” – female religious scholars – can run for Assembly seats if they are competent and eligible. Since the Council has never qualified a female Assembly candidate, its conservative members have therefore indicated their belief that women lack the competence and sufficient scholarly knowledge to be qualified, notwithstanding their public protestations to the contrary.

Ijtihad is the key condition for membership in the Assembly of Experts. Does Iran lack even one Mojtahedeh? If Mojtahedeh are non-existent in the country, then why has the women’s branch of the seminary school – with billions of rials in its budget – failed to educate even one in the past 35 years? The Council appears to expect people to believe that not a single female scholar has extensive knowledge of religious methodology, a rigourous seminary education, or is capable of passing the Guardian Council’s tests if given a fair chance.

Based on the information in the draft of Iran’s budget for the next fiscal year, a total of 1.9 billion rials is specifically allocated to the budget of the women’s seminary centre. This religious training and educational institution has sufficient financial resources, and as much money as large Iranian universities. The question remains: if this centre has failed to educate female scholars and Mojtahedeh, why allocate such a significant budget to it?  

The Assembly of Experts and Gender Discrimination

If we assume that there are no Mojtahedeh among the aspiring candidates for the Assembly of Experts elections, there would be no other option than to conclude that gender discrimination is standing in the way of individuals who wish to hold a seat in the Assembly. Based on Iran’s Constitution, membership in the Assembly of Experts is not a right granted only to men, but the Assembly’s electoral record over the past three decades has proven that the conservative-dominated Council effectively bars women from earning any of the Assembly’s seats.

In the past 37 years, not a single woman has been given a chance by the Council to compete for a seat in the Assembly, though many women have sought candidacies. For example, sixteen women registered to become candidates in the upcoming elections. Of the women who did have religious and seminary backgrounds, 10 were invited to sit for the Council’s Ijtihad test. Sitting for the Ijtihad test was prohibited for the individuals who had not completed seminary and scholarly studies. Six out of the 10 remaining aspiring candidates sat for the test – and all of them were disqualified.

Ultimately there is no approved female candidate in this year’s race for the next Assembly of Experts. The Guardian Council has thus far not explained why all female candidates were rejected, be it for educational, religious, or other reasons.

Disqualifying the Qualified: Zohreh Sefati

Zohreh Sefati is a Mojtahedeh and an educator in Qom’s seminary for women. Her recent comments about the elections suggest a behind the scenes effort in the Qom seminary to bar women from the Assembly. In an interview regarding her candidacy for the next Assembly, Mrs. Sefati indicated that “a [senior] figure such as Ayatollah Safi promoted my candidacy for the Assembly of Experts elections. He even assured people that I would be 100% qualified and gain enough votes. We know how cautious and reserved he can be, but he later warned that people do not want me to open the door for other women. He called me after some time and opposed and challenged my participation [in the elections].”

Based on Article 115 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, “Rajoliat” is a required characteristic of a presidential election candidate. Some define this term as “being a man” and claim that it should be understood as such and remain a condition for presidential election candidates. In no other article of Iran’s Constitution is it mentioned that being a man is a precondition for participating in elections, but since the ruling clergy of the Islamic Republic have unconstrained power and influence, they have drafted and implemented legal and political ways to discriminate against women, particularly in other elections to Iran’s governing institutions.

The Assembly of Experts is among the institutions that that have been established based on similar discriminatory requirements, and the clergy have added more subtle discriminatory measures based on gender, such as failing to qualify female candidates, so that the Assembly remains a private club for the Supreme Leader and male clergy to continue to support Iran’s dominant political philosophy: the velayat-e-faqih, or guardianship of the jurist.