Women and Politics in Iran and Turkey

CDDRL Visiting Scholar Mona Tajali explores the complexities of women’s representation under autocratic governments, using the contexts of Iran and Turkey.
Mona Tajali presents at CDDRL seminar Mona Tajali presents at a CDDRL research seminar on January 18, 2024.

What does women’s representation look like under autocratic governments? In a recent research seminar series talk, CDDRL Visiting Scholar Mona Tajali, who is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Agnes Scott College, explored the complexities of this issue in the contexts of Iran and Turkey. 

Tajali’s talk underscored the gap between women’s political participation and representation. Voter turnout rates for women match those of men, and they are quite active in political organizations and in mobilizing for political causes. However, rarely do they reach the highest level of government. It is clear that structural factors, at times more than cultural or religious factors, are impeding women’s accession to senior government posts. 

Women in Iran and Turkey, from across different ideological currents, have long been demanding greater representation and calling for a level playing field. While there has been some progress in enhancing women’s representation, Tajali reminded us that nominal representation does not always lead to meaningful power or influence. Contradictory politics intervenes, with parties sometimes treating women as politically expedient tokens.

But, despite the impediment women face in formal politics, there are many examples of feminist movements making meaningful advancements. The Turkish movement KADER ran a campaign highlighting those parties who were truly responsive to women’s demands, not just those paying lip service. This was effective in putting pressure on mainstream parties to better represent the women in their electorate. In Iran, an online campaign was launched to change the male-dominated face of parliament. It identified misogynist candidates and incumbents with a poor record in their stances on women’s rights. 

However, the state has little tolerance for women critical actors seeking to challenge the status quo. The Council of Guardians in Iran and male party leadership in Turkey have disqualified and prevented many women from running for office. There has been an uptick in the harassment and intimidation of outspoken women in the parliament, not to mention the crackdown on feminist groups. This backlash has undermined collaboration among women activists who do hold political office.

As the confidence in electoral politics wanes, an important shift is happening with a demand for bottom-up political change. Groups are coming together to discuss their grievances despite the authoritarian contexts in which they are operating. The feminist movements are becoming bolder, clearer, and less censored in their demands. From journalists to students, women are engaging in courageous acts of defiance, many of which carry very real consequences.

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