Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi granted women enfranchisement in 1963, which women continued to exercise after the Revolution. Still, women's descriptive representation in the unicameral legislature is low, where they hold only 3.1% of seats (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2014). This is even low for the Middle East region, where the average is 9% female legislators. The Supreme Leader, the top religious figure and member of government who is chosen by a body of clerics, cannot be a woman. (Boroujerdi 2013, 484)
Substantive representation is difficult to measure. Some laws restrict women, specifically from inheritance and ability to testify in court. However, because these laws are based on the Qu'ran and Sharia, they are nearly impossible to change. The issues that are concerns to western women are not the same as Iranian women's concerns. The body of clerics leads to similar results as the highly-whipped votes in the UK parliament- only legislation they approve of has a chance.
The Iranian legislature is also difficult for civilians to access. They cannot simply write to their legislator to voice their concerns. Instead, wasta (interpersonal connects and family standing) is highly important in Middle East politics, and it is generally men who are in positions that allow for this.
Women's symbolic representation may be high in Iran. Ellen Lust writes, "Women remain underrepresented in formal political positions, and they thus turn to civil society activism to make their demands. In so doing, they are also expanding the terrain of democratic civil society." (Lust 2013, 103) Civil society groups are very important in the Middle East, where political parties are weak, tightly controlled, or even prohibited entirely. The Muslim Brotherhood's system of schools, healthcare centers, and other resources sometimes neglected by the Egyptian government is often cited as an important factor in their ability to win the presidency after the Arab Spring. Iranian women have influence in civil society through numerous groups, some focused specifically on women's issues and some more general. Women were also active in the Iran-Iraq war and the Revolution. With time, women's place in society may grow so that they use the skills and connects they have made to obtain more substantive or descriptive representation.
Boroujerdi, Mehzrad. 2013. "Iran." In The Middle East, edited by Ellen Lust, 478-506.
Lust, Ellen. 2013. The Middle East. New York: Sage Publications.
Inter-Parliamentary Union. "Women in National Parliaments." Last updated June 1, 2014.
Accessed August 6, 2014. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm.