Iran is set to appoint its first female ambassador since the 1979 Islamic revolution, marking a breakthrough for women in government under the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani.
Marzieh Afkham, who is the country's first foreign ministry spokeswoman, is to head a mission in east Asia, the state news agency reported. It was not clear to which country she will be posted as her appointment is yet to be announced officially.
Afkham will only be the second female ambassador Iran has ever had. Under the late Shah's rule, Mehrangiz Dolatshahi, a three-time member of the parliament famous for her advocacy of family protection law, became an ambassador to Denmark in 1976, a post she held until the revolution.
Women in Iran need the permission of their husband or legal custodian, such as their father, to be able to travel abroad. The government is also reluctant to promote women who are single and not married. Afkham was reported to have married last year.
Rouhani said this week that he saw it as his government’s “duty” to create equal opportunities for women and spoke against crackdowns by the religious police on women who push the boundaries of the mandatory hijab by showing their hair. But a decision to overturn discriminatory practices is not solely in his hands.
Gissou Nia, deputy director of the international campaign for human rights in Iran (ICHRI), a leading rights group based in New York, on Tuesday hailed Afkham's appointment.
“This is certainly welcome news for women in Iran,” she said. “It is a positive step that the appointment has been made, we haven’t had a female ambassador since the 1970s but it doesn’t alleviate the ongoing concerns about a pending legislation in the Iranian parliament that seeks to restrict women’s role in the public sphere.”
Sadeq Zibakalam, a prominent Iranian commentator and university professor, said from Tehran by phone: “This is a great decision and will pave the way for women being promoted to more senior jobs in Iran.”
Despite a series of setbacks for women’s rights after the Islamic revolution, women continued to hold government jobs. Afkham is a veteran of Iran’s diplomatic apparatus, having served there for around 30 years as a ministerial aide and later as head of its public relations department.
In 2013, following the presidential election that brought Rouhani to power, Iran's new US-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, appointed Afkham as his spokeswoman, the first Iranian woman to hold such as high-profile role demanding regular contact with the press.
Women have held senior jobs in Tehran in the past but this is the first time a woman will lead a foreign mission in post-revolutionary Iran. Mansoureh Sharifisadr was previously appointed as a female charge d'affaires in Japan. She is currently the director general of the ministry's human rights and women affairs department.
The highest ranking position ever held by a women in the Islamic republic was that of a cabinet minister. Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi was appointed under Rouhani's predecessor, the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Dastjerdi’s appointment in 2009 as health minister drew nationwide interest but she fell out with Ahmadinejad within a few years and was ultimately sacked over her objection to inadequate funding for the import of vital medicine while Iran was under international sanctions.
Since taking office, Rouhani has taken a softer line on gender equality, making clear he stands opposed to segregation of men and women at universities or banning them from attending big sporting events alongside men. But he is yet to deliver on many of his promises. No women currently hold a ministerial role, though Rouhani has a few serving as his aides and vice presidents.
In December 2013, in a rare example of a minority politician being promoted in the Shia-dominated Iran, a Sunni woman, Samieh Baluchzehi, who belongs to the country’s Baluch ethnic minority, was chosen as the mayor of a provincial city.
Despite these achievements, Iran remains sensitive about the activities of women’s rights activists, including those behind the famous campaign of one million signatures for the repeal of discriminatory laws. Many campaigners have been jailed, including student activist Bahareh Hedayat, who is serving a sentence of nine and half years in jail.
Last month, the human rights group Amnesty issued a strong warning against two proposed bills being considered by the Iranian parliament which seek to reverse the country's progressive laws on family planning by outlawing voluntary sterilisation and restricting access to contraceptives.
Amnesty said the move would set Iranian women back by decades and reduce them to “baby-making machines”.
Although women can vote and drive in Iran, discriminatory laws persist. Women are required to wear the mandatory hijab and in court their testimony is worth only half that of a man.
Mohammadreza Jalaeipour, a former political prisoner and activist, said: "Rouhani has stepped up his rhetoric for gender quality, which is a good move, but we need to see more women in ministerial, or even middle ranking political jobs, such as governors and political directors."