x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Iran's Marzieh Afkham is a woman squarely in the limelight

To say that Marzieh Afkham is under pressure as she takes over as the Iran foreign ministry's spokeswoman would be, to put it mildly, a gross understatement. Michael Theodoulou reports

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) introduces Marzieh Afkham (left) as spokeswoman of the foreign ministry during a ceremony in Tehran.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) introduces Marzieh Afkham (left) as spokeswoman of the foreign ministry during a ceremony in Tehran.

To say that Marzieh Afkham is under pressure as she takes over as the Iran foreign ministry's spokeswoman would be, to put it mildly, a gross understatement.

Looming on the horizon are issues that place Iran's foreign policy – and thus the 48-year-old Ms Afkham – squarely in the limelight: possible missile strikes against the Islamic Republic's close ally Syria and talks on Iran's disputed nuclear programme.

If that were not enough, she is the first woman to represent the ministry to the world's media.

Ms Afkham, a career diplomat, gave her first news conference on Sunday and, a day later, tackled an Arab League declaration that held the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, responsible for last month's chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

She said the declaration was hasty and politically motivated.

"The adoption of this stance by the Arab League before the official announcement of the results of the United Nations' investigation proves that it is politically motivated and is a kind of prejudgment," she said.

Though hardly a surprising pronouncement, there is no denying the import of the person uttering it.

Ms Afkham's appointment late last month was "significant because it challenges traditional resistance to women speaking in public, particularly in such a visible and politically sensitive post" said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. She will be "watched closely by many inside Iran and around the world".

Ms Afkham got the job after strident criticism from women's groups that Iran's moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, failed to include any women in his "all-male club" cabinet after he was sworn in on August 4.

Even his hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who did much to set back women's rights, appointed a woman as a cabinet minister - the Islamic Republic's first. That was seen as a gesture of populist tokenism and he later sacked her.

Before Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, two women served as cabinet ministers under the autocratic, western-backed Shah.

During his campaign, Mr Rouhani pledged to promote equality for women and create more jobs for them. Last month he appointed a woman, Elham Aminzadeh, as vice president for legal affairs. Like Mr Rouhani, she studied in Glasgow. He holds a doctorate in law from Glasgow Caledonian University, while she has a Phd in international law from the University of Glasgow.

Mr Rouhani, a cleric, said she was appointed because of her scientific competence, legal qualifications and "moral virtues".

In another precedent for the Islamic republic, Mr Rouhani plans to appoint a woman as ambassador to as a yet unnamed country.

But Ms Afkham's appointment is the most significant because she is entrusted with communicating the position of Iran's foreign ministry on regional and global issues.

She has worked in the foreign ministry for nearly 30 years and was head of its public relations department under Iran's reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami.

"She was always very polite and cooperative although I've no idea of what her political affiliations might be," said a female journalist in Iran. "My guess is that she's quite apolitical and that was probably one of the reasons why she was appointed because no one could oppose her except on the grounds that she is a woman."

Those grounds can be a significant hurdle in Iran.

The promising political career of one young female city councillor in the city of Qazvin was torpedoed last month when religious hardliners deemed she was too attractive to take up the post she had won.

"We don't want a catwalk model on the council," a senior official in Qazvin scoffed.

When Mr Khatami was elected in 1997, he acknowledged his huge debt to female voters by appointing a woman, Massoumeh Ebtekar, as a vice president in charge of environmental protection.

She gained notoriety years earlier as the teenaged spokeswoman for the radical Islamic students who seized the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, holding 52 hostages for 444 days.

Fluent in English and cowled in an abaya, she was nicknamed "Sister Mary" by the American media. But like many in the embassy takeover, Ms Ebtekar became a prominent supporter of Mr Khatami's reforms, which included mending ties with the US.

Other women have very high public profiles in Iran, even though they do not hold government positions.

One is Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose last-minute support helped Mr Rouhani secure his surprise landslide victory in June.

Another is Zahra Rehnavard, the charismatic wife of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the man millions of Iranians believe was the real winner of the "stolen" presidential election in June 2009 that returned Mr Ahmadinejad to power.

Ms Rehnavard, like her husband, has been under house arrest since early 2011, while Ms Hashemi recently spent six months in Tehran's Evin prison.

True to her reputation for defiance, she claimed the experience "was the best time of my life".

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

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