A woman in Iran has made history by becoming the first female ethnic minority mayor ever elected in the Islamic Republic. Samieh Baluchzehi, 26, not only hails from the Baluch minority that is concentrated on Iran’s southeastern regions, but she also practices Sunni Islam in a nation dominated by Shia Muslims.
She will take over political office in the village of Kalat in the southern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, one of Iran’s most impoverished and backward regions. The U.K.'s Guardian newspaper reported that Baluchzehi is unmarried. She grew up in the Sarbaz region of Sistan-Baluchistan and had moved to Teheran to study, gaining a master's degree in natural resources, according to the paper. But she took the unusual step of returning to her native province to run for mayor. The Kalat city council unanimously selected her as mayor, making her the first female chief executive of the city and the first minority woman mayor in Iran.
Al-Monitor, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper that tracks the Middle East, noted that even women from Iran’s Persian majority are rarely elected mayor, much less a woman from a marginalized minority group. On Thursday, Iranian newspaper Shargh depicted Baluchzehi on its cover wearing a hijab, but also adorned in makeup. "I'm a Baluchi woman who has broken the spell over women in management positions,” she told the paper. "I decided to become mayor, because I didn't want the next generations to face the sort of shortcomings that I dealt with myself. Our city has nothing. I don't want my nephews and nieces or the children of our city to be brought up in a city without parks. I want men and women to be able to walk freely in our city."
Al Monitor called her election an “unprecedented event” in one of the “most underprivileged and conservative provinces” of Iran. Indeed, Baluchzehi gave up a more relaxed and cosmopolitan atmosphere in Teheran for the repressive, ultra-chauvinistic climate of rural Sistan-Baluchistan. "From the beginning, I had no decision to stay in Tehran, I always wanted to go back and serve my people,” she told Shargh. “The restrictions in my city are annoying and I am trying to lift them." The new mayor added that she enjoyed broad support in the city of Kalat from both genders.
"I hope my mayorship becomes a new chapter in the self-confidence among Baluchi women and a revision in [our] male-dominated system and an improvement in women's rights and their role in the society," she said. "My hope is for a green city with blue skies." The president of the Kalat council praised her election, telling Baluchi Press that she “can encourage local women. This could be an opportunity for all those who are, in spite of their qualifications, isolated from society.” However, citing a local source, Al-Monitor said that Baluchzehi is a widow who comes from a wealthy family and that her sister is one of the city council members of Kalat, suggesting she had undue influence in her ascension.
Still, her election marks a watershed moment for Iran’s minorities. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, said he would seek to improve the rights of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities. Ali Younesi, whom Rouhani named as his special assistant in minorities' affairs, told the Arman newspaper: "They [our minorities] should also become directors, governors, ministers and they should be considered for these jobs based on merit and without any discrimination. No Baluch for being Baluch, or Arab for being Arab or Christian or Jew for being Christian or Jew should be deprived of holding jobs."
Sistan-Baluchistan, which borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan, is not only poor, but is overrun with drug smugglers and insurgent groups seeking to form a separate state. Baluchis (who also live across the border in Pakistan) have accused Iranian state authorities of repression and violence against them for many years. (Pakistan has also waged a brutal crackdown on its own Baluchi insurgency.) The Literacy Movement Organization of Iran informed the Ghanoon newspaper that social problems fester in Sistan-Baluchistan -- the province has the worst literacy rate in Iran for people between the ages 10 to 49; and the highest number of married girls under the age of 15. The region also suffers from a higher level of domestic violence against females.
“People of that region are very conservative, especially when it comes to women,” a Baluchi resident told Al-Monitor. “I cannot stress that enough. It is the most conservative city in Baluchistan. For example, until just a few years ago many would not allow their daughters to attend university. But thankfully the situation is improving.”
Baluchzehi appears to be quite unlike her female peers in Sistan-Baluchistan. “She only knows how to make spaghetti and that is because as a student she has lived away from home for a long time,” a friend of the new mayor told Al-Monitor. “Her father is an admirable man. When his daughters were going to school, they had his complete support.”
However, she may face an uphill battle, given that Kalat is almost completely controlled by men. The municipality has no other female employees. “This young lady will have a difficult time given the conservative and patriarchal atmosphere of the city of Kalat and the all-male staff of the municipality,” a Baluchi academic told Al-Monitor. “But she is lucky since, because of her father, she has powerful and influential supporters such as the local clerics and community elders.”
Interestingly, Baluchzehi’s election has not been highlighted by Iran media, perhaps due to the remote location of the development. Nonetheless, a Teheran sociologist boasted to Al-Monitor that Baluchzehi should serve as an inspiration for all Iranian women. “It will help break taboos for women,” the sociologist said. “It will give them confidence. Baluchistan is very conservative, but we should remember that after the revolution and the Islamization of schools, more families were willing to let their children attend school and university. People like Samieh encourage the other educated girls to become active members of society instead of staying at home.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.