Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Is Demanding Equal Rights For Women, And It's About Time

After years of setbacks, including recent bans limiting the roles of women in academia, politics and the social sphere, Iranian women may have found an ally in President Hassan Rouhani. The Iranian leader, who was elected to office in June last year, denounced across-the-board sexual discrimination while delivering a speech Sunday at the National Forum on Women Shaping Economy and Culture in Tehran. For Iranian women, this is, to say the least, a big deal.

Rouhani, a moderate politician who won the presidential election in a landslide vote, called for equal rights and opportunities between the sexes.

We will not accept the culture of sexual discrimination. ... Is that possible to corner and marginalize the role of half of the society? Women must enjoy equal opportunity, equal protection and equal social rights. ... According to the Islamic rules, man is not the stronger sex and woman is not the weaker one.

Rouhani admitted that, as the head of government, there are many acts needed to be taken to ensure women have full equality. He agreed that "there are still so many deficiencies with regards to the vindication of women’s rights" in Iran, while a press statement on the president's official website also praised the role of women in politics before the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Although freedoms for women have increased in recent years, Iranian women still face discrimination in nearly all spheres of life, especially legally. While women can currently serve as lawmakers, a constitutional body ruled in May 2013 that women can't run in presidential elections. Before the ban, numerous Iranian women have submitted themselves for candidacy since 1997, but no female candidate was approved. Jamileh Kadivar, a former Iranian parliament member, told TIME in 2009 that institutional discrimination was keeping women out of presidential elections.

Female dissidents have also been imprisoned for speaking out against gender inequality. In 2010, women's and student rights activist Bahareh Hedayat was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison for anti-state propaganda. Hedayat was a member of Women’s Commission of the Office to Foster Unity, a student activist group that has been banned in Iran since 2009.

Most recently, student activist Maryam Shafipour was sentenced to seven years for “propaganda against the regime” and “assembly and collusion against national security."

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According to Al-Manar TV, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, the country's highest authority, pardoned "a number of convicted women in jails" over the weekend. However, it's worth noting that the Supreme Leader is much more conservative than Rouhani, and doesn't believe in equality for women. Just a day before Rouhani's speech at the women's forum, Khamenei espoused some traditional views, most of which stressed that a woman's place is in the home. He claimed that equality for men and women is "an utterly wrong notion" and a product of "Western thought," and reiterated that family, rather than work, is a priority for women.

But sex discrimination isn't just limited to the legal system. Iranian women also face discrimination in academia. Although women make up the majority of college students — about 60 percent — in Iran, more than 30 universities barred female students from nearly 80 degree courses in 2012. These courses range from engineering to English literature.

While there's certainly a split among Iran's conservative and reformist citizens, Rouhani's recent address — which was delivered on Lady Fatima Zahraa’s birth anniversary, known as Women's Day in Iran — may change the tide, especially as many feminist groups continue to push for equality. Most recently, the equal rights group Change for Equality launched a campaign calling for the release of Bahareh Hedayat, as well as other imprisoned activists.