Plans for female deputy to address Friday prayers cancelled

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Plans for Masoumeh Ebtekar, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency of Iran, to address Friday prayers in Tehran have reportedly been cancelled.

Female speakers at Friday prayers, particularly for the highly important Tehran Friday prayers, are rare events in Iran. Ebtekar was to speak about air pollution and other environmental issues before Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi’s sermon this Friday. However, Fars News has reported that her speech was cancelled.

Shortly after the story broke, Ebtekar confirmed the cancellation on her Facebook page, where she also pointed out that earlier reports that she would be the first woman to address Friday prayers were also incorrect.

Ebtekar wrote this morning that she received news last night that her speech at Friday prayers “may be cancelled,” and that she would return to Tehran tonight after accompanying President Hassan Rouhani on his trip to Khuzestan province. She did not explain why. She wrote that contrary to previous reports, she would not have been the first woman to address Tehran Friday prayers, as Maryam Behroozi and Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi had previously done so.

Ebtekar said that she had spoken many times at Friday prayers elsewhere and has addressed both men and woman many times in many places, even including South Africa, Norway for Eucharist and Sistan and Baluchistan at a Sunni mosque. She signed the Facebook post, “So don’t take it so hard … it’ll pass.”

No official reason for the cancellation has been given yet. According to the Fars News article, there is speculation that some clergy members had opposed a woman addressing Friday prayers, while others suggested that Ebtekar was feeling unwell after having accompanied Rouhani on his trip to Khuzestan. Her Facebook comment, however, did not mention exhaustion.

Tehran Friday prayers are some of the most important days in Iran, when officials discuss the important political, religious and social issues concerning the country. The clerics who deliver the sermon for Tehran’s Fridays prayers are picked by the Council of Policy for Friday Prayer Leaders and the Staff for Performance of Friday Prayers, which both operate under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office.

They are highly sensitive and coveted posts. To give an idea of how important this post is, after the contested 2009 elections, when Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani spoke at Friday prayers and attempted to take the middle ground and strike a conciliatory tone between the hard-liners who insisted the elections were legitimate and the Reformists and Green Movement leaders who claimed the elections were fraudulent, he was harshly attacked by hard-liners and has not been allowed back to address Friday prayers since.

News that Ebtekar would address Tehran Friday prayers went viral on social media earlier this week. Many had welcomed the news as a positive step toward gender equality in Iran.