TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian society has undergone tremendous change in past decades, with women continuously playing a role in this transformation. Indeed, Iranian women have long sought a more active presence in society, gradually distancing themselves from the cliche of being mothers or wives. Today, they make up almost 70% of university applicants and half of the graduates.
Paired with an increase in economic hardship, more of Iran's young and educated female citizens have been seeking employment to support themselves and their families or to achieve financial independence from their male guardians.
“Women should be active and have plans for their lives. They must not wait for men to meet their financial needs. Even an unmarried girl cannot be dependent on her father forever,” a female employee of the Central Bank of Iran, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor.
Statistical Center of Iran (SCI) data indicate that the economic participation rate of Iranian women was on a downward trend in the 10-year period ending in 2015, reaching a low point of 12% in the Iranian calendar year of 1393 (ending March 2015). This term refers to individuals who are either employed or actively looking for work.
There are multiple reasons for the low rate of employment among women. Iran’s civil code places men as the head of the household, granting them the right to control the economic activities of their wives and daughters. Meanwhile, social norms consider family affairs to be the main domain of women. Other factors, such as the limitation of some university degrees to male students, banning of women from certain jobs and many men’s refusal to share housework with their spouses, have all forced many women out of the job market or to leave their occupations after marriage.
“After my first child was born, I had to leave my job. Now, I regret that and like to be at work again. I like to make use of what I have studied at university,” Aida, who has a master's degree in archaeology, told Al-Monitor.
Despite the hardships, things have started to improve for women in recent years, as President Hassan Rouhani has made significant efforts to address gender discrimination and strengthen women’s rights.
Indeed, new data obtained from a survey of 100,000 employees in the last Iranian year (ending March 20) by IranTalent show that women constituted 40% of those who entered the Iranian labor market over the past three years. Meanwhile, SCI figures reveal that women obtained 70% of some 615,000 jobs created during the last Iranian year. This is an increase of more than 68% compared with the previous year.
However, despite these positive trajectories, employment remains a big challenge for women. International advocacy group Human Rights Watch in a recent report said women still make up only a minor portion of the labor force. “For the period between March 2016 and March 2017, only 14.9% of Iran’s women are in the workforce, compared with 64.1% of men. This rate is lower than the average of 20% for all women in the Middle East and North Africa,” the organization wrote in May, adding, “The unemployment rate for women, currently 20.7%, is double that for men.”
Nonetheless, the vice president for women’s and family affairs under Rouhani’s first term, Shahindokht Molaverdi, has defended the administration’s performance. Molaverdi, who now serves as a presidential aide on citizens’ rights, said Aug. 2 that the participation rate of women in the economy increased by one percentage point during the past four years.
The appointment of women to several important political or economic posts is among the measures taken by Rouhani’s government. In line with this policy, Marzieh Afkham was appointed as the first Foreign Ministry spokeswoman (September 2013-November 2015). She was later appointed as the first Iranian female ambassador after taking up such a post in Malaysia in December 2015. Three women have been appointed as governors while another woman was appointed as deputy oil minister. Also, Farzaneh Sharafbafi was hired as the CEO of flag carrier Iran Air back in July.
But efforts to increase women’s involvement in society, and especially the economy, have not been limited to these measures. Every year, an exam is held nationwide to recruit government employees. Rouhani ordered the postponement of the 2016 exam and urged a review of it after Molaverdi noted that the quotas discriminated against women.
With the beginning of Rouhani’s second term, there is heated debate about which policies his administration will adopt over the next four years. While the president failed to appoint any female ministers, enraging a wide array of political factions and figures, First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri on July 18 said that the government — “given the importance of paving ground for women’s presence in managerial posts of the state sector” — plans to allocate 30% of such posts to them.
Vahideh Negin, the women’s affairs adviser to the labor and social welfare minister, has also been quoted by the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency on July 22 as saying that the Rouhani administration will take into consideration meritocracy to recruit people, and that it therefore “is expected that more women will take jobs, especially high managerial and decision-making posts.”
The Vice Presidency for Women’s and Family Affairs also plans to outline strategies for how to improve the situation of women in terms of education, social welfare, legal issues and employment over the next four years. These strategies, in essence, seek to decrease gender discrimination, which is widely seen as the root cause of the inequality women face in the labor market.
As seen over the past three years, the employment trend is changing in favor of women. This trajectory appears set to continue. Indeed, government projections indicate that women’s share of the Iranian labor force could increase to as high as 45% over the next decade. Nonetheless, for now, it remains to be seen whether the planned strategies can pave the way for long-term change for Iranian women.