Iranian Women, Work, and the Gender Regime

Iranian women advance their political agency even as their government imposes a neo-patriarchal economic and political system in the Islamic Republic.

Iranian woman publicly removing her veil to protest the country’s mandatory hijab, Tehran, Dec. 23, 2017. Salampix/ Abaca/Sipa USA

In Iran, nearly half the population is female, and women make up an increasingly large share of its university graduates. Women are seen everywhere in Iran. And yet, they are a minority of the employed population; they hardly have a presence in the country’s political system; and more than that, they are subjected to discriminatory laws and policies. 

In previous writing, I have identified development strategies in general, and the oil economy in particular, as key to understanding female labor supply and demand. In the 1990s I compared countries such as oil-rich Algeria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia with the more diversified economies of Morocco and Tunisia, and found that a larger number of women worked in Morocco and Tunisia. Since my earlier analyses, there has been some increase in female employment and more in educational attainment across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), along with a decline in fertility rates. Also noticeable is the growth in women’s political representation, particularly in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where constitutions or political parties have adopted quotas.

Within the MENA region, Iranian women themselves participate less in the workforce than they should, given the country’s socioeconomic development and women’s higher education enrollment and graduation rates. Why that is the case has to do with Iran’s structural and institutional features. Specifically, reasons for low levels of women’s employment in Iran lie in the nature of the development strategies that the Iranian government has pursued across the decades, and its political system, which in turn has reinforced a patriarchal gender regime.

Feminist scholars have discussed the concept of the gender regime (sometimes also known as the “gender order” or the “gender system”). The gender regime is how the social relations of sex are organized around certain crucial issues such as politics or labor. It is the product of a country’s development strategies and political system, and it can be observed through the legal and institutional frameworks in place, women’s formal civil, political, and social rights of citizenship, and indicators of women’s socioeconomic and political participation. For MENA countries, I have hypothesized that a transition from a “neo-patriarchal” to a “modern” gender regime is underway in Morocco and Tunisia (and to a lesser extent in Algeria), mainly as a result of the activities of women’s rights organizations, but also because of economic and political changes in those countries. Iran’s gender regime, however, remains neo-patriarchal.

Modernization, Revolution and Islamization: A Brief Overview
As a large country with an abundance of oil, Iran was a U.S. ally from 1953 until the 1979 revolution. Modernization took place in the 1930s under Shah Reza Pahlavi, and contention with Britain over control of Iran’s oil production and revenues came to a head in the early 1950s, leading to the 1953 coup d’état against Premier Mohammad Mossadegh. Modernization continued under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with oil revenues financing the country’s strategy of rapid economic and social development. Not only were women given the right to vote, but this period also saw steady increases in urban women’s employment. Rural women remained concentrated in agricultural work and carpet-weaving. A combination of rising aspirations, unmet expectations, and opposition to monarchical rule led to an anti-Shah revolutionary coalition that culminated in an Islamist-dominated government in February 1979.

By 1981 non-Islamists in Iran had been purged from various institutions and the theocratic republic had been established. Moreover, a new ideological climate, inscribed legally in new clauses within the country’s civil code as well as the new constitution, associated women with marriage and the family. New laws strengthened men’s privileges in the areas of marriage, divorce, and control over female kin.

Although the new Islamic constitution called for economic diversification, oil production and exports remained dominant, especially after the eight-year-long war with Iraq (1980–88), as Iran sought to reconstruct its economy and rebuild devastated areas.

During the 1990s, a family planning campaign was introduced to counter the rising population growth that had occurred in the 1980s. Schooling increased, but job opportunities for women were scarce, other than in a limited number of professional fields in the health and education sectors. In 1990, the female labor force share in Iran was just 10.9 percent. By 2010, that figure rose to 17.9 percent and in 2017 the World Bank reported it to be 19 percent. Iran’s official census data, however, sets it at a mere 13–14.5 percent in 2014–15.

Women’s share of professional jobs has increased, and—in urban areas in particular—their presence in public sector jobs, at nearly 28 percent of the total, is higher than men’s (19 percent of the total), according to census data. Yet, it is women’s marginal position in the private sector that reduces their overall labor force share.

Like other countries, Iran is an active participant in the international system, but the diffusion of norms pertaining to women’s participation and rights through international organizations and international non-governmental organizations has not had a sufficiently strong effect. For example, Iran has not signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 and in force since 1981. (Neither has the United States signed it, while Saudi Arabia’s sweeping reservation essentially renders CEDAW moot.) And yet there has been significant progress in Iranian women’s marrying age, fertility rates, and political activism. Modernization and economic development have led to the growth of an educated female middle class with aspirations for greater participation and rights, but the capacity for women to mobilize and attain legal and policy reforms has been limited.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Iran followed the typical Third World pattern of import-substitution industrialization while remaining dependent on oil revenues for foreign exchange and to finance imports and development projects. Oil revenues were used for domestic investment, and Iran saw the emergence of an industrial labor force. The modern manufacturing sector grew with all manner of appliances and food products, auto assembly plants, and foreign investments in iron and steel production. Oil wealth had financed Iran’s economic development, including infrastructural development and state-owned industries, and helped modernize agriculture. Nevertheless, foreign exchange from oil sales constituted the accumulation of capital, and the contribution of petroleum to the national income in the oil and mixed oil economies, including Iran’s, made the share of other sectors appear  insignificant.

In studies of political economy, a “rentier state” is one in which a large portion of a country’s revenues comes from the rent of the country’s resources to outside states and companies as well as domestic elites. While much has been written about rentier states’ economies, less has been written about their gender dynamics. When a state depends on “rents” (state-owned oil, minerals, tourism, or waterways), it accrues wealth without needing to rely on income-based taxes and can distribute the wealth almost at will. The implications are both economic, in that diversification is forestalled, and political, in that the state is less accountable to its citizenry. Governments may use oil wealth to provide relatively high wages to their workers. Analyzing wage trends in the manufacturing sector cross-nationally, economics professor Massoud Karshenas showed that workers’ wages were higher in most MENA countries than they were in Asian countries such as Indonesia, Korea, and Malaysia.

This state of affairs has helped reduce the female labor supply in Iran. The development strategy of the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s, relatively limited industrialization, and the presence of high wages for men worked to the benefit of a male working class, but not to the formation of a female working class. Like many states in the MENA region, the Iranian state did rely on women to serve as teachers and health workers, to occupy some positions in public administration, and to work in certain factories. The oil economy therefore reinforced what I called the patriarchal gender contract—the implicit and often explicit agreement that men are the breadwinners responsible for financially maintaining wives, children, and elderly parents, and that women are wives, homemakers, mothers, and caregivers.

In the 1990s, Iran managed to use its oil wealth to finance its own manufacturing sectors, develop its physical and social infrastructure, educate its population, and produce a formidable military along with nuclear capacity. Women’s educational attainment steadily increased as the gender gap in secondary schooling closed and women’s university enrollments in the academic year 2000–01 exceeded those of men for the first time. The economy grew and the government developed new institutions that boosted opportunities for the expansion of modern services—education, medicine, finance, law, engineering, new technologies, and the like. Although subsidies and other mechanisms were in place to prevent or alleviate poverty, income inequality increased by the end of the 1990s, private-sector wage earners suffered the highest poverty rates, and the majority of Iranian households contained just one income earner. According to the 2006 census, women made up just under 15 percent of the formal labor force.

In 2007, Iran’s service sector (including government) contributed 56 percent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), followed by the hydrocarbon sector with 25 percent, and agriculture with 10 percent. Iran ranked second in the world in natural gas reserves and third in oil reserves; unsurprisingly, its chief source of foreign exchange is derived from oil and gas. International prices of oil and gas fluctuate, which means that aggregate GDP and government revenues are intrinsically volatile. Although Iran followed what the World Bank called “prudent macroeconomic policies,” it came to face economic difficulties resulting largely from the application of strict economic and banking sanctions and embargoes by the United States and Europe. Boom and bust cycles in economic performance led to private sector uncertainty, which impeded investment and job creation. The state sector continued to invest in the capital-intensive, almost exclusively male-dominated, sectors of oil, gas, and nuclear power.

The Iranian state’s inability to attract foreign direct investment of the type that might generate employment for women has contributed to the persistence of a small female labor force and an even smaller female working class. The sanctions regime, of course, has had an adverse effect, but Iran’s free trade zones, established mostly in southern regions along the Persian Gulf for export to neighboring countries, did not become the “back doors to the international economy” that the authorities had hoped for. In previous research, Middle East scholar Hassan Hakimian showed that while the free trade zones had a modest workforce to begin with (at some 45,000), the rate of job creation for women was weak. He concluded that, “Iran’s experience of free zones in the past one and a half decades has failed to achieve its principal objectives of attracting FDI [Foreign Direct Investment], diversifying non-oil exports and generating new jobs.” Data for 2016–17 shows that the most lucrative free trade zone, in Arvand, consists of refinery industries.

In 2011, Iran was still characterized by a large hydrocarbon sector, small-scale private agriculture and services, and a noticeable state presence in manufacturing and finance. While Iran’s economy had shifted toward a market-based economy, the financial sector was largely dominated by public banks, and the state still played a key role, owning large public and quasi-public manufacturing and commercial enterprises. Over 60 percent of the manufacturing sector’s output was produced by state-owned enterprises. The government’s 2010–15 five-year plan aimed to privatize some 20 percent of state-owned firms (SOEs) each year, although it appeared that assets of SOEs were largely purchased by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps or other semi-governmental enterprises.

The presence of state-owned or parastatal monopolies, combined with a strategy in the first two decades after the revolution that favored self-employment and the expansion of the informal sector, created an economic and labor market environment that was not conducive to female labor incorporation. Iran’s small-scale manufacturing sector continued to produce handicrafts, carpets, and rugs, and women could be found in that sector. Yet according to official statistics, such women workers were typically unpaid as contributing family members rather than paid manufacturing workers. In 1996, only a quarter of the female manufacturing workforce was salaried. The 2006 Iranian census showed that women’s share of manufacturing was 18.7 percent, down from 38.2 percent in 1976 (largely concentrated in rural areas). An interview I had with a female statistician in Tehran in 1994 revealed that the decline in women’s manufacturing labor was linked to the decline of carpet exports during the war with Iraq and later competition from China. Young rural women might also have been withdrawing from traditional manufacturing because of a new trend of completing schooling.

Indeed, female educational attainment increased, as between 1999 and 2011, secondary and tertiary-level enrollments doubled. At the postsecondary level, the female share of master’s degree enrollments for the academic year 2006-07 was over half in medicine and basic sciences, and only in engineering were female graduate students underrepresented, at 25.5 percent.

Women’s employment correlates with educational attainment; those with just elementary education are less likely to join the labor force, whereas having higher degrees tends to raise women’s participation sharply. Married women are less likely to enter the labor force, although highly educated women, married or not, tend to remain at their jobs for longer periods. By 2012, the 20 percent of women in manufacturing included educated women in managerial or technical positions in the larger industrial firms as well as in the oil and gas industry.

According to Iran’s 2016 labor force survey, the private sector is now the largest employer, engaging 76.2 percent of the female labor force (and 85.6 percent of male workers). The female share of agricultural labor is 23.4 percent, of industry 24.1 percent, and of services 52.5 percent. And yet, very few Iranian women are in the total labor force. Nationally the female population is 39.4 million, of which perhaps half could be considered to be of working age. As such out of a total labor force of 21.3 million, just 3 million Iranian women are employed. If we compare these 3 million Iranian working women to a total of 18.2 million working men, the gender divide in employment becomes clear.

Not only are few women employed, but those who do seek jobs find it difficult to join the labor force. The female unemployment rate has remained high: in 2004, some 43 percent of young women with university education were unemployed, compared with 22.5 percent of university-educated men. The 2006 census showed that women’s total unemployment rate was 23.3 percent, more than twice that of men. A decade later this had barely changed; according to the 2016 labor force survey, women’s unemployment is nearly 22 percent, compared with 10.4 percent for men.

Given high unemployment and inflation in Iran, it is likely that a majority of non-employed women engage in home-based economic activities, both high-end and low-end. During fieldwork in Iran in 1994, I observed the presence of home-based beauty and dressmaking enterprises discreetly located within neighborhoods. Similarly, Roksana Bahramitash and Shahla Kazemipour, and Fatemeh Moghadam, have found that the upper-middle-class women missing from the official labor force statistics are actually engaged in home-based income-generating activities.

Such women—whose activities may include making and selling jewelry or special jams, providing catering services, tutoring or counseling, desktop publishing, and directing Pilates or yoga classes—may prefer to undertake work at home rather than acquiesce to the strictures of the dress code and other irritants associated with formal sector employment. A much larger number of women from low-income and working-class families similarly engage in home-based informal labor—providing dressmaking, beauty, catering, counseling, childcare, or transportation services—to supplement the incomes of their spouses and otherwise contribute to the household. Such women work individually rather than as part of collective enterprises, and are not present in official statistics.

Therefore, the structural features that have worked against enhanced female labor force participation in Iran are: a large hydrocarbon sector and the noticeable state presence in manufacturing and finance, which is more receptive to male rather than female labor; and the absence of significant foreign direct investment in sectors that might be both labor-intensive and female-intensive. Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian state has encouraged some women to enter the fields of education and healthcare, if only to teach and administer healthcare to women and girls, but in general the state prefers that women remain at home and care for their families. As a result, the traditional sexual division of labor—which I termed the patriarchal gender contract—continues to operate and is especially strong within working-class and lower-income households.

If an oil-based development strategy can entrench the patriarchal gender contract, the growth of Islamist movements and governments also reinforce women’s subordinate position within the family and society. In early writings, I identified the MENA state as neo-patriarchal, whereby the state is engaged in both economic modernization and the preservation of the traditional family. The modernizing and traditionalist tendencies of states were variable across the region, but the patriarchal elements in Iran specifically were strengthened after the Iranian revolution and the spread of Islamist movements in the 1980s. A principal demand of Islamist movements has been the strengthening of Muslim family law, which is a key institutional barrier to enhancing female economic participation—to women’s autonomy, mobility, and financial independence. In Iran specifically, whereas the 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of job opportunities for working-class and middle-class women, along with a modern family law in 1973, the trend was reversed after the Islamic revolution, especially for working-class women.

The Political System
Patriarchy has been a longstanding feature of MENA social structures, though it has been fraying in recent decades as a result of women’s educational attainment and employment along with the global diffusion of norms of women’s participation and rights, which has led many governments to adopt women-friendly legislation and policies. The 1960s–70s saw Iranian women receive the right to vote (1963), experience inroads into modern employment, benefit from a reformed family code (1973). This era also witnessed the appointment of the first women’s affairs minister (1976) and the first woman judge (1975). Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, however, halted the transition in the gender regime and substituted Islamization for modernization of gender relations.

In the 1970s, Iranian women occupied about 12 percent of the labor force, but this declined to about 10 percent after the Islamic revolution of 1979, as a result of purges of ideologically non-conforming women professionals, exile, the closure of factories, and—as noted above—the decline of work for rural women following the loss of the carpet export markets. The early years of the Islamic Republic were characterized by intense ideological contention between the ruling Islamists and leftists and liberals, the U.S. embassy hostage crisis, a war economy, and violent repression. The new Islamic state instituted a number of laws that affected women’s legal status and social positions. The abrogation of the 1973 Family Protection Act was followed by the reintroduction to the Civil Code of polygamy, the Shia practice of muta’a, or temporary marriage, and male unilateral divorce.

Quotas for women in fields of study were implemented, and women were banned from being judges, although they could serve as lawyers. A male guardian—father or husband—was needed for many transactions by women; veiling was made compulsory; and women’s political representation was almost insignificant. There was some opposition but the new gender regime was also welcomed by a large section of the Iranian female population. As political scientist and gender expert Hamideh Sedghi has shown, the class and cultural divides of the 1970s generated some female support for the Islamist agenda, with its anti-Western stance and promotion of Islamic and family values.

At the close of the 1980s, new developments affected the legal status and social positions of women. The end of the Iran–Iraq War, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the presidential term of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani saw the easing of social restrictions along with the end of the war economy and initiation of privatization and liberalization. A reform movement—rooted in both the incipient civil society and in political society—began to blossom in the early 1990s, culminating in the presidential election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997. New movements of feminists, students, journalists, and human rights advocates were supported by political allies in two reformist parliaments (the Fifth and Sixth Majles, or parliament, 1996–2004) and the Khatami  government.

In the 1990s, the government instituted a widespread and very effective family planning program, which was embraced by most Iranian women and saw a dramatic fall in fertility rates. The flourishing of civil society saw the emergence of Islamic feminism, along with secular feminist NGOs and a feminist press. Some legal reforms occurred during the Fifth parliament and the reformist Sixth parliament for women’s rights in the fields of education, divorce, and travel.

This period ended with the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government, which closed down the independent NGOs, including a burgeoning independent workers’ union. The highly contested results of the 2009 presidential election—which saw the re-election of Ahmadinejad—generated the Green Protests, in which women had a strong presence. After several days, the protests were brutally put down. To entrench the patriarchal gender regime even further, Ahmadinejad called Iranian feminism “a threat to national security,” harassing the women’s NGOs, arresting a number of feminist activists, and leading to the exile of several others. Some of the most prominent names in the Iranian feminist movement—Shirin Ebadi, Parvin Ardalan, Mahboubeh Abbas-Gholizadeh, Nargess Mohammadi, Nasrin Sotoudeh—were questioned, arrested, imprisoned, or had their offices raided and computers removed.

Although Shirin Ebadi and some other activists were the product of pre-revolutionary modernization, a younger generation of Iranian women activists who grew up in the Islamic Republic has acquired a new outlook on their legal status and social positions as a result of educational attainment and knowledge of international trends.

Indeed, recent studies by UNESCO and the World Bank showed that by 2010 gender parity had been achieved at the secondary level; the majority of students in higher education were female; fully 68 percent of science students were women; and the female share of Ph.D. graduates was 35 percent. Many joined pro-women’s NGOs, sought employment, decided to defy the state’s cultural and social restrictions in various ways, or ran for political office.

Women are important political constituents in elections and many have run for seats in the majles, but the reality is that Iranian women are excluded from any real power, making the Iranian political system among the most masculinist in the world. Women members of the majles make up an insignificant proportion, and the senior women in government, such as the various vice-presidents, seem not to have any influence on key economic, foreign policy, political, cultural, or social matters.

Iranian women’s participation and representation in the formal political structure is among the lowest in the world: 3 percent female parliamentary representation and 3 percent female share of ministerial positions in 2012, increasing to a mere 6 percent following the 2016 parliamentary elections. Unlike many other countries, Iran has not instituted gender quotas to enhance women’s political representation and has yet to ratify the CEDAW.

Throughout its forty-year history, the Islamic Republic’s gender regime has been steadfastly patriarchal, a product of the political system, of the country’s pattern of economic development and growth, and of the repression of independent and dissident civil society organizations. Iran’s gender regime reflects the political and institutional make-up, consisting of a rather novel Shia Islam-influenced republican model devoid of conventional political parties. Although Iran is governed by an elected president and a 290-member parliament, two key institutions are both unelected and  powerful.

The Supreme Leader or Rahbar—originally, Ayatollah Khomeini, and after his death, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—is meant to be the nation’s spiritual guide but in fact is the country’s leading political leader. The twelve-man Guardian Council—tasked with ensuring that laws, policies, and elections adhere to both constitutional and Islamic norms—frequently has clashed with parliament over legislative bills and its veto of candidates for presidential elections. As for the judiciary, in practice it has tended to be very conservative (much like the Guardian Council itself) and opposed to reform initiatives. The 1987 ban on political parties was lifted in 1998, but political analyst Mehrzad Boroujerdi regards many modern political parties as little more than “professional groupings engaged in political ventures rather than full-fledged groups of full-time activities.”

As such, Iran’s political system lacks the features that are favorable to women’s “descriptive representation”—a proportional representation system with the presence of left-wing parties, along with quota adoption. Moreover, as a constitutional body that vets candidates and must approve parliamentary bills, the Council of Guardians prevents those it deems not sufficiently loyal from accessing political power and often blocks progressive legislation.

Challenging the Gender Regime
The reformist cleric Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013 and again in 2017, and he promised to appoint more women to government posts. But as of April 2018, Rouhani has not carried out his promise to women. His inability to improve the economic situation, including unemployment, the high cost of living, and ever-widening income inequality, may have generated the nationwide protests between December 28, 2017 and January 5, 2018.

On the positive side, women are a strong presence in public spaces and segregation is not nearly as strict as, for example, in Saudi Arabia. Iranian women’s presence in public spaces takes the form not only of women walking, driving, shopping, and working but also taking part in public protests (where possible) and petition campaigns. Their involvement in the public sphere includes the growth of women’s websites and blogs as well as national debates and discussions about women’s rights and legal reform. A youth subculture includes holding parties, playing music, dancing, and defying the dress code. Indeed, there have been consistent female challenges to hijab strictures, most recently with the “My Stealthy Freedom” Facebook campaign, which began in 2015. The current national debate on ending compulsory hijab is indicative of the power of women’s public presence.

Domestically, the Iranian state faces high unemployment and income inequality. Externally, it is subjected to harsh sanctions and to the hostility of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. One strategy to improve its domestic and international prospects is to ensure its citizens’ wellbeing and sense of dignity, while also strengthening the economy and labor markets. Drawing on the creativity, expertise, and productivity of Iran’s female citizens will be an essential part of the strategy. But first, the state needs to remove unfair and discriminatory legislation and create a more welcoming institutional environment for women’s participation. Increasing the proportion of the female teaching staff at the university level from the current 20 percent, and creating decent job opportunities in public and private services for women with secondary schooling will enable more women to empower themselves while also contributing to economic growth. The transition to a “modern” and women-friendly gender regime will be a source of national strength and resilience as well as the foundation of women’s economic and political empowerment.

Valentine M. Moghadam is professor of sociology and international affairs and director of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at Northeastern University. Previously, she was director of Women’s Studies at Purdue University and Illinois State University, and section chief for gender equality and development at UNESCO in Paris (2004–06). From 1990 to 1995 she served as a senior research fellow at the WIDER Institute of the United Nations University, in Helsinki. She is author of Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East and Globalization and Social Movements: Islamism, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement. She was awarded the Victoria Schuck Award for best book on women and politics for Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks.

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