Interview with Shahla Lahiji on Women’s Presence in the Labor Market: No Vocation Must Be Prohibited for Women


Shahla Lahiji is the first Iranian woman who succeeded in getting a publisher’s license registered in her own name.  She founded Roshangaran and Women’s Studies, a publishing house, 23 years ago.  Lahiji sees herself in a kind of living history on the question of women’s labor, for her mother was the fifth woman who entered government service.

Let’s begin the conversation with a question that probably you have been asked many times, but I cannot but ask this question again, because in my view it provides a fitting entry into discussion.

When, as the first woman publisher, you entered the thitherto masculine space of publishing, what reactions did you encounter?

My being a woman provoked surprise, but nothing else.  Even in the Ministry of Culture, I did not encounter any negative reaction to my face.  At that time, we were at war, and restrictions back then were applied to all.  What made them wonder more about was why in that unpromising environment I wanted to become a publisher first of all, then why a publisher of women, and why I was struggling to make it happen.  To be fair, I should say that there was no unwelcome attitude toward me as a woman.  By the way, the first book that I published was a book titled Woman in Search of Liberation concerning women’s labor.  To obtain 34 reams of paper in order to publish this book, I was forced to change the introduction four times — perhaps the subject matter I had chosen and the book’s title were the reason why they made it difficult in the case of that book.  In the introduction, I had written: there are those who support women’s labor, and there are those who oppose it — both sides think, in their imagination, they are speaking in the interest of women.

In this book I defended women’s labor, and the opposition was based on some people’s opinion that it is advisable for women that household management should be their responsibility.  For that reason, and due to economic limitations and paper shortage, I waited nearly for a year to receive paper.  However, none of these problems had anything to do with my being a woman.  But I myself didn’t realize what an important job I had accomplished as a woman publisher.  Only later did I understand that I had opened the door for other women’s entry into the publishing market.  Let me say also that in reality I was the first female publisher who got a publishing license issued in her name.

Before me, there was at least Sima Kuban, who did publishing work for Damavand Publishing, but after 1967 the licensing of publishing began, and I, as a woman who entered into the profession of publishing in 1962, was the first woman who was able to get a publishing license registered in her own name.

Ms. Lahiji, it seems that the presence of women in high positions, in terms of gender-based proportions, faces obstacles.  In your opinion, why is this the case?

I think that, to answer this question, we must look at the question of women’s employment on the global level.  In the aforementioned book Woman in Search of Liberation, I addressed this topic.  In the rest of the world, too, women haven’t found it easy to enter into the labor market.  When a proposal for women’s entry into the labor market as factory workers was made, even far-leftist Lassallists in Germany were completely opposed to it.  Instead, it was the liberal capitalist current that believed that women ought to be educated and must enter the labor market.

Lassallists believed that women’s entrance into the labor market would cause a decline in workers’ rights and their living standard.  In other words, even their thought was that women’s duty was to make safe havens suitable for their husbands.

It’s interesting that they made the wage question a secondary concern and said that this would cause family disintegration and bring down wages.  In contrast, a Frankfurt capitalist said: no longer is it possible to keep women from the labor market, since men alone shall not be responsible for labor due to the development of industries.  Because of this experience, we know we are not far from the rest of the world — only it’s a matter of time.  It’s our turn — the problem that has already been solved in other parts of the world is just coming under consideration in our country.  That, of course, is connected to society’s culture.  For example, in Anglo-Saxon culture women went into the labor market much more easily than in other cultures, for the historical records of democracy, struggle, and women’s presence in several industries like textile existed in that culture.

In this respect, the women of England became pioneers on this basis, and by the time when there was a debate on whether women should or shouldn’t work in Germany, in England women had gone into the labor market and organized women’s labor unions.

Labor unions for women workers only?

Yes, labor unions of women that were attached to workers’ unions.  The wage question, too, had been solved.  You should study the progress of women’s labor in Iran.  I may be said to be a part of a living history of women’s labor, since my mother was the fifth woman who entered government service.  In fact, when I was born, my mother had a business, and I saw that a woman had a very difficult job of managing household work and somehow accomplishing her own job outside home at the same time in order to get promoted.

I think that we must study the question of women’s labor in Iran with due attention to culture, customs, law, possibilities, and the future.  If we keep the beginning of the movement in mind, we’ll see that Iran’s intellectual currents have never been able to find a progressive model for women’s labor.  For example, in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg, a radical leftist, said in defiance of Lassallists: women, go into the labor market, do not seek any permission, it is important that you enter the labor market.  Don’t desire excessive children or wages or holidays.  That is the price of self-sacrifice that you must pay for the sake of your participation in the sphere of labor and economic independence.  After your presence in the labor market is stabilized and your ability to achieve things free from gender roles is proven, then you can demand more rights.

As we witnessed in Germany, in the era of World War 1, men went to the frontlines of war, and 20 million women managed German industrial labor, but the condition for that didn’t always exist in that country.  For example, just after the end of the war, when men came back from the front, they told women to go back to their homes.  I remember that, under the previous regime, one of the publications, a publication that was published abroad and that I think was called Persian Letters, wrote that women’s entry into the labor market was due to the fact that the Shah, a dog of imperialism, wanted to exploit women, too, side by side with male workers.  I wrote a letter asking if the author of this article had read theoretical articles in Iran.  In principle the Shah is a dog of imperialism, but is the entry of women into the labor market in itself progressive or reactionary?  Of course, these questions always, like now, went unanswered, for there was no theory behind it.  For this reason, our society’s problems have always remained unresolved, since we couldn’t come to a conclusion about whether women’s labor is progressive or reactionary.

Incidentally, now profit-driven capitalism in Iran also would like to see women enter the labor market, because we Iranians, especially women, totally lack the culture of protest due to our history of despotism and masculine culture.  Capitalism profits from this situation, and even small factories are firing their male workers and bringing women in, because they could get away with giving women fewer rights and exploit them more, no?

First, let’s not talk capitalist talk at all.  I would like to know if you see symptoms of capitalism other than money exchange.  Together with capitalism, have labor unions been forged?  Yes, it is possible to super-exploit women’s simple, unskilled labor.

Their labor power, according to Marx’s opinion, is not labor power, because labor power means productive labor power.  We, however, do not have productive labor.  Production with losses, production without competition, government production isn’t capitalist production proper.  4,000 state factories can, with their labor, accomplish any work that needs to be done.  That’s not capitalism.

I see that our constitutional law says that there should be possibilities for the development, growth, and blossoming of women for the sake of the triumph of society.  Explain this to me.  If we try to interpret this clause, we must say that no lowly work should be forbidden for women on account of their being women.  I don’t believe that all women should become bus drivers, but I believe that, if a woman wants to become a bus driver, she should be able to.  However, all these things will remain a wish, a dream, a phantom, if our society doesn’t enter a productive future.  As long as we have oil, we, fundamentally, will not have a need for production.  Because of that, we will remain dependent on the government, but the government will not be dependent on our taxes.  In this way, of course, the government can do whatever it wants, since it gives us our bread and is our employer.

See, Ms. Lahiji, in any case, it is undeniable that all factories, small or flawed or even failing ones, are recruiting women, because they can more easily exploit them.  Larger factories, too, usually make use of women as strike-breakers, and this aggravates society’s negative view of women’s labor.

It’s because labor unions do not exist and class interests have not been clarified that such things are happening.  In England, during the Thatcher era, when workers at a state factory went on strike, the English government, too, sent the soldiers of its military to the factory to make them do the work of striking workers.  This has no connection to gender.  Of course, I don’t know how it is possible to replace men’s skilled labor by women’s unskilled labor.

Not if they substitute women’s unskilled labor for men’s unskilled labor.

In any case, let’s see this side of the debate: women, too, enter the labor market for financial reasons, for reasons of poverty.  But that is indisputable.  See how much our society’s media show women in the labor market?  How many women at work do our textbooks show?  Have you seen even one woman behind a draftsman’s desk in our textbooks?

Even vocational textbooks for middle-school students are divided by gender. . . .

Yes, for women, sewing, cooking, and at most nursing and so-called women’s jobs are being taught.  82% of the illustrations in textbooks are about men, and the rest show women doing housework, nursing, and taking care of children.  Then, that’s a cultural policy.

Now they may employ women as simple, unskilled workers, but their aim is neither to foster production nor to help women workers.  Unless we establish these foundations in our country and until we begin using our national wealth for capital investment, I think that these debates remain up in the air.  However, I believe that our women have found a path and, very much pragmatically, are now traveling this path.  Working women are working without having heard of any feminist theory.

As long as employment opportunities in this society are limited, whatever we say about women’s labor will be useless.

I think that there is another obstacle against women’s employment: traditional family structures.

We cannot settle for the status quo even regarding this issue.  Take a woman who has worked for 20 years and is bringing income to her family.  If she gets divorced from her husband, there is no right for those 20 years of labor applicable to her.  All these issues are related.  Cultural problems must be legally clarified and then socially understood.  Of course, fortunately, a majority of the new, young generation aren’t this way, but, traditionally, when you enter a house, you see the man plop himself on the sofa and the woman dash to the kitchen, and it seems that’s the pattern.  But why?  Because women’s employment rights are nowhere well codified in law, of course women are not required to support their families by bringing income, but the consequence of that has not been discussed in terms of rights.  Many times, it is said to women in family courts: you don’t want to do what you are not obligated to do.  Or the whole premise is that the father is the breadwinner.  Now, sometimes it is men who are the breadwinners, sometimes it is both men and women who are the breadwinners.  Then, we should have a new interpretation.  Take the statistics about female heads of household — let’s see how many of them there are.  How many women are supporting their unemployed or disabled husbands and securing their livelihoods?  Do we even have statistics?  Have we tried to explain them?  If not, then, we cannot settle the question of these family structures.

The original interview in Persian was published in Etemaad (No. 1449) on 1 Mordad 1386 (23 July 2007).  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]

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