Where Are Iran’s Working Women?

See, also, Hajir Palaschi, “Interview with Shahla Lahiji on Women’s Presence in the Labor Market: No Vocation Must Be Prohibited for Women,” Trans. Yoshie Furuhashi, MRZine, 18 February 2008.

The Iranian Revolution and its aftermath have generated many debates, one of which pertains to the effects on women’s labor force participation and employment patterns.  For over 20 years, Iran-born scholars have debated the extent of women’s post-revolutionary marginalization, emphasizing the impact of ideology or economic policy.  For some, Islamization led to women’s labor marginalization, while others have argued that Islamization — and its attendant sex segregation — actually benefited women, in that conservative families allowed their daughters to be educated and to seek work.  The fact is that 30 years after the revolution, women constitute only 15% of the formal sector paid labor force (that is, those entitled to paid holidays, maternity leave, pension, and other provisions of labor law).  According to the results of the 1385/2006 Iranian census, only 3.5 million Iranian women are salaried workers, compared with 23.5 million men.

However much as Iranians as a whole are doing well in terms of health, education, and social protection, the presumed benefits of Islamization for women’s advancement look meager when compared to the social and gender indicators of other advanced developing countries.

Women, Work, and the Global Economy

The case of Iranian women’s labor force participation is usually made on its own terms but is best understood in a comparative or international perspective, framed by theory.  The globalization literature and studies done within the Gender and Development (GAD) framework show, on the basis of much evidence across the globe, that the employment effects of globalization have differential effects on women and men in labor markets depending on occupation and sector, and depending also on the nature of the country’s integration in the global economy (measured by, for example, trade and foreign direct investment).  “The feminization of labor” refers to both the growing proportion of women in the labor force and the deterioration of work conditions, as “flexible labor markets” become the order of the day.  At the same time, there has been a growing trend, for more educated women, of increasing involvement in a variety of professional services, including finance, insurance, and real estate jobs (the FIRE sector).

The GAD literature also emphasizes the expansion of informal and unregistered work, which can be both high-end and low-end.  This includes desktop publishing, catering, making fancy jams, designing jewelry, private language or music lessons, beauty services, sewing and alteration; as well as food preparation, hawking, and producing garments for a sub-contractor.

In this context, key questions are: How does Iran compare to other countries with similar income levels and at similar stages of economic development, such as Venezuela, Malaysia, China, South Korea, Tunisia, or Brazil?  How is Iran integrated in the global economy and with what effects on labor-capital flows in general and women’s labor force participation in particular?  Is Iran part of the global economy and globalizing processes?  If so, what have been the effects on women’s labor force participation, occupational distribution, and income?  If not, perhaps that says something about why Iranian women remain marginalized from the paid labor force.  Are women’s low rates of labor force participation a result of systematic discrimination (driven by both cultural norms and legal restrictions) or a function of the nature of the Iranian economy?  Or, conversely, is this a matter of women’s own choice and preference?

A number of authors have emphasized Iranian women’s educational attainment, arguing that women’s increasing university enrollments is a major achievement of the revolution.  And yet, the expansion of female education — including the smaller proportion of adolescents in the work force and the larger share of women’s university enrollments — is a global phenomenon and cannot be attributed to Islamization.  The same is true with women’s employment in services; in most medium- to high- middle income developing countries, female labor has shifted from agriculture and manufacturing to the services sector.

Women and Employment 30 Years after the Revolution

The most recent Iranian census (1385/2006) shows that the female share of the labor force is less than 20%, considerably below the world average of 45%.  (The census gives the figure of 18.5%, which is at odds with the 24.6% figure sometimes seen in international data sets.  It is also at odds with the higher figure in the Socio-Economic Characteristics of Households panel data, produced by the Statistical Center of Iran and used by Djavad Salehi-Isfahani.)  Some 33% of Iran’s female labor force is in professional jobs, concentrated in education, healthcare, and social services — hardly a seismic shift from the pre-revolutionary period in terms of gender roles.  Slightly over half of all teachers in Iran are women, but the proportion of female university teaching staff is, at 20%, less than that of Algeria (41%), Tunisia (40%), Turkey (38%), and Bahrain (36%).  Iranian census data reveal no evidence of a shift to the FIRE sector, and less than 4% of employed women are found in senior or executive or managerial positions.

For the urban areas, the rather small female labor force is about equally divided between private and public sector employment.  Just 20% of the urban female work force is in industrial employment (compared to 45% of rural women).  Some 50% of the female work force is in professional and technical employment (54.5% with executive positions included); 11% in administrative and clerical, and 10% in services and sales.  Extrapolating to discern patterns by social class, it appears that the vast majority of urban working class women are either unemployed/seeking work; economically inactive/housewives; or engaged in informal, home-based, or voluntary activities.  This would mean dependence on male kin for social insurance and retirement benefits.

Given high unemployment and inflation in Iran, it is likely that the vast majority of non-employed women engage in an array of high-end and low-end home-based economic activities described above.  Thirty years after the Iranian revolution, we have yet to see a systematic study of the informal sector in Iran, or a survey of the services performed by women from their homes.  We know from anecdotal evidence that the practice of mahr/mehrieh, whereby the groom promises an amount of money to his bride, has been growing rather than declining in Iran.  Can this be explained at least partly by the fact that women’s employment opportunities are limited and women cannot rely on a steady income?

Valentine M. Moghadam is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Women’s Studies program at Purdue University.  Her publications include Globalizing Women: Gender, Globalization, and Transnational Feminist Networks; Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East; Women, Work, and Economic Reform in the Middle East and North Africa; “Maternalist Policies vs Economic Citizenship?  Gendered Social Policy in Iran” (in Shahra Razavi and Shireen Hassim, eds., Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context: Uncovering the Gendered Structure of ‘the Social’);  “Globalization and Transnational Feminist Networks (Or How Neoliberalism and Fundamentalism Riled the World’s Women)” (in William Robinson and Richard Applebaum, eds., Critical Globalization Studies); and “Women’s Economic Participation in the Middle East: What Difference Has the Neoliberal Policy Turn Made?” (Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 1.1 [Winter 2005]: 110-146).  “Where Are Iran’s Working Women?” was first published as a chapter in The Iranian Revolution at 30 (The Middle East Institute, Washington, DC); it is reproduced here for educational purposes.