Women in Iran “confront an array of legal and social barriers, restricting not only their lives but also their livelihoods, and contributing to starkly unequal economic outcomes,” according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. “Iranian women’s achievements in higher education demonstrate their capability and passion to be equal partners in building a better country, but discriminatory laws are holding them back,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities have started to acknowledge these problems, but they should take the necessary steps to remove the barriers that are pushing women to the margins of the workforce.” The following is an excerpt from the report.
In July 2015, Iran, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the European Union (EU), reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. This resolution marked a historic breakthrough in which Iran began to re-engage with and re-integrate into the global economy. In the first six months of 2016, trade between the EU and Iran – described by the United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Trade as “the biggest market to enter the global economy since the fall of the Soviet Union”– increased by 43 percent. President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the deal, promised that all Iranians would benefit economically as a result. Yet without serious reforms to Iran’s legal code and labor regulations, Rouhani’s rhetoric will remain detached from the daily reality of a critical constituency in Iran and one which makes up half of the country’s population: Iranian women.
Women in Iran confront an array of legal and social barriers, restricting not only their lives but also their livelihoods, and contributing to starkly unequal economic outcomes. Although women comprise over 50 percent of university graduates, their participation in the labor force is only 17 percent. The 2015 Global Gender Gap report, produced by the World Economic Forum, ranks Iran among the last five countries (141 out of 145) for gender equality, including equality in economic participation. Moreover, these disparities exist at every rung of the economic hierarchy; women are severly underrepresented in senior public positions and as private sector managers. This significant participation gap in the Iranian labor market has occurred in a context in which Iranian authorities have extensively violated women’s economic and social rights. Specifically, the government has created and enforced numerous discriminatory laws and regulations limiting women’s participation in the job market while also failing to stop – and sometimes actively participating in – widespread discriminatory employment practices against women in the private and public sectors.
Discrimination against women in the Iranian labor market is shaped in part by the political ideology that has dominated Iran since the Islamic revolution, which pushed women to adopt perceived “ideal roles” as mothers and wives and sought to marginalize them from public life. Yet what often goes unmentioned in narratives on women’s role in Iranian society is that discriminatory laws towards women in the economic realm long predate this period. Many discriminatory laws can be found in Iran’s 1936 civil code. After the Islamic Republic of Iran came to power in 1979, the authorities rolled back the progress made by legislation enacted in 1976 promoting gender equality, particularly in family law, and returned to these earlier legal provisions while also enforcing a dress code as a prerequisite for appearing in public life. In the past three decades, authorities have punished women’s rights activists for their efforts to promote gender equality in law and practice, including with imprisonment. The government’s prosecution of prominent members of the “One Million Signatures” campaign to change these discriminatory laws also illustrates that the battle for women’s social and economic freedoms cannot be disentangled from the broader struggle for political and civic rights in Iran.
Despite their everyday struggle against this discriminatory environment, many Iranian women have thrived in higher education; they represent the majority of test takers in the national university entrance exams. The uphill climb for women, however, only gets steeper as they seek entry into and promotion within Iran’s job market. Unemployment for women is twice as high as for men, with one out of every three women with a bachelor’s degree currently unemployed. The participation of women in Iran’s job market is significantly lower than the average participation in other upper-middle income countries and is lower than the average for all women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. MENA already has the lowest female participation compared to other regions at around 20 percent.
Iranian law is likely a culprit in creating this unequal economic reality. Domestic laws directly discriminate against women’s equal access to employment, including restricting the professions women can enter and denying equal benefits to women in the workforce. Furthermore, Iranian law considers the husband the head of the household, a status that grants him control over his wife’s economic choices. For instance, a husband has the right to prevent his wife from working in particular occupations under certain circumstances, and, in practice, some employers require husbands and fiancés to provide written consent for women to be allowed to work with them. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that, during divorce court proceedings, husbands regularly accuse their wives of working without their consent or in jobs they deem unsuitable. A man also has the right to forbid his wife from obtaining a passport to travel abroad and can prevent her from travelling abroad at any time (even if she has a passport). Some employers interviewed said they were unlikely to hire women where extensive travel is involved due to the uncertainty created by these discriminatory legal codes.
The government also fails to enforce laws designed to stop widespread discrimination by employers against women, and Iranian law has inadequate legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. Moreover, while Iranian law prohibits discrimination against women in the workplace, its application is not extended to the hiring process, where it is critically needed. Publicly available data shows that government and private sector employers routinely prefer to hire men over women, in particular for technical and managerial positions. Employers in both the public and the private sectors regularly specify gender preferences when advertising position vacancies and do so based on arbitrary and discriminatory criteria. Managers and employees interviewed told Human Rights Watch that they were not aware of any anti-sexual harassment policies at their place of employment, while several women reported intances of sexual harassment. Moreover, interviewees regularly expressed frustration with arbitrary enforcement of discriminatory dress codes.
Iranian laws also impose severe restrictions on the freedoms of assembly and the right to form trade unions, which limit workers’ ability to advocate collectively for their rights and weakens the effectiveness of existing complaint procedure mechanisms.
Instead of taking steps to address these barriers, since 2011 Iran has shifted its population policies towards increasing population growth in a manner that has placed a disproportionate burden on women in the society. As a result, several draft bills that aim to increase child bearing do so mostly by restricting women’s access to reproductive healthcare and employment opportunities. If passed, these bills could further marginalize women in the economic sphere.
Some Iranian officials have recognized the lack of gender equality as a problem. During his presidential campaign in 2013, President Rouhani rejected gender discrimination and stated that his administration will ensure equal opportunity for women. Since taking office, however, his administration has taken only minimal steps to improve the situation, such as by temporarily suspending certain government hiring processes that were discriminatory against women.
Shahindokht Mowlaverdy, the vice president for Women and Family Affairs, has spoken out against gender discrimination, promising, among other things, to create exemptions for women to travel abroad for work on certain occasions without the permission of their husbands. However, her efforts are yet to translate into tangible benefits for Iranian women.
At the height of Iran’s confrontation with the international community over its nuclear programs between 2007 and 2013, the economic sanctions imposed by global powers, combined with changes in Iran’s monetary policy, negatively impacted the economy and resulted in higher levels of unemployment and the closure of numerous businesses. Employment data show that under this difficult situation, women suffered disproportionately.
Since Iran and world powers reached the historic nuclear deal in 2015 and the subsequent removal of several sanctions, the Iranian government’s first priority has been to improve the country’s economy. Several foreign companies have resumed trade with Iran and are in the process of opening their offices there. But for women who lost their jobs under the previous decade’s difficult economic circumstances and are struggling to be treated equally in the job market, the effect will be limited unless the barriers confronting women are addressed.
Iran needs to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination law to eliminate discrminatry provisions of the current legal system and to extend equal protections to women who participate in the job market. If the administration is serious about removing barriers to equal participation of women in the workforce, it should work closely with the parliament to enact legislative reforms, to address prevailing gender stereotypes in the workplace, and to work towards extending social insurance coverage to those in the informal economy which has become more female dominant. Only when these right restrictions are addressed will Iranian women be able to take equal part in building the future of their families and their country.
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