Young Women in Iran: The Tale of the Ordinary

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It seems with every political turmoil young Iranian women find their way into international tribunes. Regrettably, the last time it was the tragic death of Neda, a young beautiful Iranian woman, who was shot by the governmental forces in front of eyewitnesses at one of the street protests of the Green Movement that caught the attention of the world in summer 2009. She became the symbol for young Iranian women throughout the world. In Iran people began to call Neda the angel of freedom. And, the world simply came to know her as the one and only image of the young Iranian woman whose brave protest ends in a tragic death. The world came to know young Iranian woman as extraordinary figures whose political struggles inspire the world. What the world seems to have forgotten are the stories of the ordinary young Iranian women; whose struggles are not restricted to only the widely known political repression in Iran.

Prior to the Green Movement, when Neda was growing up in the years of reform in Iran, western journalists would travel to Iran to face the fascinating paradoxes that the lives and appearances of Iranian women represented. These journalists, almost unanimously, portrayed the contradictory dualities in the lives of young Iranian women with a series of images that are now familiar to all of us. Their news documentary would often begin at a large Shia Muslim shrine setting or a mosque in or around Tehran where masses of men and women covered in black chadors would pray and furiously chant out slogans against the US and Israel. These news documentaries would then end with disco-like snapshots of an underground party in north Tehran where young women and men were dancing to western music, smoking, drinking and taking drugs. This was how we, Iranian women, were portrayed before the death of Neda.

I argue that even after the Green Movement and the death of Neda, the image of young Iranian women remained partial and not inclusive of the diverse realities of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). With Neda’s images all over the media, the image of young Iranian women became symbolic, heroic and romanticized leading to a limited prism into the lives of young women in Iran.

Isn’t it that the world is praising the bravery and beauty of young Iranian women who are, undoubtedly, making history and fearlessly taking their fates into their own very hands? What else do we expect from western media and policymakers if not their appraisal of bravery of those who peacefully stand up for their rights? My answer to these questions is that the romanticized and heroic figure that the media has made of young Iranian women deprives them of conveying their rather mundane frustrations. The world wants to either see them as beautiful, brave and consequently imprisoned or killed or else hateful, covered in a certain all black IRI style of Islamic veil and loyalist of the regime. The world is continuously fascinated by the relationship of young Iranian women with the Islamic state. Thus, it is in politicization of young Iranian women’s figures that the world finds authenticity and truth.

The purpose of this essay is not to deny the acts of political bravery done by young Iranian women in standing up for their rights as women and as citizens. Rather, this essay aims to highlight other instances of challenges and struggles facing young women in Iran. While these rather neglected challenges of young women do not entirely or directly pertain to the current political turmoil, they illustrate the consequences of social, cultural, political and economic forms of discriminations against women and youth in the IRI.

Some of these young Iranian women whose struggles might seem too apolitical and insignificant to appear in international tribunes, are just as courageous as Neda was. It is just that their daily struggles are not classified as the “brave protestor” image that inspires the western media.

Young Iranian women face difficulties in entering the job market that best suits their education and dreams. The impressive rate of higher education among women is no mystery to the world. In Iran the rate of women to men parity index, as ratio of literacy rates, aged 15-24 is 0.99.[1] Further, currently women outnumber their male counterparts in universities. Nevertheless, high literacy rates and impressive enrolment in higher education institutions have not led to an equally notable increase in the economic advancement of women. Thus, with the economic situation serving as an example, there remain a series of neglected issues impacting young women’s lives in Iran without improvement of which generations of Iranian women will ultimately face despair, hopelessness, frustration and depression.

A clear example of the socio-economic challenges facing young women in today’s Iran is unemployment. As Valentine M. Moghadam states, “[W]omen constitute only 15% of the formal sector paid labour force.[2]  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.”[3] According to existing statistics, women have 15.5% of the labour force while the world average of women’s share in labour force is 45%. Further, women have 33% of professional jobs in education, healthcare and social services. Women form 20% of the university teaching staff; while this percentage is 41% in Australia, 38% in Tunisia, 38% in Turkey, and 36% in Bahrain. Moreover, less than 4% of employed women work in senior, executive and managerial positions.[4]

This is all while according to Iran’s Fourth National Plan statistics “the rate of female-headed households has increased from 7.1% to 8.4% during the last three decades in Iran.”[5] Furthermore, the average age for marriage for women and the rate of divorce are increasing in today’s Iran. In addition to the economic hardships facing Iranian youth in securing sustainable careers, the more liberal lifestyle pursued by the youth also have a role in the increasing age of marriage.[6] Overall, while struggling with various forms of discriminations, young Iranian women are confronted with the paradoxes of tradition and modernity that constraint them while raising their socio-economic responsibilities and needs.

Nevertheless, despite such challenges in the formal labour force, women continue to pave their way in conventional and unconventional areas of work. While in the past few years, we have been hearing about successful young female entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, university professors and other such careers, women from the less conventional and informal labour forces have also managed to do wonders with innovation, persistence and patience. The IRI takes credit for the notable achievements of Iranian women in various professions without acknowledging the socio-economic, legal, religious and political discriminations that young women have to overcome to succeed in the formal and informal job market. An example of the continuous efforts of the young generation of women to enter the formal job market in spite all the challenges—a statistical summary of which was earlier presented in this essay—is their entrepreneurial endeavours in various industries.

The challenge of unemployment or a level of employment that does not match with the acquired higher education along with the desire to innovate and professionally excel have led to a notable number of young female entrepreneurs in various industries. Nevertheless, the path to successful entrepreneurship is also rather challenging for young women who will have to overcome both environmental (social, economic and cultural) and personal challenges throughout their entrepreneurial endeavours. While having to prove their capabilities as women in gender-biased industries, they also have to overcome the bureaucracy and policy challenges that exist for all entrepreneurs in Iran. Regardless, many of these young women creatively fight their ways through environmental and individual challenges with the ultimate goal of gaining financial independence.

While female entrepreneurs have left a successful legacy in the conventional industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and services, there also other unique fields where young female entrepreneurs are gaining recognition. As such, there are women such as Nayereh Aghaz in the transportation industry who has successful set up a taxi service with female drivers that exclusively provide services to female customers in the religious city of Qom.[7]<rnd:error><rnd:code>unknown-style</rnd:code><rnd:message>unknown character span style "FootnoteReference" encountered</rnd:message></rnd:error>In rural areas, too, there are an increasing number of young women entrepreneurs that have gained recognition. For example, Shahnaz Yousefi is an entrepreneur living in the rural areas of Southern Iran who has successfully introduced an innovative method in the area of poultry lessens the rate of illnesses among the animals.[8] The list of women entrepreneurs in Iran is a long one reviewing which reveals unique and untold stories of women who, one way or another, struggle to gain financial independence in the midst of the economically ill society of Iran.

There are many success stories of women who, against all odds, make it in the formal or informal economy in Iran. However, there are also many young women who are left with hopelessness and despair. Some of these women have pursued other means for making money such as sex work or drug dealership. Many others suffer from undesired financial dependence and of becoming a burden on their parents while awaiting the opportunity to get married and at least begin an independent life within the realm of marriage. As stated earlier, young women in Iran are caught in the paradox of modernity and traditions in Iran. This leads to the loss of traditional support that a woman would typically receive from her original family, husband or the family of her husband and yet maintain some of the traditional and cultural constraints in the way of a woman who aims to gain independence.

Meanwhile, the economic, social and political crisis in today’s Iran simply intensifies the complex challenges that young women undergo in their daily life. It has become ever more important that journalists, researchers and policymakers in the western world conduct more in-depth studies and policy analysis of the conditions of women in Iran that go further than only capturing the stories of the politicized young female heroic figures. Young Iranian women still have a wealth of untold stories and experiences the analysis of which could only help enrich the world’s understanding of today’s Iran. Think of it this way: If Neda were still alive, she would have been that ordinary young Iranian woman who was struggling to find a job suitable for her education and dreams. It is the alive, ordinary and hopeful Neda that the world needs to understand when addressing the struggles of young women in Iran. There are millions of her in today’s Iran. Let us not forget them and their struggles.

[1] Statistical Centre of Iran (2009-2010). National portal of statistics. Vice Presidency for Strategic Planning and Supervision, Tehran.

[2] That is, those entitled to paid holidays, maternity leave, pension, and other provisions of labour law.

Statistical Centre of Iran (2009-2010). National portal of statistics. Vice Presidency for Strategic Planning and Supervision, Tehran.

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