Upon finding out that I am 35 and without children, an Iranian woman exclaimed “Inshallah!!!” with great exasperation. She was about 20 years old when she had her first of two children, not as young as one would expect from a woman living in the Iranian desert, but ultimately, not very old. In Iran, as you might guess, a woman’s role is primarily as mother and homemaker. But there are some stereotypes that are not true, and of course, some that are.
Education & Unemployment:
In recent years, women have made up more than 60% of the population of university students in Iran. They are highly educated, a shocking revelation to many Westerners. Yes, it is true that women have been barred from some courses in an attempt by conservative clerics who are concerned about upsetting the status quo and messing with gender established norms. The biggest problem, however, from a Westerner’s perspective, is how high the unemployment rate is for women compared to men, despite the educational gaps. In a country so engrained to believe that women belong in the home, only about 13% of the workforce is female. That’s not to say that women aren’t financially important to their families and country.
Many Iranian women contribute financially to the household even without holding traditional employment. I met a group of women in the desert who had begun their own business selling handicrafts, a part of the proceeds would be going to help pay for repairs to the Qanats (the town’s only water source). Women also run family businesses from home or they work on the family farms and help run family restaurants. My guide who’s full time job in tourism kept her 100% outside of the home was a female and we met other female guides along the way. Additionally, Iran does not bar women from owning businesses and women even hold high level positions in banking and government.
Clothing & Fashion:
I met an Imam in Iran who said that the majority of Iranians want to wear Hijab. I don’t know how true the “majority” part of that statement is, but I do know that some do want to wear Hijab and some do not. How women dress does depend on where they live and what day it is. For example, in a more conservative city, most women wear burkhas, but in a more liberal city, women might only wear hijab and manteau (a long coat). On religious holidays, they might pull out the burkas just for good measure. During the last Presidency, women’s clothing was policed much more than it is today. Don’t let those burkas fool you, underneath is a woman who exudes sexuality. She’s probably wearing designer jeans imported illegally from Europe, and she has very likely had a nose job. More and more women are also seen wearing makeup as restrictions have eased and women are slowly retaking their independence.
Am I saying that women’s rights are perfect in Iran? Heck no. They’re not even perfect in the United States! What I am saying is that all of our assumptions about Iran are not accurate. I do hope that as Iran opens up, more Iranian women will stand up for their human rights and will have better opportunities in the workforce if they choose. But it’s also important that we not think of them as stuck in a pit of despair awaiting the West to come free them. Iranian women are intelligent and passionate, they will find a way to protest, even if it is just a bit of red lipstick.