The women of Islamic Republic

May 26, 2015

Behind every great man stands a greater woman, as goes the famous saying. If I may humbly add, behind every great nation stands a great mountain of innovative, resilient and collaborative men and women. When I visited the 28th Tehran International Book Fair, this exact attitude seemed to have taken a firm grip of the new generation of publishers and exhibitors working there. However, as Ms. Maryam Zamani from the Institute of Ghadirshenasi remarks, this phenomenon is not simply limited to one industry; it is an industrious and success-driven approach shared across the cities and towns of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The spokeswoman of Mahan Business School, Ms. Ayda Mir-Elmasi, states that in the educational sphere in particular more than half of the staff are women. Situating her statement in the historical context of the Islamic Revolution, it appears as a well-recognized fact that the Islamic Revolution aimed to initiate certain social changes in order to encourage more women to enroll in universities and to educate themselves. One of the Islamic Revolution’s most overlooked commitments was to provide universal education for Iranians, regardless of gender and social class. The reason behind such commitment becomes much more logical when taking into consideration that, prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the female literacy between the ages of 15 to 24 was mere 35%; today that number is nearing 99%, with well over 60% of the university-goers as women.
Increase in literacy demands for increase in the work force, and according to the World Bank, Iranian women are evenly distributed across the economic sectors of education, agriculture, administration and finance. In comparison with other Muslim countries in the region, Turkish women, for example, work primarily in agriculture and customer service, whilst Saudi Arabian women are restricted to the services industry, and even then require working capacities in which they can serve women exclusively. Furthermore, as defined by the International Labor Organization, more than half of all female workers in Iran are self-employed or entrepreneurs with their own business ventures. It has been on Iran’s long-term political agenda to provide varying support and opportunities for women to take more prominent steps in becoming formal participants in the country’s economy.
In a recently held public questionnaire about women’s presence within the contemporary Iranian society, Ms. Mahsa Aghazadeh, from the sales team of a prominent educational publisher, described the female-to-male workers ratio as almost equal and fair, and stated that she feels a lot of progression has been done during the past decade for women’s working rights. Similarly, Ms. Shafe-e, a saleswoman from the publishing company of Takthe Siyah (KAD), expressed that the presence and influence of women in Tehran has increased dramatically, and believes that the society is more open to accept women with the according experience and expertise for senior leadership positions. Though there are very few women holding managerial positions in commercially profitable companies, Iran’s political landscape has attracted particular attention in regard to its numerous high-ranking female politicians. For example, the acceptance of fourteen female elective members to the Islamic Consultative Assembly in 1996 was a groundbreaking step for women at the time, and a year later, in 1997, when Mrs. Masoumeh Ebtekar became the first female Vice President of Iran.
During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, Mrs. Fatemeh Bodaghi, Mrs. Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi and Mrs. Maryem Mojtahidzadeh - vice president for legal affairs, minister for health and medical education and vice president for family and women’s affairs respectively, were all considered close advisors of the president. Currently, under the President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, the women politicians have retained even more influence, with Mrs. Marzieh Afkham as the spokeswoman and as the head of Public and Media Diplomacy in Iran’s Foreign Ministry; as well as with Mrs. Elham Aminzadeh as the vice president for legal affairs, to name a few.
Iranian women have attained influential positions in various disciplines ranging from arts to humanities to sciences, and received praise and recognition both nationally and internationally. In arts, Mrs. Rakhshan Bani-E’temad is an internationally well-known Iranian female film director and screenwriter, often described as the ‘First Lady of Iranian Cinema,’ having received the Best Screenplay Award at the 71st Venice International Film Festival. Furthermore, in science, whilst breaking the gender-related boundaries, the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to fly to the International Space Station was Mrs. Anousheh Ansari in 2006. Similarly, Mrs. Maryam Mirzakhani made history in 2014 as the first female and the first Iranian to be honored with the most prestigious award in mathematics, the Fields Medal. She is currently serving as the professor of mathematics at Stanford University.
Indeed, to collaborate and to support one another is the best method of moving forward for any society. Without our hard-working and ambitioned men paving the way, we would not have our studious and driven women. Having successful women in economics, in politics, in arts and the sciences, is not about individual gains, but about a collective progression toward a more educated, more alert and much more advanced society. It is about raising the bar for living standards for everyone, and about setting diligent examples for the subsequent generations of what they can be - or rather of what they should be.