Headscarves Are Not the Only Thing Women Are Protesting in Iran

Iranian women are highly educated but underemployed, driving frustration.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A demonstrator with an Iranian flag and red hands painted on her face attends a rally in Paris on Oct. 9 in support of the protests in Iran.
A demonstrator with an Iranian flag and red hands painted on her face attends a rally in Paris on Oct. 9 in support of the protests in Iran.
A demonstrator with an Iranian flag and red hands painted on her face attends a rally in Paris on Oct. 9 in support of the protests in Iran. JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images

The death last month of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from the Kurdistan region of Iran who had been visiting the capital of Tehran, triggered a series of protests that now threaten the Iranian regime itself. Amini died after being arrested—and beaten, according to eyewitnesses—by Iran’s morality police for the apparent crime of not wearing a headscarf in sufficiently modest fashion. Young women have staged protests across the country, voicing their anger at the regime while also brazenly defying the country’s hijab laws, and the protests have expanded to include people from different walks of life. Iranian security forces have cracked down violently on the protesters, and the civilian death toll has risen to an estimated 201 people, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization.

What are the economic consequences of Iran’s policies toward women? How would an abrupt political transition affect the Iranian economy? And what would an Iran that met its economic potential look like?

LISTEN HERE: For the entire conversation, and episodes in the weeks ahead on this subject and others, follow Ones and Tooze wherever you get your podcasts.

The death last month of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from the Kurdistan region of Iran who had been visiting the capital of Tehran, triggered a series of protests that now threaten the Iranian regime itself. Amini died after being arrested—and beaten, according to eyewitnesses—by Iran’s morality police for the apparent crime of not wearing a headscarf in sufficiently modest fashion. Young women have staged protests across the country, voicing their anger at the regime while also brazenly defying the country’s hijab laws, and the protests have expanded to include people from different walks of life. Iranian security forces have cracked down violently on the protesters, and the civilian death toll has risen to an estimated 201 people, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization.

What are the economic consequences of Iran’s policies toward women? How would an abrupt political transition affect the Iranian economy? And what would an Iran that met its economic potential look like?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

Cameron Abadi: Iranian women aren’t necessarily facing totalitarian repression: They do have access to the job market; they’re overrepresented in higher education. But their civil rights are clearly curtailed by the centrality of Islamic law in the Iranian Constitution. Does social and economic equality for women demand a wholesale constitutional change in Iran? Or are there examples of explicitly Islamic states that manage to treat women equally?

Adam Tooze: I think we should start by acknowledging that there’s no modern society that treats women equally. There’s no society without a pay gap between men and women. There’s no modern society in which one could say that substance of equality was really fully achieved. Not in the U.S., not in China, not in India, not in the welfare states of most of Europe. I mean, the Scandinavian countries probably come closest, but even they do not achieve full parity in terms of pay, let alone wealth and so on.

But Iran is definitely a special case in the sense that it exhibits some truly crass contrasts. It’s a society in which women are, relatively speaking, very well-educated compared to [the country’s] income level. So 71 percent of women over the age of 25 have at least some secondary schooling, compared with 76 percent of men. So both the levels and the gap—their levels are very high, and the gaps are relatively small. And as you say, women are heavily represented in Iran’s universities. But at the same time, women’s labor market participation in Iran is shockingly low. I mean, it’s only 14 percent. I was kind of dumbfounded when I found this number. That’s half the Saudi participation, which is closer to 30 percent. It’s roughly on a level with Afghanistan pre-Taliban. And I think that has quite a lot to do also with the extraordinary frustration of young women in Iran, because they do get education but then are essentially pushed out of the labor market. I mean, the number is so low that I’m kind of baffled. Is it perhaps something to do with the formal labor market in Iran? Iran also has very low maternal mortality rates—16 women die for 100,000 live births, which is lower than in the United States right now—but it has a very high rate of early marriage and therefore of adolescent pregnancy. And only 5 percent of parliamentarians in Iran are women.

So you have this sort of really stark contrast between a society that in key respects is modernizing, in which women are pushing forward and claiming space, and, on the other hand, systematic exclusions. Are other Islamic regimes [regarding gender] imaginable? Absolutely, they are. I mean, [there are] a whole variety of different options. The most remarkable—again, the numbers really sort of flabbergasted me—is the United Arab Emirates. At least on paper, it ranks 11th lowest in the U.N.’s index of gender disparity. So it’s in the middle of the European states. It’s really remarkable. It has 50 percent female representation in parliament, very high levels of female education. But then, of course, it’s a model petrostate. Several of the other Gulf states, as well, dramatically outrank Iran in terms of women’s participation in society and politics. There’s no question at all that Islamic culture, politics are fully compatible with regimes that are much less exclusionary and much less discriminatory against women than the Iranian regime. I think the vast majority of protesters can see ways in which even the Islamic Republic could be modified that would remove these absurd and, in many ways, just simply dysfunctional discriminations against women.

CA: There’s been a call, both in Iran and on social media very prominently, to workers in Iran to assist the protesters with a general strike, as it’s being referred to. Some shop owners in the bazaars in various cities, including Tehran, have started to oblige, closing up their shops. Bazaaris seem to occupy a special role in the Iranian political economy, or at least in Iranian history, going back to the 1950s, when there was a coup that the bazaaris were involved in, and also going back to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. What’s the theory of the general strike exactly—and would the participation of the bazaaris, this class of shop owners, qualify on its own?

AT: A general strike is the sort of non plus ultra of strikes—it’s not a matter of one particular group of workers involved in a struggle with a particular employer but of workers in general demonstrating in favor of a particular cause. It could be universal suffrage, or it could be austerity. And indeed, in Iranian history, it’s been a highly significant theme. I mean, in terms of the logic of general strikes, as you’d think of it worldwide, the group that classically leads the charge in Iran are the petrochemical workers. The bazaaris are actually a somewhat incongruous group to be engaged in general striking because they’re actually petit-bourgeois merchants. They’re not workers. But they have played a very prominent role in Iranian history all the way back. I mean, you mention the 1950s, but it goes all the way back to the constitutional revolution of 1905 through 1911, the first emergence of modern politics in what was then Persia, you know, modern Iran.

But as you say, the 1950s and then crucially during the anti-Shah protests of 1978, ’79. And even the physical structure of the bazaar, it was a sort of redoubt of anti-Shah resistance, because you can hide people in the bazaar. It’s such a rabbit warren of small shops and alleyways that even the Shah’s fearsome secret police were not able to fully penetrate it. But the logic is really quite complicated, because as petit-bourgeois small shopkeepers and merchants, they’re actually deeply aligned with the Islamic Republic. So they then became almost loyalist bastions of the regime, quite conservative in their cultural politics. And so it’s all the more significant to see them swinging now into at least episodic solidarity with protest movements led by radical young women in high schools and universities. I think it points to the wide range of issues on which the Iranian regime is struggling right now because the bazaaris are furious at taxes and inflation and the general mismanagement of the economy. And so, the civil rights abuses and this violence directed toward young women, it’s sort of the final straw, if you like.

CA: The Iranian regime right now controls so much of the economy. Would a sudden regime collapse represent an economic shock that could impair Iran’s material condition for years possibly? And would that suggest in general that it’s in everyone’s interest to have a more gradual transition of some sort?

AT: I think there are certainly lessons to be learned from the experience of Eastern Europe after 1989 in this regard—that overoptimistic expectations of a sudden shift, the demolishing of a planned economy, should be tempered by an understanding of quite how much damage a transition like that does. It’s also important to recognize that at least until the latest phase of sanctions—so the last 10 years or so of intensified U.S. sanctions—the Iranian revolution had a very substantial effect in reducing poverty among the majority of the Iranian population at the time, which was still rural. And so through the early 2010s, the Iranian regime’s popularity was founded on its success in, to a considerable extent, abolishing the most extreme forms of poverty experienced by Iranian society. The big anxiety about the transition would surely be, as it was in much of Eastern Europe, that as you strip away the accretions of the planned economy, you also strip away the welfare safety net that sustains large parts of the population, the most vulnerable parts of the population above the poverty line. And the situation now, though, over the last 10 years, has shifted rather considerably because the combined impact of sanctions and inflation has substantially weakened that welfare safety net.

So another reason to be anxious about an overly dramatic transition would be that Iranian society is in a pretty fragile state right now. The poverty rates are much, much higher than they were 10 years ago in proportional terms. And so a process of unraveling the existing structures would, I think, put millions of people at risk. One wouldn’t want to shrink from transition or change in the regime for that reason alone. But it certainly is something that, on the basis of the Eastern European experience, one would have to be very concerned about. And presumably it would also create reservoirs of resistance and reservoirs of support for more conservative interpretations of the mission of Islamic economic and social policy. Which are very real.

Iran is now a regime under absolutely massive pressure from the outside. The slogan under which the Iranian economy operates is the so-called resistance economy. It’s a regime shot through with corruption and insider self-dealing. All of that is true. But if one engaged in a dramatic overthrow of the regime in its current state, you would really have to be concerned about how vulnerable substantial segments of the population would be.

CA: Obviously, Iran is not coming close to meeting its economic potential right now. Could you speculate on what role Iran could be playing in the world if it did, in fact, meet that economic potential?

AT: Yeah, it shouldn’t be underestimated. It is, according to purchasing power parity numbers—so adjusting for the cost of living—the world’s 23rd-largest economy. I think the answer to your question is that one could easily imagine it as a candidate member for the G-20 or an expanded G-20. I mean, it should sit alongside Turkey as one of the anchors of the Middle Eastern economy. And unlike the Gulf states, it has a large population and a highly diversified economy at this point. The future of the Iranian economy, one would hope, would not lie simply in the revival of the petrochemical business, which, if sanctions were removed, could expand rather dramatically and quite quickly. Iran has $100 billion in assets frozen abroad under the sanctions regime. It could be exporting 2 million barrels of oil per day over and above what it currently does, which would earn it, at current prices, about $70 billion a year. I mean, it would no doubt benefit enormously from the lifting of sanctions. But beyond simply the revival of the petrostate, it has the potential to be a kind of Germany of the Middle East, with a very strong engineering base, with a highly educated population. And that, I think, is really a tragedy of the current situation: that Iran is, of course, a major geopolitical player in the region, but its economy is fettered and operating well below its potential.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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