Iran’s score in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Gender Gap 2016 report was a predictably low 139 out of 144 nations but the picture is more optimistic than this bald ranking indicates.
The WEF report gave the country a score of 0.587 in terms of women's parity with men (0.00 being imparity, 1.00 indicating parity), ranking Iran at 140 for economic participation and opportunity, 94 for educational attainment, 98 for health and survival and 136 for political empowerment.
But Iran’s women, although vastly under-represented in politics and business, have made great strides in building their future in the Islamic republic, and the country’s younger generation in particular has become more economically independent as they choose career over marriage and family.
As Iran’s younger generation hold off marrying, the older generation who were children during the 1979 revolution are now getting divorced at the highest rate of any cohort in the Islamic Republic's history. According to the latest figures by the Statistical Centre of Iran (SCI), 33% of the people of marriageable age are skipping the event, partly because of the extortionate cost of the ceremony, while more than a quarter of marriages in the country are now ending in divorce. This has led to women-headed households increasing an estimated 55% since 1995, from 1.2mn people to 2.5mn in 2015.
Female attainment in education has also vastly since the inception of the Islamic Republic. According to official statistics the number of women in universities in the country has tripled since 1978, when they only comprised 31% of the cohort – in 2007 they represented 69% of graduates. Female graduates have done so well that university admission departments have had to have "male quotas" to keep an equal number of men in classes.
But Iranian women, no matter how well educated, are still behind in the work market due to unfair pay and competition from all-male environments. Still, there is a degree of hope as a significant number of startup companies are being created by Iranian women.
Nazanin Daneshvar, owner of startup Takhififan.com which offers daily deals like Groupon.com, has become one of the most successful female startup entrepreneurs in the country with her website. She once stated: “Originally nobody believed I was the CEO of Takhfifan, and I had to bring my father to meetings to sign contracts.”
In the political sphere, the picture is not as bright as the Islamic Republic's rules on modesty deter many women away from parliament and governmental committees. Yet, even here the ceiling is beginning to crack.
The Rouhani administration has made moves to be more inclusive, including having a female minister, Shahindokht Molaverdi, as Iran’s vice president and in charge of the women and family affairs portfolio. Another top political figure in his cabinet is Elham Aminzadeh, an academic and in charge of legal matters.
The heavy-hitting female in the cabinet is Masoumeh Ebtekar, more famous for her role in the US Embassy Hostage Crisis in Tehran in 1979 where she and other students held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. She is currently in charge of the Department of Environment.
Following the release of the report earlier this week, Molaverdi expressed her determination to broaden the participation of women in the country’s workforce, as Iran’s baby boomer generation hits their economic prime in their late 20s and 30s.
Molaverdi said that increasing women’s participation rate is part of her office’s agenda. She also noted that, considering that the majority of university graduates are now women, re-absorbing them into the national economic infrastructure is the most challenging issue of her ministry.
The vice president said that 87% of women in the country are inactive, with only three million employed. The minister also noted that with unofficial part-time jobs that figure only rises to 20% of the total population of women being employed.