For generations Iranian women have played a central role in the cultivation of Gilan’s famous rice fields. (Supplied)

July 14, 2021

Tens of thousands of villagers in Iran’s rural Gilan province make a living from agriculture. Many families have worked the same land for thousands of years, men and women alike, toiling side by side in the province’s famous rice fields.

Unlike many of their peers in other professions, women farmers have not faced exclusion from the labor market because of their sex. Much of the weeding and planting in Gilan is done by their hands. Despite the years of mutual cooperation, though, women still own far fewer of the farms themselves. This is the story of Gilan’s female rice farmers, as told to IranWire’s citizen journalist.

One of the most spectacular springtime scenes in rural Gilan province, a region already famed across Iran for its year-round beauty, is the thousands upon thousands of rice paddy farmers bent double in the sun, knee-deep in mud and working in the fields.

On this particular day, Safoura, a 42-year-old farmer who wears her green headscarf tied up on both sides of her head, is taking a breather in a corner of the field, drinking tea.

Safoura and her husband moved from the city back to the countryside earlier this year due to high urban unemployment rates. Before then, her husband had worked as a driver’s assistant and she was a peddler on the streets. The pair do not own agricultural land themselves but work on rice paddies owned by others.

“We used to farm before we first moved to the city,” she says. “Men’s and women’s wages have always been different. This year, when we came back to the village, we found the situation the same as before: women earn 150,000 tomans (US$6.50) a day and men 200,000 tomans ($8). If the men are smokers, the cigarettes are bought for them, and cookies and drinks in the evening are on the owner.”

Despite its obvious unfairness, Safoura and her husband have both kept quiet about the pay gap. “It’s customary for men to be paid more, and we have accepted it on the basis that my husband and I farm together, and all the money we earn goes into the same household. If I object to being underpaid I may lose [my job] myself. We work together, we spend together. We are both active in the income and expenditure of the house.”

Resisting Industrialization in Gilan’s Rice Fields

Although agriculture is a joint venture between men and women in Gilan, much of the rice cultivation has historically fallen to women. Kobra, 50, first learned to work the fields when she was just 12 years old and believes it has always been so. “The bordering is done by men,” she says, “and the planting and weeding by women. Harvesting rice is mostly the men’s responsibility but we work together. In some cities in Mazandaran, men do the planting, but in the opinion of the men of our village this is women’s work.

“I don’t know why this division has always been in place; perhaps because women work more cleanly and can walk among the seedlings more easily without spoiling them. Men work in a harsher way. In our village, women never build the border walls around the paddy. That’s a men’s job.”

The mechanization of agriculture has somewhat reduced the workload of Iran’s paddy farmers. But many smaller landowners still do not use machines for planting and harvesting. Hava, 61, is the main breadwinner in her household. Her husband was once a teacher but lost his job in the early post-Islamic Revolution ideological purges and ended up working as a private tutor in Gilan, earning little. Hava is a rare exception to the rule in that she owns her own small farm, on which she prefers to do everything herself.

“Mechanization is not good for small farmers like me,” she says, “because I have to pay for it. It’s in my interest to do things for myself. I have no money until I sell the rice, so if I harvest by machine, they’ll take two bags of rice as wages. If I do it myself, even if it takes me two days to do what a machine could do in an hour, all the rice belongs to me.”

During the springtime peak, female paddy farmers often work up to 12 hours a day. Many of them are bothered by the wage discrepancies. Sarah, a middle-aged farmer who wears a straw hat and has tied her scarf around her waist to prevent back pain, points out that she and her colleagues work longer hours than the men: “And yet, our wages are lower than theirs.”

Land Ownership is No Guarantee of Control

The land ownership gap has narrowed slightly over the years, but is still notable in Gilan. At the same time, female landowners do not necessarily have full control over what happens on their farms. Mahin, 53, tells IranWire: “I have two hectares to my name, but I don’t know how much or to whom the rice is sold, or even how the money is spent. My husband tells me that we owe money, that we have to pay it back. If I want to sell rice at 50 tomans a kilo, my husband tells me: ‘It’s too cheap, hold on, I’ll sell it myself.’ He has the authority.”

Another farmer, Farzaneh, has a similar story to tell. “My husband said, ‘Let me go and put your name on the farm deeds.’ I said no; when I’m not the one in charge, what would be the point of having my name on it? Some village men don’t have the patience to do administrative work. They put their spouse’s name on the deed just so that they don’t have to.”

Female farmers and landowners are often also responsible for the housework and the brunt of raising children. Shahla, a 43-year-old mother-of-two, comes home every night after a day of hard outdoor labor to cook and take care of the rest of the family. “Men have no part in this job,” she says.

“It used to be different; my mother worked both at home and on the farm, and the housework was divided between her many children. For example, my sister Maryam washed the dishes and my other sister Tahereh cooked. The eldest, Susan, cared for me and my younger sister. But now I have to do everything myself.”

Perhaps for this reason, fewer Iranian women who work in the rice fields now quickly return to work after giving birth. Zeinab, who is 29 and has a five-year-old daughter, remained at home for a full three years after her child was born. “It all used to depend on when the birth took place,” she says. “If the delivery was in the winter, the woman would rest; but if it was spring, there was no time to rest.”

Despite all the inequalities, the general sense in the rice paddies of Gilan is that working the land is a collaborative task. Hamideh, a young woman dressed in a blue floral shirt with black plastic boots, speaks to me on the way home after a day’s work in the hot sun. “In our village,” she says, “if a woman dies and her widow owns land, he remarries – one reason for which is so that he can do his job. By contrast, it is difficult for a woman whose husband dies to run a farm alone. Because my husband is in prison, I’ve had to hire an assistant. But all the responsibility is on my shoulders now.”

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.