By Bahram Khodabandeh
March 11, 2021
There are few places on the planet where the scope for women’s work and economic activity is as narrow as it is in Iran. In a country with a population of more than 31 million female citizens over the age of 15, the number of employed women is less than 4.4 million.
Out of the countries of the world, in just five of them — Guinea-Bissau, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan and Algeria — the economic participation rate for women is less than 14 percent. The situation in Iran is a complete social and economic catastrophe that officials of the Islamic Republic have completely failed to recognize.
Women’s Work Over the Last Year
According to the latest report published by the Statistical Center of Iran, the rate of women’s participation in the economy fell to about 14 percent in autumn 2020, whereas in 2019, this index was at 17 percent. In other words, over the last year, due to the escalation of the economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic in Iran, more than one million women have been cut off from economic activity in Iran, and have essentially become housewives. During the same period, the number of men leaving work was only 470,000.
In other words, women are twice as likely as men to be victims of the economic crisis that has put immense pressure on Iranian society over the last decade.
A comparison of official employment statistics for autumn 2020 and the previous year reveals that more than 776,000 employed women lost their jobs during this period. This figure is more than three times higher than the number of men employed over the last year.
The unemployment rate for women is officially double the rate of men’s employment and has reached 16 percent; the rate for young women aged between 15 and 24 has risen to more than 36 percent.
Unemployment among educated women is an unprecedented disaster, even on the scale of the disappointing statistics coming out of Iran. More than 70 percent of unemployed women are university graduates. In other words, out of 700,000 women who have not been able to find work despite being fully prepared for some kind of employment, about 500,000 women with a university degree have returned home every day, frustrated by their inability to find a job.
Educated men in unemployment make up about 28 percent, a number that in its own right indicates a critical situation. But in comparison, the employment crisis for women looks even more disappointing. According to recent statistics, the rates for Iranian women attending further education is among the highest in the world, and yet, because of social, political and economic barriers, they are forced to stay at home.
Employment and Women: A Regional Comparison
The employment situation for Iranian women is disappointing, even when compared to most other countries in the region, where the situation is considered to be poor. According to figures provided by the World Bank, the rate of women’s economic participation in the Arab world is more than 22 percent. In the Middle East and North Africa, it is 20 percent.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, women struggle with structural problems, but the country’s economic participation rate has not dropped below 20 percent in the last 10 years. This means that one in five Saudi women over the age of 15 is part of the labor market. In Turkey, for females over the age of 15, the proportion is more than one-third. In Qatar, the economic participation rate for women is about 60 percent, and in the United Arab Emirates, it is close to 50 percent: that is, one in two women participates in the country’s economic activity. But in Iran, out of every 100 women, only 14 enter the labor market, and not all of them succeed in finding a job.
This situation has many effects and consequences, both in terms of society and the economy. Despair and frustration among women who have the capacity to engaged on an economic level but have failed to enter the labor market is the simple side of the story: this reality weakens the economic and social position of women in Iranian society.
However, this situation also has significant effects and consequences for the Iranian economy. The exclusion of 86 percent of the working-age population is a waste of opportunity that could increase the country’s GDP and national income.
Assuming that Iran’s political and economic situation allowed women to participate by 33 percent, that is, that one-third of females over the age of 15 could engage in economic activities, more than 5 million people would be added to the country’s production capacity. In other words, Iran’s labor market could be 20 percent larger, and production capacity and national income could be increased by the same amount, But Iran’s economy has missed out on this opportunity and will inevitably have to come to terms with the losses caused by political, social, and economic backwardness.
Barriers to Women’s Employment
On paper, Iranian women have an extraordinary opportunity for active economic participation. According to the recent reseearch, the population of Iranian females over 15 is more than 31.2 million, more than 90 percent of whom are of working age and economically active. Such a population is an exceptional opportunity for the development of a country of 85 million people, provided that it can overcome political and social barriers and break the shackles of the crisis posed by the economy.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to women’s economic activity is political and social dependence, conditions that are the product of socio-cultural barriers and that are aggravated by the Islamic Republic and the systems it has in place.
But the role played by the continued economic crises should not be overlooked. There is much evidence showing that women are the first and greatest victims of major economic crises. The intensification of the recession, the closure of businesses, and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic have above all exposed women to harm; as the crises have escalated over the last year, up to one-fifth of would-be economically active women have been made unemployed and disengaged from the economy.
The exit of one million women from the labor market, the loss of 776,000 women’s jobs, the doubling of the unemployment rate and other factors demonstrate just how vulnerable the position for working women is today — and the numbers of this vulnerable population in Iranian society is shrinking all the time. A small population of women play a role in generating national income and increasing Iran’s GDP, and the economic crisis, cultural and social barriers, and the very system of the Islamic Republic exacerbate their problems on almost a daily basis.