According to the 2015 Global Gender Gap report, Iran ranks 141 out of 145 for gender equality. Although over 60 per cent of university students are female, women make up only 17 per cent of the labour force, placing Iran below most countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Iranian women have proven themselves to be resourceful, hard-working and highly educated, yet they remain barred from contributing to politics and the economy due to prolonged and deeply entrenched traditional ideologies about gender roles.
Given the lack of female representation in decision making, these legislative challenges are difficult to overcome. In Iran, women have six parliamentary seats to 94 male seats.
In the public sector, which dominates Iran’s markets, women hold only 10 per cent of positions. Public sector positions are determined by government quotas and the lack of female participation clearly indicates discriminatory practices.
A clear example of the government’s attempts to halt efforts to promote gender equality, is the recent prosecution and consequent imprisonment of representatives of the ‘One Million Signatures’ movement, an initiative campaigning to reverse discriminatory legislation.
Iranian women seek change and will fight the system to persevere in their mission to transform this inherently patriarchal culture. Slow progress is being made as a result. In the 2016 elections, 20 women gained parliamentary seats, the largest number in the history of the Islamic Republic. Eight of these candidates are reformist candidates.
Parvaneh Salahshori is one of them, and when asked what it meant to be a reformist in Iran, she answered, “It means that we want change, it means that we want to empower our young people and we want to grow our economy.”
The battle is also being fought in the private sector. With a growing number of women becoming tech entrepreneurs, Iran now leads the way for women in STEM. In the so-called ‘western’ world, women represent, on average 20 to 30 per cent of STEM students, but in Iran, 70 per cent of science and engineering students are female.
With the signing of the joint comprehensive plan of action in 2015 and consequent lifting of sanctions, foreign investment in the IT sector has blossomed. This is giving Iranian women an opportunity that they are capitalising on.
‘Start-up Weekend for Women’ in Tehran and the ‘Iran Council for Female entrepreneurs’ now actively encourage women to start and grow their own businesses.
Nazanin Daneshvar, a young female engineering graduate, is the CEO and founder of eCommerce company Takhfifan, the biggest Iranian tech company headed by a woman. With over 10,000 retail-partnerships and a team of 80 per cent women, Daneshvar is demonstrating exactly what women can accomplish, when given the chance.
Nadereh Chamlou, former senior advisor at the World Bank, says, “Iranian women entrepreneurs are ready, savvy, willing and able to contribute to the emerging economic possibilities coming to their country. Side-lining them robs everyone of opportunities.”
These words must not be lost on the European Union. When allocating investment and aid funding, more attention needs to be paid to gender equality and the empowerment of women.
Gender budgeting should be implemented in all EU policymaking. Iran is but one example of the ways women are over-coming barriers. If the EU truly cares about global gender-equality, it must take these challenges seriously, and adjust their foreign policy (including trade policy) accordingly.