How are Iranian women faring?

How are Iranian women faring?

“Be not swept off your feet,“ warned the Greek philosopher Epictetus 2,000 years ago, “by the vividness of the impression.” How true this is of the Western impression of the role of women in Iran. We are daily fed stories of injustice toward women in that country. Iran is painted as a country where women are suppressed, kept out of the limelight, and refused participation in the economy, politics and social development.

I am just back from a two-week visit to Iran. The stay there, on an assignment with the United Nations Development Program, was particularly meaningful when it came to issues related to women’s roles in their society. I could not help making comparisons between my memories (as the son of a Pakistani diplomat in Iran)  before the Islamic Revolution some 40 years ago and today’s Iran. Was I in for a surprise! In every meeting I attended during those two weeks, at all levels, I was flabbergasted by the active participation of women. To be sure, the ubiquitous and compulsory scarves are there, and resented by the majority of those suffering under them. But that did not prevent girls and older women from presenting their views forcefully and more articulately than men in every single meeting. Women are actively involved in the society as farmers, industrialists, doctors, lawyers, taxi drivers and community  representatives.

I wanted to be sure that I was not going off the deep end in terms of being contradicted by hard facts. So I consulted the World Bank’s latest World Development Report for 2012, which serendipitously focused on gender equality across all countries. The report states that, since the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s economy has doubled in size, and the share of women has consistently improved in many dimensions, in many cases outstripping the progress by men.

The report continues that the post-Shah generation has seen the world’s (yes, the world’s) fastest decline in fertility, in large measure due to deliberate policy action and rising educational achievements of women. The story on the educational achievements of Iranian women is worth repeating: the female-to-male ratio in primary school is the world’s yes, the world’s) highest; with six girls enrolled for every five boys. More than half of all Iranian university students are women, two-thirds of science graduate students are women, as are one-third of engineering students.

I went to other sources. The story was the same. For example, I found corroboration of the above facts in the area of women’s access to finance. Iranian women’s access to a formal financial institution is 62 percent, compared to 12 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, and 53 percent in upper middle income countries.

Where Iranian women need to catch up in a major way is in the area of representation in Parliament. At only 3 percent, Iranian women’s share is still better than most Middle Eastern countries (some of which have zero representation). But it is far lower than Sweden (45 percent), Pakistan (22 percent), the United States (17 percent), Turkey (14 percent) and India (11 percent). Frances Trollope, an American writer in the nineteenth century, perhaps in a moment of visceral conviction, recommended that those wishing agreeable impressions of American manners should not commence their travel on a Mississippi steamboat. May I humbly suggest that, likewise, those seeking the truth about Iranian women’s status today should not commence their search in Western media.