Women in Iran under Rouhani's presidency: week 3 – gender, cultural assumptions, social policy

By staff contributor Milad Pournik

In anticipation of our event at the Elliott School of International Affairs on September 16, the Global Gender Program is running a five week spotlight on the evolving situation for gender equality in Iran after President Rouhani’s inauguration on August 3rd.

Rezvan with her niece. Photo courtesy of Rezvan Ostadali.
Rezvan with her niece. Photo courtesy of Rezvan Ostadali.

For this week’s feature we were delighted to conduct a Skype interview with Rezvan Ostadali*. Having a background in Public Policy and Economics, she works at the University of Saskatchewan and has interned at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice. With an interest in studying policy change, Rezvan has led several projects whose main goals were to introduce cultural and procedural change at both the university and the government.

The majority of our interview focused on her co-authored article (Rezvan Ostadalidehaghi & Daniel Beland (2013) “Women without guardians” in Iran: gender, cultural assumptions, and social policy, Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy, 29:1, 48-63). We also spoke about the challenges women face in Iran, the prospects for gender equality under President Rouhani, and her recommendations for creating a more equitable society in Iran.

1) Please explain your background with women’s issues in Iran.

Growing up in Iran as a woman I was always interested in trying to better understand prevailing gender assumptions. I became especially interested after studying political science at university. From reading the news I became more aware and was drawn to the disputes over the “women without guardians” program, the only Iranian social program designed exclusively for women. I also had relatives who worked for the program and were able to further educate and interest me on the program. Several questions came up for me: why do women need guardians? why do we disempower women and then decide to empower them?

2) What compelled you to write your article on “women without guardians” and how did you do the research for it?

I was interested in the program from the time I was in Iran but the opportunity to study more about the program came about when I went to do my Master’s program at the University of Saskatchewan. I think that I was so interested in the program because I see it as a representation of Iranian women’s position in the Iranian social policy, representing the dual system of provision in which men are the main recipients of social insurance and women are mainly recipients of social assistance programs. This program confirms the dominance of the male-breadwinner model in Iran. Yet, at the same time the program reflects interesting conflicting cultural assumptions that pervade Iranian society. On the one hand, women are seen as mothers (not responsible for financial situation) and on the other hand, they are seen as workers, given the program compels them to participate in vocational training in return for financial support.

For my research I employed process tracing. This involved collecting historical data in order to find the roots about cultural assumptions of women as well as to find the causal mechanism for the development of the “women without guardians” program. I relied primarily on governmental websites and the content of parliament debates from 1975-1992.

3) What are the main points you would want to get across to someone who cannot read the article?

Woman firefighter in Iran. Photo courtesy of Mona Hobehfekr through ISNA.
Woman firefighter in Iran…challenging cultural assumptions? Photo courtesy of Mona Hobehfekr through ISNA.

Through process tracing, I was able to examine cultural assumptions at different stages of the policy process: problem definition, policy formulation, and policy adoption. My research revealed that women are considered mothers at the problem definition stage, but at the policy adoption stage they are understood as workers.

I would also like to explain that since the program was adopted in 1996 it has evolved but not drastically. A good example of evolution is when the program changed its name from women without guardians to the female guardians program under President Khatami – which didn’t change content of the program too much but was a step to change cultural assumptions about women, or at least a category of women. Under President Khatami women were more encouraged to participate in training related to technical and professional jobs compared to the time of Ahmadinejad with focus of vocational training on traditional skills that are domestic in nature (e.g. knitting, handicrafts, etc.) – in the private sphere.

It is also important to understand that the program is limited in its reach. The State Welfare Organization (SWO) is responsible for implementing the program and has published some data about the program with empowerment rate of women without guardians being only about 5 %. In addition, about 10% of women without guardians have access to this program, and others are in waiting lists, seeking other social assistance programs that are provided to both men and women, which are not empowerment-related, or else they are receiving no support.

What I think is most important to take from our study of the “women without guardians” program is that it shows that structural and institutional forces interact with different sets of cultural assumptions and make them more dominant than others. For example, the increase in women without guardians and women working has compelled a rethinking of the assumption that women are only mothers that cannot be financially independent. Structural forces change constantly in Iran, the question is whether these forces will compel change in social policy or whether it requires a big social mobilization for social policy to catch up to the evolving structural realities. Finally, although different set of cultural assumptions are held among decision-making elite in Iranian politics, traditional ideas have been institutionalized in the legal system of Iran and thus there are certain limitations for other forces. This makes policy change very slow in Iran.

4) What are your thoughts about the main challenges facing women in Iran today?

Women in Iran confront many obvious challenges that I do not care to expand on here. I want to identify what is perhaps the most significant challenge, the feminization of poverty. As Valentine Moghadam explains, women have incomplete economic citizenship in Iran. For example, the unequal inheritance laws, requiring permission to work, and other similar legal barriers make it difficult for women to accumulate assets and be financially independent. This creates a situation of an unequal distribution of economic resources which makes for unequal power relations.

5) What are your thoughts about President Rouhani’s initial actions as they relate to gender equality? Are you optimistic about his Presidency?

I certainly expect change, albeit limited change, in the nature of the “women without guardians” program. It will probably revert back to how it functioned under President Khatami, with more of a focus on empowerment and female guardians will be more encouraged to participate in the public sphere. I also expect the program to receive more funding under President Rouhani.

However, Rouhani failed to appoint any women to his cabinet and identified Iran’s special circumstances as his reason for nominating an all-male cabinet. In my opinion, Iran’s special circumstances are related to the existence of conflicting cultural assumptions about women, which affect policy making in Iran. Having said that, Rouhani promises to advance the status of women in society by giving them more economic opportunity through equal job opportunities, which is promising. Yet what is crucial to remember is that in Iran the Presidential powers are limited, especially when it comes to advancing legal reform.

6) If you could advise Rouhani, what would be some of your top recommendations to advance gender equality in Iran?

Rouhani can only do so much. And it is difficult to think that we are able to speed up process of change given the constraints that I have explained before, mainly that the legal framework has institutionalized traditional cultural assumptions and are challenging to change. I would just ask the new government to rely on the capacities of Shia theology, which is open to changing rules and updating Islamic jurisprudence, which was in fact the topic of President Rouhani’s Thesis. The President can make proposals and send it to the Islamic Parliament to push for new laws that are more equitable, although he may not see the results very soon but at least more reformist views about women will be heard. Really though, we can only hope that if structural conditions change in a substantial way, new structural realities can challenge traditional cultural assumptions and possibly allow more reformist ideas to take root.

* You can contact Rezvan Ostadali at rezvan.001@gmail.com.

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