Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- Standing behind her hotel desk, Sepideh, a hotel receptionist in Tehran, expressed her wish to travel abroad to see the countries that the foreign tourists speak about when they visit Iran. Sepideh is 25 years old, unmarried and has no desire to do so, while her mother at the same age was already married with two children.
Sepideh said she would not agree to marriage unless her prospective husband grants her written consent in the marriage contract that he will not forbid her from working. But she is no exception; the average marrying age among Iranian women has currently risen to be between the ages of 25 and 30.
Girls are no longer anxious to get married at a young age; the majority of them choosing to complete their university degrees and secure work before seeking marriage. And yet the problem lies in the fact that Iranian law gives men the right to forbid their wives from working after marriage ¬– which is why a lot of young women either postpone marriage or sometimes even marry foreigners.
A young, ambitious woman, Sepideh taught herself English and said that her family has no objections to her job as a hotel receptionist because the salary is good. However, many Iranian men would rather not get married to a receptionist because the job demands daily interaction with a multitude of people and may even require working late hours, until 11pm on some days of the week.
“I don’t want to get married now. I have been educated and currently have a job and will be unhappy if I was forced to stay after all this. I want to travel abroad, I have friends in Netherlands. I asked my father if I could visit them over the summer but he refused,” she said.
Since the 1990s, Iranian women have been striving to change a number of laws that are discriminatory against them – however amending laws will not suffice as Eastern cultural traditions are entrenched in Iranian society.
Sociopolitical expert and women’s rights activist, Zahra Nejad-Bahram affirms that fact and added that despite the recent amendments granting women the right to divorce if it abides to the conditions stipulated in the marriage contracts, many women do not exercise their right out of timidity.
“An Iranian man has the right to divorce his wife at any given time – no restrictions are placed on that right. Many women have sought the right to divorce and the authorities have changed the laws, allowing women the right to stipulate the right to divorce in their marriage contracts,” Nejad-Bahram told Asharq Al-Awsat. “And yet the vast majority of women are reluctant to exercise that right out of timidity. They say that it’s a bad omen for the marriage contract to include a divorce clause on it. These are the prevalent social beliefs that the law cannot change,” she continued.
But the economic conditions are changing the dominant culture, even if that change is gradual. Despite polygamy being religiously and legally permitted in Iran, the phenomenon is not a widespread one as a result of the tight economic conditions. Additionally, there is an increasing number of women who are working to financially assist their husbands. This is contrary to the new generation and its beliefs who not only want to work, they also want to respected and treated equally in the house.
According to 30-year-old Ilham, who is a student, “When I get married I want my husband to help me with the chores around the house. I don’t want to come back from work and have to cook and clean while he does nothing,” she said.
“Perhaps that is the reason behind the rise in divorce rates in Iran, 1.3 percent during the last year only,” said Nejad-Bahram. Notwithstanding that the Iranian revolution led to women’s involvement in politics, motivating them to engage in public affairs and activities, there still exist various laws and procedures that were endorsed following the revolution, such as not allowing women to study certain specialties. In the private Islamic Azad University (IAU), which has branches spread over most Iranian cities and has a total of 1.6 million students, women are not allowed to study mechanical engineering in some of its branches. And yet 70 percent of students who graduate with an applied physics degree are women – a figure that indicates that women do not only study literature, languages and the arts, but also the natural sciences.
But this ban on some specializations has not prevented women from studying some of the sciences – Iranian women are fast progressing. Today, 30 percent of the labor force in Iran is female, a figure that is expected to rise considerably in the coming few years. A percentage of 62-65 percent of university students are women who quickly become part of the labor market upon graduation.
Gilda, a senior student at the faculty of foreign languages at the University of Tehran said that the majority of university students were female. “At the faculty of foreign languages I can say that 95 percent are young women, while only 5 percent are young men. We sit together but the men are barely noticed because they are a minority,” she explained.
And yet the labor market is not open to Iranian women; there are certain disciplines that are difficult to access. Although Iranian women can study the subjects of energy, petroleum and natural gas at university, it remains extremely difficult for them to secure jobs in oil or gas companies. In light of the Iranian economic crisis, high unemployment rates and inflation, some conservatives in the Iranian parliament have attributed these problems to the fact that women earn universities degrees and are thus able to access jobs in the market “that could have belonged to the men”.
A number of MPs, including female members, presented a draft law to the Iranian parliament that proposed that the share of Iranian females in university should not exceed 50 percent – which is a 15 percent decrease in the number of female students currently studying at universities.
“They are punishing Iranian young women for their high merit. Instead of encouraging us, they hinder our progress with obstacles,” Ilham told Asharq Al-Awsat. She added: “They will not be capable of passing this law… They do not have the necessary power to do it since many people in society are adamantly against it – even among the conservative circles.
Many Iranian women believe that a number of Iranian laws must change because they violate women’s rights, even in the cases where these laws are not actually implemented. Among these laws is one that sets the marrying age for girls to be nine years of age. Although the law is only implemented in some remote rural areas, still Iranian women believe it is obsolete and are striving to have it abolished.
But there is hope for change, Iranian women are graduating from universities in large numbers and have particularly benefited from the men’s departure to fight in Iraq. The women have charged into the labor market and have the ability to elicit social change in Iran. According to Iranian women: This has already started to happen.