This article commemorates the anniversary of the Jin Jian Azadi uprising (JJA) in Iran by exploring the working conditions encountered by Iranian women. It delves into the lessons drawn from a year-long resistance and proposes a path towards the empowerment of working women in Iran.
Iranian women workers’ conditions
The implementation of a neoliberal regime in Iran during the 1980s, much like in other regions, resulted in de-industrialization and labour market deregulation. This led to heightened job insecurity, rising unemployment rates, and a more vulnerable and undervalued workforce. Substandard wages, exacerbated by persistently high double-digit inflation, have forced many workers, including women, into the unregulated labour sector. However, women in Iran face a distinct layer of oppression due to the intersection of capitalist and patriarchal regulations.
The Iranian capitalist system, influenced by religious orthodoxy, enforces a patriarchal and ethnocentric structure. Legal provisions, such as giving women half of the rights given to men and requiring a husband’s or father’s consent for employment and travel, perpetuate economic insecurity and social, legal, and economic oppression. Consequently, Iranian women experience varying levels of precarity influenced by their economic, socio-cultural, political, and geographical contexts. It is essential to analyse their situations considering these multifaceted factors.
In recent years, Ebrahim Raisi’s administration has intensified restrictions on women’s employment, prioritizing regressive regulations that encourage small-scale home-based businesses for women while limiting opportunities for work outside the home. This aligns with the state’s inclination to designate women’s primary role as household labour. Furthermore, during economic downturns, women are often the first to face layoffs. For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, more than a million Iranian women lost their jobs, pushing them back into domestic roles or the informal economy, where labour laws do not offer protection. This situation is especially evident in Iran, where women’s participation in the labour force is less than 12%, significantly lower than the global average of 46% and even below the Middle Eastern average of 19% . Although Iranian women’s economic participation has historically lagged behind men’s, current statistics paint a starker picture: just one woman participates in the Iranian economy for every five men.
The persistently high rate of unemployment in Iran has further depressed labour’s value, incentivizing employers to reduce wages and benefits. Iranian labour is among the cheapest in the world, with the minimum nominal wage in 2023 at just 44 cents per hour, half of what Mexican labour earns. To compound matters, women’s wages are even lower, sometimes as little as one-fourth of their male counterparts’ wages.
As a result, many Iranian women have been forced into the informal sector, where they lack insurance coverage, job security and labour regulation oversight. These informal jobs encompass various roles, including domestic work, agriculture, street vending and small-scale workshops. Official data indicates that more than 60% of Iranian women work in the informal economy, highlighting the significant extent of this issue.
Urban-rural employment pattern
Employment patterns in urban and rural areas of Iran significantly impact women’s employment opportunities and experiences. In urban areas, although the number of educated and specialized women has increased, unemployment rates among women remain high. More than half of unemployed Iranian women have higher education degrees, with more than 76% holding university degrees. This alarming statistic indicates a lack of suitable job opportunities for the education and skills that women possess.
After the service industry, the industrial sector is the second-largest employer of women in Iran, with a 30% employment rate. However, most women in this sector work in small workshops with fewer than ten employees, exempt from labour regulations such as minimum wage and safety standards. Women workers often find themselves in seasonal, temporary, contractual or hourly wage positions that do not meet minimum labour standards, leading to inhumane working conditions and job insecurity. Working conditions in these sectors are often inhumane, characterized by long work hours, unequal and substandard wages, a lack of social security coverage, and job insecurity. These conditions pose significant barriers to job security for Iranian workers, especially women.
In rural areas, women’s economic participation rates are higher, with approximately ten to twelve million women residing there. Of these, around six million are engaged in agricultural work, directly involved in planting and harvesting crops. However, only 1% of them own the land they cultivate. Many women workers in rural areas are employed on a daily or seasonal basis, lacking job security and basic labour protections such as health insurance, pension benefits and a minimum wage. Many work as unpaid family labourers, contributing to family income without receiving wages.
In rural areas, women are primarily employed in small workshops producing handicrafts and carpets and fruit picking and rice cultivation. Astonishingly, more than 75% of handicraft, 40% of agricultural and 80% of carpet industry production in Iran are driven by women workers in rural areas. Despite their higher economic participation and significant contributions to agriculture and food production, rural women workers face more challenges and discrimination than urban counterparts.
Overall, limited urban amenities, including education, healthcare, clean water, and treatment facilities, along with challenging climatic conditions such as droughts, worsen poverty and hardship in rural areas, especially for women. Rural women experience greater oppression, bear the brunt of poverty and suffer more from climate change and environmental degradation than rural men and urban residents.
Challenges and prospects in organizing women workers
In a context where women workers endure greater exploitation and inequality than their male counterparts, forming independent organizations tailored to the specific needs and challenges of their work environments becomes crucial. Unfortunately, Iranian women workers lack such organizations despite their vital role in coordinating action and advocating for their rights.
The most fundamental obstacle to organizing Iranian women workers is related to their employment patterns. Unlike many Asian and Southeast Asian countries where women constitute a significant portion of industrial workers, Iranian women workers, as previously mentioned, are primarily scattered across domestic service jobs, with many of them forced into the informal economy without labour protections. The dispersed nature of employment in the service industry and the informal economy has hindered efforts to organize a large segment of the women’s workforce. Furthermore, due to legal restrictions that prohibit Iranian workers from forming independent organizations, women have had less experience organizing around shared demands compared to men.
Despite these structural challenges, Iranian women workers have played a significant role in labour disputes and protests in recent years, particularly among teachers, nurses and pensioners. However, women have rarely assumed leadership and organizational roles within existing labour organizations, limiting their demands to general labour-related issues.
The JJA movement provided a platform for the voices of marginalized working-class women, both in urban and rural areas, whose concerns had seldom been heard before. A notable example of this was the Crouse Co. strike, the first industrial labour strike organized by women workers. As the largest auto manufacturer in Iran, Crouse Co. is notorious for its harsh work environment and discriminatory recruitment practices. For instance, female workers must be under 30 and single, and evaluated on their anger management skills as part of the recruitment process. In November 2022, more than 300 workers organized a three-day strike against the deplorable working conditions and low wages. Despite the suppression of the strike and the immediate firing of more than 200 workers, it was a significant achievement for Iranian women workers, highlighting the importance of grassroots organizations.
Moreover, in the past year, several organizations and committees have emerged focusing on women workers, notably the Secret Women’s Committee. These organizations champion not just gender equality but also a broad spectrum of economic, civil, and political demands, thereby expanding the horizons of radical possibilities for both women’s and workers’ movements.
The substantial presence of women in the JJA uprising, many of whom were underemployed or unemployed, highlights the urgent need for grassroots organizing among women workers. Such initiatives are pivotal in addressing the unique challenges that working women face, including often-overlooked economic and class dimensions. These organizations hold the potential to advance the goals of liberating working-class women, diverging from mere ‘equal rights’ advocacy and instead challenging the fundamental economic, social, and political structures rooted in capitalism. The JJA movement and the emergence of grassroots women workers’ organizations, albeit in their initial phases, offer great hope for transformative change, aiming to achieve broader emancipation for working-class women in Iran