Women situation in the MENA, IRAN

Investment to improve the Women status, not only helps women but also contribute to the Economic and Social situation of whole society. In MENA empowerment of women has been done mainly through investment on their education. As a consequence, during the past few decades, women education have been increasing.
1 November 2023
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Massoumeh Seif Afjei

Investment to improve the Women status, not only helps women but also contribute to the Economic and Social situation of whole society. In MENA empowerment of women has been done mainly through investment on their education. As a consequence, during the past few decades, women education have been increasing.

(P)GCC countries have dedicated a good percent of their budget on education. In 2023, Saudi Arabia have dedicated 17% of the budget (about 50 B US $) to Education. This figure for Oman is 16.7%, UAE 15.5%, Kuwait 11.5%, Bahrain and Qatar, 10 and 9%. The figure for Iran is about 20%.

Only Afghanistan is following a negative trend in this respect. However, from educational point of view, the situation of Afghan refugees is promising. About 4.5 million legal Afghan refugees and migrants are living in Iran ( illegal between 8-10 million) and 730,000 afghan Kids have registered in Iranian Schools. We have built 22 schools for Afghan children living in Iran. There are also 58000 Afghan university students in Iran.  The number of Afghan students in Iran are more than the population of many countries, while Iran not only has received least support from international community, but also has been under severe sanctions.

The worst situation is for Palestinian women. They not only do not have the standards of a normal life, but also suffer from humanitarian crimes at the hands of Israel.

Based on the UN statistics, by 2020, more than half of the educated people from universities in the Middle East, were women. Higher education has helped women to find better jobs and contribute to social and economic welfare of their families, cities and societies.

However, their share of the workforce in comparison to their education has not increased enough. While they include 50% of the students and educated people, however only 17.5 % of the workforce are women. In terms of entrepreneurship, the situation of women in Morocco and Tunisia is better than other countries in the region.

In sum, education has empowered women and now they are requesting and try to achieve more rights and responsibilities in the society.

With regards to the status of women in Iran, it is crucial to evaluate their present standing in contrast with their past stature, and to draw comparisons between the current state of Iranian women with the prevailing regional standards. Also in line with sociological points of view, it is imperative to bring into consideration the element of distinctive national traditions and culture. Evidently, Middle Eastern traditions and ways of life are quite different from western values and norms. Iran has a rich past throughout its history has never been subjected to direct colonization.

Iranian women have successfully managed to upgrade their status at the national economic and political arenas. A year after the Islamic Revolution, the nation suffered from an eight- years- long war imposed by Iraq. Right after the war and before Iran could muster efforts to revive its economy, the country had to contend with the severe unilateral and multilateral economic sanctions imposed by the united States of America and Europe. That were in reality the initiation of other types of an economic war. Facing these fresh challenges, Iran had to withstand the pressure and to rely solely on its own capabilities to counter these new waves of military end economic pressures. Under these unprecedented uneasy environment and circumstances initiated by the west against Iran, women had to keep moving forward steadfastly.

For better define the women affairs in Iran, It is necessary to provide statistics in comparative portrayal of their present standing with the past:

1) Literacy rate of Iranian women:

According to the figures published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), 91 percent of Iranian women were literate as of the year 2015. In 2022, and having considered the population growth, the statistics indicated only 3 percent illiteracy among Iranian women. 

Before the victory of the Islamic Revolution, only 40000 girls, roughly 27 percent of the total university students were attending higher education institutions. After the revolution considerable advances were made in different fields, in which women were able to improve their education at scientific centers.

Based on the data released by Sanjesh Organization of Iran (center tasked with conducting university entrance examinations) girls constitute 56 percent (2/200/000 girls) of total participants at annual entrance examinations leaving only 44 percent share for male examinees.

Furthermore, female instructors account for 60 percents of the country’s total faculty members and 35 percent of staff active at academic institutions are also women.

2) Women ascend to Political and executive positions

As the result of government’s resolve to uphold women status and family values in recent years, more favorable grounds for active engagement of women in high level state responsibilities and management, especially at provincial level has been created. This initiative may elevate the role of Iranian women in decision making processes and the official executive apparatus, and hopefully shall promise more progress for Iran’s women community.

The incumbent government of Iran has made it its endeavor to further facilitate and enhance the participation of women in state affairs to the extent that currently 25 percent of top and middle administrative or executive positions are held by women. The considerable number of lady ambassadors and diplomats on duty at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may corroborate the emphasis attached to women cause in Iran (14% of staff are women).

In the judiciary, we have 1000 female judges across the country. After the Islamic Revolution, the number of candidates contesting for parliamentary elections increased by 227% and till present 111 women deputies have been elected to the parliament. The growth rate of women participation in parliament is reported to be at 5% and female engagement in local bodies increased 16.5 folds. These facts speak of important political realities with regards to Iranian women statues over the past 4 decades.

3) In the field of literature creativity Iranian women writers have secured a prominent position in literature, most notably in storytelling. Many works by famous Iranian women writers have achieved global recognition and have won awards. According to the report of the Ministry of Culture, by 1980 there were only 11 Iranian women active in the field of writing whereas at present there are 23000 women writers and books authored by women have reached to nearly 30000 titles.

4) Concerning the status of female entrepreneurship, it has to be noted that ladies constitute well over 32% of members of firms active in country’s economy and market. At present, with 250 female-established startups, engagement of 900 startup female chief executive officers and 2400 lady members of the boards of directors of this category of firms, active participation of women at the vital private sector of national economy may come into light.

5) Participation of women in the field of arts and cinema is yet another area characterized by Iranian women presence and progress.

Moreover, in the sphere of sports and participation in world athletic events Iranian women have made their presence felt with over 900,000 female athletes of different sport levels have so far appeared in sport events and did manage to bag 3820 medals in total.

As I pointed out at the outset, women in Iran have managed to attain all their achievements within the context of the society affected adversely by an eight- year old war and severe sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.

Likewise, differences in traditions, cultures and religions particularly with regards to women in different countries should be taken into account prior to any judgment or drawing comparison of women affairs in distinctive societies.

Understandably the situation of societies in our geographical region may not be the subject of comparison with that of countries not affected by political, economic or social upheavals. On the contrary, the shining accomplishments of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its women community were achieved under unfavorable and appalling political and economic pressures combined with military and economic hostilities imposed on the country is by itself an indication of the significant capacity and performance ability on the part of Iranian women.

Massoumeh Saif Afjei, Manager of Human Rights and Women's Studies Department

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)


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