For Iran’s women, ‘the cat’s out of the bag’

'The life of a woman in a traditional society is not pleasant.' Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Tech

Irreversible trends. Women take selfies outdoors at the Tochal mountainous area in northern Tehran. (AFP)


2017/04/23 Issue: 103 Page: 21


The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth



London - It is a common belief outside Iran that a modernisation of women’s lives under the shah was reversed by the 1979 Is­lamic Revolution. Djavad Sale­hi-Isfahani says, however, this dis­torts a reality he has analysed in a series of academic papers on family planning and women’s education.

“Family planning was unsuccess­ful under the shah because people were conservative — men thought women practising family planning were preparing to be unfaithful,” said Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Tech and visiting scholar at the Harvard Ken­nedy School.

“It took an Islamic government to convince conservative families to stop thinking that way. Women wanted to go to school, to have fewer children. So, when the Islam­ic government took their side, they were empowered,” Salehi-Isfahani said.

In 1979, the average Iranian fam­ily lived in a rural area with no run­ning water and often (60%) no elec­tricity. The couple could neither read nor write and the wife gave birth seven times.

Today, the average family is ur­ban. Husband and wife have eight years’ education each and two chil­dren. Women outnumber men in public universities.

Essentially, the practices of rich families under the shah have spread in what Salehi-Isfahani has called “a much more subdued form of modernisation than the loud dis­play of Westernisation that upper class Iranians represent.”

State-sponsored family planning was only part of the explanation, said Salehi-Isfahani.

“The programme came in 1989 but fertility was declining by the mid-1980s. It had gone up at the time of the revolution and the (1980-88 Iraq) war because it seemed like a good time to have children early,” he said. “It then declined partly to compensate for higher earlier fertility but also be­cause of family planning policies. The biggest decline in fertility came in the 1990s.”

Such changes are usual as socie­ties develop but Salehi-Isfahani has correlated data showing how wider government policies after 1979 en­couraged the process.

In a paper, “Family Planning and Female Empowerment in Iran,” Salehi-Isfahani examined the extension of education to ru­ral women. Using census returns from 10,000 villages, he calculated that 20% of the decline in fertility resulted directly from encourage­ment of family planning but that there was an even clearer correla­tion with female literacy.

“The world’s a strange place and an ayatollah can liberate women!” he said. “It isn’t always having someone like (Afghan President) Ashraf Ghani come from the World Bank (he was previously a senior of­ficial) to liberate a country.”

The consequences are uncom­fortable for Iran’s governments. Those born in the 1979-85 period were, by the early 21st century, entering a labour market in which over-reliance on oil revenue was not producing enough jobs.

The number of people 15-29 years old increased 4% a year from 2006- 11, with most still living with their parents.

Conservatives began to ques­tion women’s increased access to education and public roles. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13) introduced incentives for having children and soft loans to encourage earlier marriage.

In 2013, Supreme Leader Ayatol­lah Ali Khamenei warned that Iran risked becoming a country of the elderly, with smaller families “an imitation of Western life.” In 2015, parliament voted to end financial support for contraception and va­sectomies.

Several arguments were used — that a rising population would boost the economy and make Iran stronger militarily — but Salehi- Isfahani said he found them un­convincing and instead detected a conservative backlash to women’s progress.

“Large poor countries have little power, like Bangladesh,” he said. “Rather, per capita income gives power. Modern warfare is highly capital intensive.”

Neither is population growth likely to benefit the economy. In “The Iranian Family in Transition,” a paper recently published in Inside the Islamic Republic, Salehi-Isfaha­ni writes: “Fertility decline… is an essential contributor to economic development because it enables societies to increase their invest­ments in human capital…

“While increasing the size of the population may seem to raise Iran’s stature in the region, it reduces the country’s ability to grow eco­nomically, thus undermining its ambition to become a key regional power.”

In any case, said Salehi-Isfahani, it would be unlikely the govern­ment could reverse existing trends. “New data in the 2016 census show that population growth continues to fall… Iran’s population will in­crease at 1.3-1.8% a year and per­haps reach 100 million,” he said.

This is well below the 150 million envisaged by Khamenei. “World ex­perience suggests that once women discover the modern life, they don’t want to go back,” said Salehi-Isfa­hani.

“The cat’s out of the bag. The life of a woman in a traditional society is not pleasant — when she’s more educated and knows her rights, she can stand up to a man better.”


Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.


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