In Verisk Maplecroft’s Women’s and Girls’ Rights Index 2016, Iran is ranked 18th out of 198 countries (where 1st denotes the greatest risk). The index categorises the country as exposing investors to an ‘extreme risk’ of association with practices that discriminate against, or otherwise limit or infringe the rights of, women and girls.
Discrimination under the law and entrenched societal discrimination against women combine to create an environment in which Iranian girls and women face discriminatory practices in education, employment and the legal system. The law requiring women to seek their husband’s permission in order to obtain a passport, for instance, highlights the significant legal constraints placed on women’s rights.
One of the most notable aspects of discrimination against girls and women in Iran is the stark contrast between the high levels of female enrolment in education – at primary, secondary and university level – and the very low levels of economic participation. Figures from the World Economic Forum show that the enrolment rate for Iranian girls stood at 96% at the primary level and 79% at the secondary level in 2015.[i]
By comparison, the labour participation rate in Iran for women is just 18% – significantly lower than the rate of 77% for men. This sharp difference in the employment of men and women means Iran 143 out of 145 in the ‘labour force participation’ category of the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap report.[ii] While the last few years has seen an increase in the number of female entrepreneurs, the legacy of the 1979 revolution means that women in the workforce are still concentrated in professions such as nursing and teaching.
The enrolment rate for women at university level has remained high over the last decade, with women accounting for 65% of the total number of university students in 2010. Following the introduction of regulations aimed at increasing the number of male students during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however, the figure declined to 48.2% in 2013.Admission to a number of academic fields is also restricted, and in 2012 the US Department noted that Iran has yet to reverse the decision to “restrict 77 fields of study to men”.[iii]
Widespread discrimination against women constitutes an additional complicating factor in what is an already difficult operating environment for foreign companies and investors. Given the high levels of gender inequality in the country – particularly in the workplace – it will in most cases prove difficult for businesses to ensure compliance with internal equality policies.
The extent to which foreign companies will be able to shape the debate on women’s rights in Iran is likely to be limited, and will depend in large part on the ability of more reform-minded politicians to overcome strong resistance from hardliners. For example, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has sought to curb the powers of the morality police tasked with enforcing the legal requirement for women to wear the hijab (headscarf) in public spaces. His ability to gain traction on this issue has nonetheless been limited by growing pressure for stronger enforcement from a majority of hardliners in Iran’s parliament.
[i] World Economic Forum, 2015, ‘The Global Gender Gap Report 2015 – Iran’. Available at: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2015/economies/#economy=IRN [Accessed on 29 January 2016].
[ii] World Economic Forum, 2015, ‘The Global Gender Gap Report 2015 – Iran’
[iii] US Department of State, 2015, ‘Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2014 - Iran’. Available at: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm#wrapper [Accessed on 29 January 2016].