In Verisk Maplecroft’s Women and Girls’ Rights Index 2017, Iran is ranked 17th out of 198 countries (where ranks closer to one denote greatest risk). This means that businesses and investors are at ‘extreme risk’ of association with practices that discriminate against, or otherwise infringe upon the rights of women and girls.
Iran’s performance in the 2017 iteration of the index shows that little has changed since 2016, when Iran ranked 18th in the index. Despite President Hassan Rouhani’s election pledge to address gender discrimination, he has in practice done little to change the status quo. Local women’s rights activists have expressed disappointment in particular with Rouhani’s decision to not nominate any women for his second-term cabinet. Following an increase in the number of women elected to Iran’s parliament in 2016, there was a strong expectation that Rouhani would nominate several female ministers as part of his 2017 cabinet reshuffle.
It is unlikely that women’s rights will be a political priority for the Iranian government in 2018. Resistance from hardliners remains strong and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has previously spoken out against gender equality. Gradual change in the longer term is nonetheless expected as the participation of women in politics slowly increases. The number of female MPs has risen from nine in the previous parliament to 17 in the current one. While women make up less than 6% of Iran’s parliament, the involvement of women in politics is growing at both the national and local level.
However, discrimination under the law and entrenched societal discrimination against women 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 to obtain or renew 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 99.7% at the primary level and 72.5% at the secondary level in 2017.
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 ranks 143rd out of 145 countries in the ‘labour force participation’ category of the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap report. 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.
Widespread discrimination against women is 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 very limited. In the short term at least, the unwillingness and ability of reform-minded politicians to overcome strong resistance from hardliners remains a key obstacle. 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 in public spaces. His ability to gain traction on this issue has nonetheless been limited.