Despite What Happens at the Top, Iranian Women Move Forward

While the guarded optimism about the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, continues after the recent meetings in Geneva, some have wondered whether progress will be made in other areas during his administration, particularly when it comes to gender equality in Iran.

Recently a positive move has been made in this direction. The president appointed Shahindokht Mowlavardi to the Vice President of Women's Affairs, a refreshing appointment given her view that women should be considered in policymaking in Iran. In particular she's thinks policy making should go beyond trying to promote women staying at home. Shahindokht wants to begin to address the needs of the other women in Iran, the entrepreneurs, scientists, the working and educated women.

Shahindokht seems to be seeing what everyone in Iran is seeing, women are gaining prominence everywhere outside of the home and taking on more and more leadership roles. Women in Iran are ambitious and aggressive, 60 percent of university students are women, and women comprise 70 percent of the science graduates. Iranian women are more educated than their American counterparts at least as far as STEM is concerned. Women have started e-commerce, taxi, and freight transport businesses all in traditionally male dominated fields. They compete in race-car driving, rock climbing competitions, triathalons and other male dominated sports.

But Iran is a paradoxical place. Despite these leaders and models, the environment is still hostile to those trying to shatter gender taboos. Many of the women with the education are unable to get the job, because male candidates are seen as better candidates. The lack of laws protecting their equality, from their dress, to their ability to testify in court, are well known as is the fact that, legally, the ability to travel, study, and work all are determined by the man in their life, be it husband or father. Recently, in an effort to increase the declining fertility rate (Iran averages 1.64 children per woman) a new proposed bill requires private and public employers to prioritize in their hiring first married men with children, then married men, then women with children. The Iranian system is built on the notion that women are essentially the responsibility of men, and men, therefore, are superior to women in power and role.

However, economic factors and the ambitions of women are forcing a different reality than that which the government or society as a whole intends. These trends are not unique to Iran, much of the world has experienced a dramatic change in the number of women working outside the home and the impact this has had on gender roles. But the question that stood out for me was whether the changing status of women outside of the home was impacting the more pervasive patriarchy inside the home. Looking at the US, an increase in women working outside of the home has resulted in changing roles inside of the home. Behind closed doors, among the most self-declared progressive upper middle class couples, what are the power dynamics like? I talked to two elite women to try to find out.

I went straight to the heart of it and asked a 25-year-old entrepreneur living in Tehran about her relationship with her boyfriend. "We both know to be modern we are supposed to be relaxed about things but in the end we aren't." She said. I asked her to explain.

"Like if he goes out with female colleagues after work, I know I'm supposed to be cool, but I am not. I am irritated. And if I go out with male colleagues after work, he gets annoyed..." She's silent and then continues, "Because it all comes back to honor and ownership in Iran. There are good things about these things and there are bad things. The good things are that the men take care of you, they feel some sort of responsibility for you. The bad thing is that you never really are equal."

Then she added, "In Iran, the person with the money has the power. And that's men, so women, no matter what, end up giving in because of that." I asked her about whether this applies to her own relationship.

"Well its different for us. The economy is so bad we both work and we both pay. He didn't have money to pay for school at the beginning of the semester so I lent it to him and he paid me back later in the semester."

She went onto say, "I think equality will grow, and these old traditions will slowly go away. Like divorce. Five years ago people were really embarrassed to be divorced. And now if someone's divorced people just say 'they couldn't get along so they got divorced.' They don't really judge as much."

Then I spoke with a woman in her early 20s, she went to the best schools in Iran and speaks English really well -- all differentiating her significantly from the larger population. As I asked her about the subtle displays of power in her relationships she started to smile. Her mouth was already opening with stories to tell me.

"I used to walk home from university and get harassed, men would yell things at me during my walk. One day someone touched me on the subway on my way home and I told my boyfriend. He insisted on picking me up from work from then on. And this drove me crazy." After a pause she added, "Maybe because we are seen as so weak in our culture, I wanted to defy this by continuing to walk home myself. We fought a lot about this. I didn't want him to help me."

She went on. "Another big issue was his assumptions about his role as my boyfriend. I would get frustrated when he assumed he was supposed to support me but I wasn't supposed to support him, especially emotionally. I would talk about my problems but he would never talk about his. It took a year of us talking about these issues before he started to see us as equal emotional partners. He used to insist that it was his role to take care of me and not vice versa."

"I think it has a little bit to do with his family. When I go to his house and my boyfriend makes tea for me his dad asks him what he's doing. They are very traditional."

"What about your family?" I asked her.

"My dad did most of the cooking or no one cooked because both of my parents were working the whole time I was growing up." The thought that what we see when we are kids affects what we are comfortable with when we grow up is not new. A recent paper shows that women with mothers that work are more likely to work. A similar paper shows that women married to men with mothers who worked are more likely to continue working after marriage.

In the cases of these two Iranian women, the economic realities and their ambitions have already forced changes into the daily dynamics of their relationships. Their prospects for increased equality in their relationships are good. However, the road ahead to increased equality is not clear cut. As shown in the U.S., while many men and women have been able to traverse from traditional roles to the regular negotiation of new roles in their homes, there are some remaining trends that show tradition is a hard habit to quit.

Some data shows that women in heterosexual relationships that make more money than their partners face challenges at home, and take on more domestic responsibilities trying to downplay their financial position. Another change over the last fifty years in the US is the decline of marriage. There's speculation about why this is the case, but some argue that as women increase their earnings they essentially become a turn off. But looking at the other findings, it seems the feelings are mutual, the men they are turning off (men without working mothers), are not the men they prefer to be with.

All of this matters in ways that have impact beyond interpersonal relationships and more broadly on society. My nephew reminded me that there's a way that these women's careers may impact homes other than their own.

While he was taking a bath, he asked me about a doctor appointment that he overheard me tell his mother about earlier that day. I'd used the word "he" to describe my doctor and he said, "is your doctor a guy?" And I knew that he was asking because something was strange to him. I said yes. He looked confused. I figured out that in his world, there is only one doctor and it's his.

"Oh no sorry mine is a girl. Is your doctor a girl?" I said to him, trying to un-confuse him.

"Mine's a lady." Again I had confused him with the wrong word. She was older, so she wasn't a girl.

As I sat there looking at him while he splashed in the tub, I thought it was a remarkable feat that women had become so prevalent across the male dominated medical profession that this 3-year- old didn't know any other reality. It became clear to me that not only was it important how women's work affects the way men and women treat each other at home, but that women working outside of the home are models for gender equality for next generations to see. Let's see if Shahindokht and all the other women fighting for their careers in Iran can help make that more of a reality there.