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Iranian official: employing women "not a priority"

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woman-without-faceAl-Monitor - Although women represent a high percentage of Iranian college graduates, finding work is still difficult for them.

The Iranian government is facing a dilemma in encouraging social participation among women. While officials boast about the number of intelligent and educated women in Iran, they are also concerned because these women are not so easy to placate compared to previous generations.

The Iranian administration desires to maintain the pride associated with producing a large number of highly educated women. By the same token, however, keeping these women sufficiently employed is difficult due to the fragile state of the economy. Thus, a sizable proportion of the budget directed toward higher education for women practically goes to waste. Along with the weak white-collar job market, the conservative nature of traditional families adds to the chances of a woman being (and remaining) unemployed.

The issue of dissatisfaction among Iranian women clearly demonstrates the paradox. Highly educated girls tend to aim higher and expect more from suitors. Married, well-educated women are generally not as readily contented with their life and certainly not as timid as their mothers were. Meanwhile, the Iranian administration wants a spurt in population growth, which is less likely to happen with a high rate of divorce.

Women’s higher education and working outside the home are, according to some officials, contributing factors to increased marital problems and higher divorce rates. On top of this, most professional women who are married and are willing to have children are inclined to have only one or two kids, which does not meet the administration's preferences.

ISNA, Iran's official student news agency, reported that 40% of all Iranian women with higher education degrees are jobless. Public universities are free in Iran, so it is alarming that the government spends so much in resources and money on higher education for women without getting anything in return. Rather than attempting to redirect societal thinking toward employing more women, however, according to FARS, the official news agency, an Interior Ministry official said that the government's goal is not to encourage additional employment among women.

Fahimeh Farahmandpour, recently appointed adviser of women's affairs at the Ministry of Interior, has voiced concern about “the correlation between women's education with less satisfaction in life and higher expectations.” This is why, she said, "Our priority is not trying to put educated unemployed women to work." Farahmandpour further explained, "The prioritizing is done based on the supreme leader's priorities, which he has announced."

Nastaran, a 28-year-old accountant living in northern Iran, told Al-Monitor, "My family and my ex-husband's family both blamed my dissatisfaction and eventual desire to divorce on my education." During a telephone interview, Nastaran said that she married at 19 and later decided to pursue a college education.

Nastaran said, "College opened my eyes. I no longer longed to be the quiet, obedient, smiling wife who only cooks and cleans. I expected more respect. And I certainly wanted to start working, because I didn't want all those hours of hard work during five years of studying to go to waste. That was why I refused to get pregnant right after completing college. I wanted to wait a few years. But my husband didn't want that. He's an educated man, but didn't want the same for his wife. He wanted to stick to the traditional norms, and both my parents and his supported him. Life is tough as a single woman in a small city. But I had the right to choose. We didn't have a premarital agreement that I should not pursue school or work. So I opted out of my marriage."

The MEHR news agency reports that the number of unemployed educated women stands around 1,300,000 higher than unemployed men with the same caliber of education, while ISNA reported that official statistics issued this year show that the number of unemployed female graduates of Iranian universities is twice the number of men. That appears to be of concern to the administration, dismal for the economy and displeasing to unemployed or underemployed women in a society where jobs are generally scarce, even for men.

Maryam, a government social worker specializing in women's affairs, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, "It's complicated. Women are generally after higher education. Naturally, they want to participate in society and work while studying, and especially after graduation. Some men prefer their wives to be homemakers. Some women change once they complete their education. Many men dislike that."

Although Maryam has worked as a social worker for more than 20 years in Tehran, she has a lot of knowledge and prior experience on issues related to women’s education and work outside the capital. “The issues I mentioned are more serious in smaller cities and more traditional types of families," she said.

by Mehrnaz Samimi

photo: A cutout of a woman in Iranian dress stands in front of the Karim Khani Palace, in Shiraz, May 29, 2014. (photo by John Moore/Getty Images)