Business not as usual in Iran


Women: Female entrepreneurs make strides, though they struggle against the nation's twin tides of socialism and gender bias.

January 26, 2003|By Jehangir Pocha | Jehangir Pocha,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TEHRAN, Iran - Unable to contain his annoyance over a reservation problem, the male customer at the travel agency counter snaps at the woman helping him, insisting that he wants to see the manager.

The woman leans forward - and gently tells him she owns the place.

"It must have been a dual blow for him," Naudi Zamani says with a laugh later that evening as she pulls down the shutter of the three-person travel agency she started last year. "First he must have been surprised that a woman owned the place, then worried that there was no man to help sort out the problem."

Since President Mohammad Khatami's reforms of the late 1990s, a new breed of women entrepreneurs has struggled against Iran's twin tides of socialism and gender discrimination to win greater opportunities for themselves. Their going has not been smooth.

The main problem, says Zamani, is that people, even other women, perceive a man to be more capable than a woman.

Though Iran has few official discriminatory policies against working or business women, the religious laws and customs that give women a generally inferior place in this Islamic society spill over into the workplace.

Government figures reveal that just under 30 percent of Iranian women work outside the home, and few of those make it past entry-level positions. In Iran's public sector, the nation's largest employer, women make up 30 percent of the work force but account for just 5 percent of all management positions.

In a nation where traditional social beliefs and practices are deeply held and widely embraced, the efforts of Iran's more enterprising women to change inherited economic and social patterns are meeting with varied grades of resistance.

After setting up her travel agency, Zamani says, she was often the last to learn of discounts and promotions because she was excluded from the local "club" of airline employees and tourism officials. More significantly, while she had no problems with retail clients, almost every attempt she made to break into corporate accounts failed, stunting the growth of her business.

New entrepreneurs, whether male or female, have always faced hostility in Iran - from both the government and the entrenched community of traditional merchants and traders called bazaaris. Nationalization of most industries in Iran has meant that the private business sector has been restricted to operating small-scale retail and trading firms that are usually centered in small bazaars.

Most bazaars are a complex of side-by-side businesses, built around a mosque to which the bazaaris donate a portion of their earnings. This arrangement has made bazaaris a tightly knit community with close ties to Iran's clergy. Bazaaris were instrumental in supporting the Islamic revolution of 1979. Even today, Iran's hard-liners continue to draw a large part of their support from the merchants and traders.

With 80 percent of Iran's capital owned by the government, opportunities for entrepreneurship have been few and jealously guarded by the bazaaris. This used to make it almost impossible for newcomers, especially women, to break into business. But the new economy of the 1990s changed much of that.

"New service industries opened up a new dimension of the economy," says Mehran Sepheri, a professor at Iran's first school of management at Sharif University in Tehran.

Iran's marginalized groups, including Ba'hais and Zoroastrians, have been quick to seize the new opportunities. And Iranian women suddenly find themselves well positioned to exploit the knowledge-based opportunities of the service economy that the bazaaris are not equipped to grasp.

Employment discrimination has, over the years, driven increasing numbers of Iranian women to universities, where entrance exams are gender-blind. Sixty-two percent of Iran's university students are women. That gives them better odds in the job market, but they wrestle with gender discrimination and a general shortage of jobs in traditional sectors. As a result, a growing number of educated Iranian women are starting businesses in such emerging fields as graphic design, film production, publishing and specialty retailing.

"If I want to be an editor, unless I have my own magazine, I will have to work twice as hard for twice as long as a man," says Parastoo Dokouhaki, a journalist with the woman's magazine Zanaan. "So I think - why not start my own magazine!"

Iranian women have always had relatively extensive rights, compared with their counterparts in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, and have been further empowered by the political and social reforms of President Khatami. But the firm patriarchy of post-revolution Iran has meant that Iranians are not used to the idea of independent women in roles of authority.

"In every house in Iran today, there is a conflict over the role of women working. ... The barriers are not so much official as social," says Dokouhaki.

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