Interview: Protest, equality, and the challenge of the pandemic for women in Iran

The Democratic Organisation of Iranian Women (DOIW) has been for decades at the forefront of the struggle for social justice and equal rights for women in Iran.  The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up new challenges.  CODIR invited Dr Azar Sepehr of DOIW to portray the life of women in Iran, battling to survive and save their social and economic lives, while tackling the challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Iran Today: Thank you for accepting our invitation for this interview.  We are familiar with your organisation’s activities in promoting women’s equal participation in social, economic, and political life in Iran.  So, let’s start by asking you to paint a general picture of the women’s rights of assembly and organisation.  

DOIW: Thank you for inviting DOIW for this interview.

Put simply, there is no freedom of assembly in Iran.  Peaceful gatherings are treated as security threats. The regime’s response to peaceful rallies in December 2017 and then December and January 2019, using live bullets, is typical of its response to peaceful assembly. These difficulties are compounded by the Islamic Republic’s Judiciary having formalised discrimination against women and girls by enshrining it in law.  These include restrictions on women’s right to work and the right to education, partly through the introduction of gender quotas and restrictions in some fields of study.  There are also educational permits; gender segregation in certain public places; no right to leave the country without the husband’s permission; no right to divorce; no right to the custody of children; restrictions on the choice of dress; no equal rights to inheritance; and recognition of the right to polygamy for men in Iranian law.


Peaceful gatherings of women are broken up violently and participants are arrested. Women’s gatherings on International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2018, which held in front of the Ministry of Labour in Tehran, was violently broken up by the police.  More than 10 people were arrested and later released. These events were reported on the telegram channel set up by the activists for the purpose of reporting the event and were cited in other sites.

Iran Today:  How has the lockdown in Iran impacted on the lives of people and their families?

DOIW: The spread of coronavirus has impacted every aspect of people’s lives and affected their livelihoods. Iran’s economy was in a dire state already before COVID-19. The rate of unemployment among the population of working age is reported to be 12.4%, at 3 million people. Among the young the rate of unemployment is 30.6%, nearly twice the overall rate, and 57% of the unemployed are under 30 years of age. The imbalance of job opportunities where women are concerned becomes clear with the statistics on the economic participation of men and women. In 2016, the rate of economic participation among men was 64.1% as opposed to 14.9% among women. According to statistics more than half of the unemployed are those who have been employed before. Their condition reflects the scourge of insecure or temporary jobs. Given the fact that many people are on temporary (or zero hours) contracts, or are self-employed, without state support, a large number of people do not socially distance allowing the pandemic to spread even more easily.

Iran Today:  What have been the key priorities of DOIW in its work with Iranian women during the period of the pandemic. 

DOIW: Our organisation continues its work campaigning for equal rights, fighting misogynistic laws, child marriage, segregation laws that deprive women of the right to education, and social, cultural and political life.

DOIW continues to oppose the regressive and discriminatory Family Protection Law, its campaign against child marriage and promotion of UN initiatives against violence against women are as relevant today as ever. In its most recent statement, our organisation has condemned the horrific murder of the young girl, Romina Ashrafi, at the hands of her father, under the pretext of ‘honour’ killing, an event that shook Iran and yet is all too common under the Islamic Republic’s laws that do not value girls and women.

Iran Today:  Many women will have no option but to work during these difficult months.   Have women at work been disproportionately affected by COVID related measures?

DOIW: The closure of schools and nurseries has meant that mothers have had to juggle looking after the children, who are now staying at home, with their many other responsibilities, whether in the form of unpaid housework or often low-paid work outside the home.

Privatisations in the health service have also led to the worsening of the conditions of the workers and the poor, as profits are prioritised over the needs of patients, and the pay of nurses and medical staff are cut. In recent weeks news of the dismissal of nurses at a private hospital and the adjustment of the pay scales, while nurses are on the frontline of the battle with COVID 19, has puzzled the public in Iran. Temporary contracts are the norm, not only in private hospitals, but also in state-run hospitals attached to universities.  Limited 89-day contracts predominate for nurses, the majority of whom are women. Employers prevent the nurses from qualifying for the benefits that contracts over 90 days would afford them. In addition, poverty adds a new dimension to the threat of COVID-19. It is no secret that death from coronavirus is more prevalent among the poor because they do not have access to healthcare. The deputy Head of the Health Service in the country has admitted as much.

Iran Today:  The latest report on the gender gap in the two indicators of economic and political participation does not illustrate a favourable situation for Iranian women. Will the prevalence of the coronavirus increase the gender gap in economic participation this year? 

DOIW: The percentage of women in unemployment is twice that of men. The most significant areas of employment where women are represented in larger numbers are in education and the health service. Although women do participate in higher education, they are not able to access appropriately paid work in their fields. The pay gap between men and women is very high. University graduates with postgraduate degrees have to work for minimal pay, no health insurance and no holiday pay. Recruitment agents exploit these young people by only offering below minimum pay. The supply is high, and employers have no incentive to pay any more. High inflation further reduces the actual value of any earnings. Job opportunities are fewer for women as many employers, in the public and private sector, prefer men for permanent posts.

As I mentioned earlier, women have been impacted due their role in the home looking after their children, the unpaid housework, and the need to keep a paid job in order to look after themselves and their families. Women dominate the number of street vendors who sell their wares on pavements or on the Metro. The reduction in the number of people travelling, and a reluctance to purchase things due to the threat of the virus, has meant serious loss of income for these poverty-stricken women.

Iran Today:  What are the DOIW’s priorities going forward?

DOIW: We work towards an end to the misogynistic policies of the Islamic Republic, an end to discrimination and violence, an end to child marriage and the abuse of girls and women in Iran. What is needed also is the establishment of anti-discrimination discourse by cultural and civic institutions and the removal of barriers and restrictions on women’s civic, cultural and political participation, freedoms and activities. The Islamic Republic must be made to ratify and implement international conventions to which it is signatory, such as ILO C87, C98. The regime has obstinately refused to sign the Bill for an end to violence against women. It must be made to do so.


The government must take measures to deploy women’s abilities – their knowledge, expertise and skills – to assist with macroeconomic and social development goals. Social, economic and political participation of women should be recognised as an undeniable right for them and the society as a whole. Segregation must end in higher education. The limits for the number of female students that gain access to university, some at 10%, must end. Employment law must cease to discriminate against women and their access to employment.

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