Promoting Feminism in Iran


Iran is a complicated and interesting place. The American media treats it as an evil empire because of Iran’s geopolitical hostility to the United States. The media don’t love the fact that Iran is Moslem. This leads to somewhat distorted coverage that obscures what is really going on. Iran combines a number of positive and negative features. While their particular mix is unique, the complexities of Iranian society show up in many other nations in the Global South.

Iran combines:

  1. high education,

  2. technological sophistication,

  3. successful economic development policy,

  4. a repressive police state,

  5. the distortion of economic and political policy to favor a self-interested military elite,

  6. significant and partially effective policies to reduce poverty

  7. the co-existence of official anti-feminism with a large population of educated capable women,

  8. a self-interested and powerful religious establishment,

  9. interesting and innovative culture, and

  10. outstanding traditional cuisine.

Many other countries would be characterized by the majority of the items on this list. Colombia, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, and Ethiopia all share features of the Iranian package. They are not treated as international pariahs. To be sure, none of those nations is currently trying to develop a nuclear weapon. However, India and Pakistan also have nuclear weapons. We somehow manage to do business with both countries when there is mutual advantage to working together.

In a world of continuing polarization and international hostility, there is no easy and obvious road to rapprochement and peace. However, a recent editorial in the New York Times “How the U.S. Can Support the Women of Iran Calling for Change” (October 8, 2022) makes a number of intelligent suggestions. It argues that it would be constructive to support the progressive elements of Iranian civil society that are seeking greater personal liberties. It would be constructive to support Iranian women in their struggles for gender equity. They suggest that providing greater internet access to the Iranians would help to achieve both of these objectives.

My own take is that increasing gender equality is generally good for overall standards of living – regardless of the politics or religion of the government that is involved. More women working means more goods and products for sale, which promotes economic development. More women working means more women consuming – which means higher standards of living for families and more economic development. More women working promotes greater education for children – promoting technological progress and also producing more economic development. More women working also means less domestic violence, fewer forced marriages and more equity in household decision making. Greater female labor force participation can be produced under a wide variety of political regimes and a wide variety of religious regimes. Even Saudi Arabia reserves large numbers of health care jobs for women – out of a religious concern that it is more appropriate to have women treated by women.

It might be time to reconsider whether sanctions on Iran are really helping or hurting. In this regard, two important and excellent analyses by two teams of scholars – Dario Laudati and M. Hashem Pesaran at the University of Southern California, and Firat Demir and Saleh Tabrizy at the University of Oklahoma – indicate that the sanctions are unlikely to produce regime change – but they are seriously hurting the prospects for feminism in Iran. (I am grateful to Saleh Tabrizy for bringing both of these first-rate studies to my attention.)

Laudati and Pesaran have done sophisticated econometric modeling of the effects of economic sanctions on the Iranian economy. There is little doubt that the sanctions have significantly lowered employment and GDP in Iran. The damage has been very real. However, Iranian oil exports have never disappeared and remain at high levels. Since the Revolution, Iranian oil exports have been about half of their pre-Revolutionary level. Half of a lot is still a lot. Iranian oil exports have even begun recovering from the Trump cut-off which had led to the lowest level of oil sales since the Revolution. Iran found substantial new markets in non-Western nations. Turkey, Iraq and China are all relevant here.

I would add to Laudati and Pesaran’s arguments that restricting oil sales now will lead to greater Iranian economic strength in the future. The world is running out of petroleum. As more traditional suppliers exhaust their local deposits of oil, untouched Iranian reserves will become increasingly important. Today’s sanctions are leading to a future Iran with tremendous bargaining power.

I would also note that oil statistics are not without errors. Contraband and off-the-books oil sales undoubtedly increased after the imposition of sanctions. It is quite likely that the official statistics underestimate Iranian oil revenues. They almost certainly underestimate activities in the informal economy. Thus even the best-intentioned and well-executed econometric analyses of the Iranian economy probably overestimate the damage that the Iranian economy is experiencing.

Laudati and Pesaran show for the whole economy, and Demir and Tabrizy show with a more intensive analysis of manufacturing, per se that the sanctions are disproportionately hurting women. This increases the power of male traditionalists at the expense of more progressive, feminist elements. Women’s power in a society depends on their economic strength. Economic strength comes from working. Sanctions lowered opportunities for female employment. The sanctions reduced government expenditures on education and health. Women who once worked as school teachers and nurses now had fewer opportunities. Women had been active in the tourism sector. That dried up completely under sanctions. Women had been active in a vigorous and successful Iranian textile industry. Sanctions substantially reduced hiring in that sector.

Demir and Tabrizy show that capital intense sectors responded to hardship by disproportionately laying off women. Valentine Moghadam of Northeastern University has argued compellingly that the very high levels of sexism associated with Iran are linked more to oil than to Islam. She compares Iran with Middle Eastern economies with more balanced industrial distributions; Tunisia is a good example of the latter. Western Turkey looks similar to Tunisia in this regard. Both countries have weak oil sectors; but they do export a lot of light manufactures. Women are used as cheap labor in sectors such as textiles and food manufacture. They are also used in services, in settings such as call centers and the backroom operations of credit card companies. These economies have to be cost efficient; Islamic businessmen in Tunisia and Turkey hire women to save on labor costs. Iran has been heavily dominated by oil – a sector which does not particularly need low labor costs. The dominance of oil in the economy has led to a national managerial culture of not hiring women.

Conceivably a strategy of sanctions that punished oil but openly encouraged Iranian light industrial exports, exports of financial services, and tourism would increase Iranian women’s economic power. All of those sectors have heavily female labor forces. This would have encouraged Iranian developers to move towards using female labor forces. This would have more generally promoted feminism in Iran.

The across-the-board sanctioning provided no incentives for Iran to open up opportunities for women. The female sectors shrank. The capital intensive sectors preferred men over women – even under conditions of adversity.

When Khomeini came into power, his regime explicitly tried to undo the feminist progress that had been associated with the Shah of Iran. The Shah’s policies were notoriously cruel and ill-conceived on many issues of economic development and social justice. However, the Shah had been very good to women. Female education and female labor force participation increased significantly under the Shah’s regime. The Islamic Revolution rolled back a great deal of that progress. (More damage was done to labor force participation than was done to education.)

Sanctions have ironically reinforced the anti-feminist aspects of Khomeini’s social policies.

I do not expect sanctions to disappear any time soon. These are now deeply enmeshed in larger diplomatic negotiations over nuclear disarmament. It would be difficult for the United States and Europe to change their positions on sanctions without entirely reconstructing their overall strategy concerning Iran.

That said, I still favor initiatives involving rapprochement. Progressive policy can come from within. Governments can change direction profoundly without there being a regime change. The economic opening of China is an obvious example. Singapore evolved from a gang-ridden violent city to a puritan but prosperous developmentalist state and then again to a looser more tolerant system, all under the same head of state. Progressive forces from below often induce quiet but profound changes from above.

Anything that promotes women’s power in Iran is likely to be helpful. Even if all we do is follow the New York Times and help provide access to the internet.

For More Information

For readers who want to read these studies in the original, see

Demir, Firat and Saleh Tabrizy. 2022. “Gender Effects of Sanctions on Manufacturing: Evidence from Iran.” Review of Development Economics: 1-30.

Laudati, Dario and M. Hashem Pesaran. 2021. “Identifying the Effects of Sanctions on the Iranian Economy Using Newspaper Coverage.” CESIFO Working Paper 9217/2001.

Moghadam, Valentine. 2013. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. Boulder, Lynne Rienner.

On the positive and negative aspects of Iran’s anti-poverty policies, see

Salehi-Ishahani, Djavad. 2017. “Poverty and Income Inequality in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Revue Internationale des Etudes de Developpement 219: 113-136

I am grateful to Saleh Tabrizy for these other recommendations for useful reading material on Iran.

Axworthy, Michael. 2013. Revolutionary Iran: History of the Islamic Republic. New York, Oxford.

Maloney, Suzanne. 2015. Iran’s Political Economy Since the Revolution. New York, Cambridge.