Women in Iran: Where working is a 'privilege'

Submitted by Anon on 6 March, 2004 - 8:47

Plans for International Women's Day celebrations in Iran this year include a meeting of women's NGOs in Park Laleh in Tehran. Although the government has issued a permit for this protest, events in the last few days show the 'conservatives' keen to show their authority following the sham elections. A meeting of the 'Writers' Association' was banned, and reports from Tehran indicate that Islamic vigilantes are being used to enforce a more rigid form of hejab on women and young girls.
If the meeting goes ahead, activists from many women's organisations will use the platform to attack both the clerics in power in Iran and that other fundamentalist right-winger, George Bush, for war and violence in the region'the main theme of this year's gathering is 'Against violence'.

In the last few years Iranian women activists have used the opportunity of 8 March to draw attention to the plight of working-class women in Iran's factories and workshops. Below is a translation of a recent article by an Iranian feminist regarding the 'Challenges facing women workers in Iran'.

Yassamine Mather, Workers' Left Unity Iran

The older women working in factories are mainly illiterate or semi-illiterate. Many are the sole breadwinner of their family. They are employed officially and therefore covered by social services and regulation of the Ministry of Labour.

The second group are young women, often with a high school diploma and in some cases even a university degree, who work under contracts. This group receives payment in return for delivering a certain amount of products. Both groups work mainly as unskilled workers in the 'montage' (assembly) sector of electric goods factories or the packaging section of medical-drug and cosmetic factories or food manufacturing factories.

Employment of educated women and young girls in these industries has nothing to do with advanced methods of production in Iran, but is mainly caused by major unemployment and poverty amongst educated women and girls, who are forced to take the low wages of such jobs without even the protection of the labour legislation.

In addition, sections of assembly and packaging in many plants have traditionally employed solely women, but recently, as men have been employed as unskilled workers in these sectors, job security for older women has disappeared.

Iran's labour legislation stipulates equal rights for men and women workers, however, blatant sexual discrimination against women workers and an unequal division of labour persist.

The Ministry of Labour and various Islamic shoras (government-run workers' organisations) make no effort to reduce this exploitation and sexual discrimination. No doubt, sexual division of labour and sexual discrimination of women workers operated in the previous regime, however, since 1979 such discrimination has increased and women's social progress is constantly attacked. Textile and vegetable oil factories which were until the revolution among major employers of women workers now refuse to employ women at all.

From the traditionalist point of view of the fundamentalist factory owners and the Islamic shora, wage labour and the free contract to work between women workers and employers is not valid. In Iran women have only got the right to work in factories if their husband is dead, a drug addict or incapacitated, or if the woman is the sole breadwinner, and only to stop her 'falling into corrupt ways'. In such circumstances the 'privilege' of working is given to women more from pity rather than as a right.

In this way, Iranian women workers are deprived of the most basic right available in most capitalist societies - the right to live by selling their labour. They are deprived of economic civil rights and confined to the house so that even for their daily existence they are dependent on men.

Over the last 15 years and especially after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, women have gradually managed to find work in some factories. In factories women cannot improve their job specification; they are deprived of professional and administrative promotion and cannot attend training and specialist courses. Even the factory's sports facilities belong to men, and women are not allowed to use them.

With the policy of 'economic restructuring' which has lead to mass unemployment, women forced to do more menial jobs are even more vulnerable. They have borne the brunt of managers' attacks and unemployment policies, as managers want to shed their responsibility for setting up childminding facilities and don't want to pay women during pregnancy leave.

Limited statistics are available regarding the mental and family conditions of women workers in Iran… However, on the basis of existing data, one can present a general perspective…

Investigation of the physical conditions of women working in factories shows that many suffer from arthritis in their wrist, pain in the neck and waist area. Many suffer from inflammation of joints in their hand and fingers. The short life expectancy shows the dramatic consequences of frightening levels of exploitation during their working life, with poor diet, lack of sport, recreation, travel, working long hours, and all this causing stress.

Given these conditions, it is not surprising that one of the main demands of women workers is to obtain early retirement. The government refuses to accept this demand, and private and public sectors exploit working women for as long as possible.

Paid work in the factory is not the only problem of working women. These women have to think about housework, cooking, cleaning, child care, washing clothes, dealing with children's studies… as soon as they leave the house. In many cases, the presence of a bad tempered, or suspicious or depressed husband make their lives even more difficult as they return home to arguments and at times physical abuse.

One of the characteristics of working in the assembly and packing sector is the lack of any diversity in body motion, a tiresome work that requires no mental effort, no intervention or initiative. As a result, it becomes a repetitive task causing tiredness, depression, illness, frailness, absent mindedness and eventually carelessness…

In this way, a women worker is deprived of any decision making or control during the working hours. Her world is cut off from the rest of the production unit and she cannot envisage this process in its entirety. She is not aware of her own productive power and she considers her entire life, her social being, as [so much] turning of machinery, accumulated dead work, i.e., capital.

However, even this broken and inconsistent work gives the worker enough consciousness to realise that she, her family and her colleagues are the so-called 'lower ranks', and the managers and owners, amongst others, are the 'upper ranks' of society. In other words, she realises the divisions and duality in society but often her own weaknesses, [her sense that she is] incapable of changing the world, leads her to consider her own position, poverty and wealth as 'eternal destiny' rather than a situation which can be overturned, in fact, she succumbs to superstition.

Although contemporary capitalist society encourages alienation, this process is stronger amongst unskilled workers, and at times of crisis and in the absence of a powerful social movement this [separation] from skilled workers leads to desperation and loneliness.

Women working in factories face the difficulties of working-class life, in addition to [any] marital problems… that is, if they have not been divorced and they are not the sole carer for their children. Depressed children, tired and fed-up of poorly equipped childcare facilities, annoy their mothers. These children spend eight or nine hours in a closed environment in factory childcare facilities, deprived of parental guidance and care. Women workers complain bitterly about these conditions because their children spend a short time drawing and painting and the rest of the time they just have to sit quietly and wait for their parents. The child is condemned to 'adjust' to their condition with no control over their life, their talent or energy.

[While] the mother has no control over anything - even her body is controlled by someone else - the child's alienation starts even earlier than the mother's.

The implementation of 'scientific' time and motion studies, which is called 'Taylorism' in the west, means that factory managers are constantly trying to raise production levels. Even the minimum existing conditions for women have been removed in order to increase profits from their work. Amongst such attacks one can mention reduction or abolition of hourly leave, [and] closure or reduction of the number of children accepted in childcare facilities. In addition, pregnancy leave has been reduced, and pregnant women are given heavy duties.

[In] Iranian society, as the political economic and production structure still does not need to use human resources as the main source of wealth production, there is no interest in safeguarding the human workforce. Economic bankruptcy and recession have created conditions where labour is in surplus and the price and value of labour has diminished considerable.

Although there are no accurate figures, it is expected that the implementation of 'Taylorism', parallel with absence of health and safety at work, has led to many incidents leading to injury and death at work.

The other problem faced by working-class women are the pressures caused by the economic conditions on their marriage due to mass unemployment and increased poverty. Many women face divorce when their husband loses his job and according to statistics more than 57% of divorces occur in such circumstances. Following job loss (of the wife or the husband) they also lose the support of the family and in most cases women are left taking full responsibility for the children.

Comrades and sisters
Women and the struggle for liberation
by Janine Booth

Key moments in the last 200 years of women's history. Can we win the labour movement to fight for the demands of working-class women?

£2 incl p&p from AWL, PO Box 823, London SE15 4NA. Cheques to "AWL"

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