Iran is starting to see a re-launch of activist groups following the election last year of President Hassan Rouhani. Social movements were scarce after the government crushed public protests known as the Green Movement following the 2009 elections. After the decisive vote for Rouhani, a surge of hope in Iran has attracted activists back to the political arena. Iranian women, in particular, are seizing the opportunity.
On a recent afternoon in north Tehran, two professional women huddle with an adviser to the Ministry of Mines and Trade. They are building a strategy for promoting jobs for women in government and the private sector.
This would have been impossible under the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, explains Sohaila Jelodorzadeh, a former member of parliament, now a professor of textile engineering. "We were ignored," she says, adding, "No, it was more than ignored. We faced social and political problems."
Now, she is politically active again, working with Soraya Maknoon, a former university chancellor, to champion women's employment. Women make up more than 60 percent of the college population in Iran but less than 20 percent of the working population.
"We want to make better use of their knowledge. This is important, not just to have degrees," says Maknoon.
It is just one example of a trend in Iran, says Kevan Harris, an Iran specialist from Princeton University. "Urban issues, pollution issues, environmental issues, women's issues" — Iranians are forming groups to tackle the major problems facing the country, he says. "The universities now are back, full of student politics, so we are going through a wave of mobilization from below in Iran."
The gender gap in employment may be one of the toughest challenges despite a huge social shift on college campuses. After the 1979 revolution, Iran's Islamic government convinced even the most traditional families that it was safe to send their daughters away to college.
The shift is obvious on the campus of Tehran University, where women outnumber men in the campus courtyard and in the classrooms.
"I study sociology. I would like to study in the major of law to find a good job," says Farzoneh Natalie, a 24-year-old graduate student. But when I ask about her prospects for a job in a law office after graduation, she shakes her head no.
Not in Iran, she says. She says she's thinking about going abroad for a job.
It's the choice for many university students. Every year about 150,000 highly talented Iranians emigrate in what the International Monetary Fund calls the highest brain drain in the world.
Rouhani is trying to reverse the trend and lure them back as he rebuilds an economy in critical condition after two years of devastating international sanctions and eight years of economic mismanagement under the former president.
Rouhani will be judged on Iran's economic revival, says Saeed Laylez, a political analyst and reformist, and he needs more women in the workplace.
"He has no other choice," Laylez says. "Women have better education than the men."
Laylez and many civil activists object to a new population plan moving through parliament that will limit opportunities for women in education and employment. The plan has the backing of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's health ministry has already started to reverse the country's successful birth control program with funds devoted instead to encouraging bigger families. Billboards around Tehran promote the message that bigger families are happier families.
Laylez agrees with the assessment of Iran's demographics. The population is aging, and with an average of two children per family, in a few decades the old will outnumber the young, resembling the demographics of Italy and Germany.
But a government-promoted baby boom won't solve the problem, Laylez says.
"The main policy should not be, in my opinion, to make more babies," he says. "It should be to make more wealth. The people of Iran are at the best age for creating wealth."
Rouhani has talked about creating more opportunities for the young, to reverse the flagging economy blighted by high unemployment, inflation and sanctions aimed at halting Iran's nuclear program. But women don't yet see change, says Harris.
"The problem is that the backlash is not only coming from guys with turbans," Harris says, referring to hardline clerics. Iran is a male-dominated society, he explains. "A lot of men don't want women in the workplace, especially when they think it's costing male jobs."
Iranian women have worked hard to overtake men in education, but in this conservative society, it's a long road to match that success in the workplace.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Iran is seeing activist groups bloom again. Social movements were scarce after the government crushed public protests during the 2009 elections. Leaders of some of those groups are still under arrest, or outside the country.
But as NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Tehran, last year's election of President Hassan Rouhani has raised hopes, and Iranian women in particular are seizing the opportunity.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It didn't take long for the organizing to start. Here's one example: Two professional women are working on a new NGO to promote more female employment. An advisor from the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Trade has joined them. Sohaila Jelodorzadeh is a former member of Parliament, now a professor of textile engineering. She says this wasn't possible under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
SOHAILA JELODORZADEH: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: We were ignored, she says - no, more than ignored. We faced social and political problems. Now, she's politically active again.
Is this possible because of the election of President Rouhani?
JELODORZADEH: Of course, sure.
AMOS: Her partner, Soraya Maktoom, says it's now possible to push women into more jobs.
SORAYA MAKTOOM: We want to make better use of their knowledge, this is important for us, not just to have the knowledge or the degrees.
AMOS: Across the country, Rouhani's election was taken as a sign that Iranians can organize again, after the violent crackdown of street protests in 2009. Now, they're forming grass- roots groups to tackle some of the country's major problems, says Kevan Harris, an Iran specialist from Princeton who is in Tehran. He explains, as we sit in a restaurant popular with young Iranians, this generation sees Rouhani's election as a political revival.
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KEVAN HARRIS: Urban issues, pollution issues, environmental issues, women's issues, student issues. The universities, now, are back, full of student politics. So, we are going through a wave of mobilization from below in Iran.
AMOS: But the gender gap in jobs may be one of the toughest challenges, despite a huge social shift on college campuses.
This is Tehran University. I'm standing on the campus, and what is striking here, is how many women students I can see. More than 60 percent of the university population is female. Yet, less than 25 percent of them are in the job market.
FARZONEH NATALIE: I study sociology; I would like to study in the major of law to find a good job.
AMOS: But when I ask 24-year-old Farzoneh Natalie about her prospects for a job in a law office, she shakes her head no.
NATALIE: In Iran, not.
AMOS: What will you do?
NATALIE: I'm thinking of going abroad.
AMOS: It's the choice of many university students. Iran has one of the highest rates of brain drain in the world. Rouhani wants to reverse that trend as he rebuilds the economy, after two years of devastating sanctions, and, what many see as eight years of economic mismanagement under the former president. He needs more women in the workplace, says political analyst and reformist Saeed Laylez.
SAEED LAYLEZ: He has no other choice, because since past, One or two decades. Women have better education than the men.
AMOS: Laylez, and many civil activists, object to a new population plan moving through parliament, with the backing of Iran's supreme leader - the highest authority in Iran.
The plan calls for restrictions on women's education and employment - to boost the country's birth rate - a reversal of the government's successful birth control program. It's a hedge against an aging of Iran's population, says Laylez, But there are better ways to strengthen the economy.
LAYLEZ: The main policy should not be, in my opinion, to make more baby, it should be to make more wealth.
AMOS: Making more wealth - that's what a new generation of educated Iranian women want. President Rouhani has talked about creating more opportunities for the young. But women don't see much change, says Harris.
HARRIS: The problem is that the back lash isn't only coming from, you know, guys with turbans. You know, it's a male dominated society; a lot of men don't want women in the work place, especially when they think it's costing male jobs.
AMOS: Women have worked hard to overtake men in education, but in this conservative society it is a long road to match that success at the workplace.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Tehran.
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