The Employment and Immigration of the Iranian Rural Women

Iqtisad-e-Keshavarzi and Tose'eah
Journal of Agricultural Economic Studies, (Quarterly)
Winter 1995, Special Issue on Population and Labor Force,
Vol. 2, Pages: 143-155
Word Count: 2880

Summary: The rural female population makes up 21 per cent of the total population of Iran. Rural female population over ten years of age form 21.5 per cent of this age group. The present report indicates that the ratio of the rural active female population is 4.5 per cent with regard to the total active population of the country while it is 10 per cent to the rural active population according to 1986 census. Nonetheless, it adds that the statistics cannot be correct because the rural females are active in preparing dairy products and weaving Gilim (coarse carpets), Zilou (pileless carpets) and carpets. In Iran, the immigration of women from rural areas is mostly subject to men's immigration.


Almost half of the population of each community consists of women. Yet, their role in generating revenue has been reflected less than what it has been in reality. And this is due to the existing relations in the socio-economic structure, particularly in the Third World countries.

Women's Employment According to Statistics

The existing statistics indicates that the country's population increased from 49,445,000 in 1986 to 55,837,000 - 28,768,000 men and 27,069,000 women - in 1991. This shows an increase in female population which was 1.7 million less than the male population. The reason has been the under-counting of female population at birth and the re-counting of male population in censuses.

The rural female population makes up 21 per cent of the country's total population. According to 1986 census, the age for economic productivity is considered to be between 10 to 60. Forty-four per cent of this age group live in rural areas. Rural females over 10 years of age constitute 21.5 per cent of this average age in Iran.

The rural active male population form 40 per cent of the country's total active population while the rural active female population constitute 4.5 per cent.

The rural non-active female and male population form respectively 32 and 10 per cent of the country's total non-active population. In other words, men constitute 25 per cent and women make up 75 per cent of the rural non-active population. Men and women also form respectively 90 and 10 per cent of the rural active population. In 1986, fifty-eight per cent of the total rural non-active population was made up of the rural housewives who constituted 77.4 per cent of the country's total non-active female population and 71.3 per cent of the rural female population of 10 years of age or more.

As the official statistics show, a major part of the country's rural females are non-active. But it does not stand to reason to consider a large part of rural housewives as non-active. The following points can be elaborating:

- The rural females who are involved, from sunrise to sunset, in various activities according to the locality, production and texture of the communities contribute significantly to the economy of their families and the country as well. Their responsibilities and tasks at home are complementary to the out-of-house activities. In other words, the borderlines between reproductive bio-activities which include reproduction, raising children, cooking, agriculture, etc, and productive activities that include cultivating, tending of crops, and harvesting for preparing food products - whether for consumption or for sale - are hardly separable. Productive and reproductive bio- activities are so intermingled that it is difficult to distinguish between the two with regard to the existing structure of our rural communities. Accordingly, the rural housewives are active in the Iranian villages in both busy and non-busy seasons. However, their activity has not been reflected in the country's official statistics in which they have been listed as non-active.

Un-briefed and without passing any training courses or orientation classes, census officers proceed to register sex data without the sufficient knowledge about primary, secondary and additional activities of the women. In many cases, census officers went to villages in non-busy seasons, asking a rural female what her job was while she was engaged in, for example, collecting animal excrements, milking cows and sheep to make dairy products for sale or for consumption, or weaving carpets, Gilim or Zilou to be used at her home. Naturally, the rural woman would respond that she is a housewife. Sociologically, a rural woman's understanding of "housewife" is a series of activities from sunrise to sunset. Without a clear understanding of the concept of "housewife", the census officer would just register her as non-active. The consequence is the lack of an exact statistics from the activities of the rural females.

This would ultimately entangle the programmers of development for this active group of rural communities.

On numerous occasions, cultural discriminations and restrictions prevent them to be registered as active forces. This is the result of men's preference that women stay and work at home. In other words, it is culturally considered as credit for women in rural areas to stay and work at home rather than outside the house. Of course, this arises from a culture most prevalent in rural areas than in cities. Apart from the cultural discriminations, both the prevailing patriarchy and conservatism in the rural areas, compel the head of households to conceal the family's income, particularly the part which is earned by women. Therefore, they give a negative answer to the question on women's activities. This is why they would rather declare woman as housewives rather than as workforce. There is a theory suggesting that in a patriarchal system, the no-pay labor force of women is taken for granted, where they have to obey men because of their economic dependency which is, to a great extent, resulted from the ideology prevailing the family.

Now, it is time to revise the concept of labor force which under the existing formula serves to undermine women's activities.

In fact, the real cause of undermining and belittling the activities of rural women has been the lack of appropriate official criteria and definitions by which their activities could be precisely and comprehensively measured. Conventional definitions disregarding the structure of rural communities are to be criticized;

where the output is of value, the workforce behead it should also be accounted for. Unfortunately, the concepts used by international organizations to assess women's labor force, which are applied in many countries including Iran, are incapable of doing so. Therefore, such concepts should be carefully dealt with, for in most cases the rural women are referred to as economically non-active housewives or forces.

In the International Statistics Conference on Labor Force sponsored by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1982, a new definition for economically active population was adopted. In the definition which was based on the UN's national accounts, the production of goods and economic services for markets, personal consumption, and exchange or trade were taken into consideration.

Accordingly, the households who were involved in such activities were placed among the economically active population. Workers and no-pay household labor force were regarded as employed and economically active by the definition; household chores and tasks were also considered as economic activity. It is expected that, in future, women's activity will be properly registered under the new definition for economic activity.

The point is that rural housewives should not be regarded as non-active since they actually take part in different activities such as farming, animal husbandry, handicraft, and reproductive bio- activities. If the statically non-active rural population of 556,000 is added to the active female population of 446,000, the active rural female population will amount to 51 per cent. To list the population of rural females among the active population would be significant because it would help development planners to draw up programs for rural women not according to 8 per cent but a figure six or seven times higher. On the other hand, with a realistic understanding of the number of rural females, the Iranian Statistics Center would be able to employ various indexes in taking statistics in order to prevent huge statistical errors. In sum, the word "housewife" has a sociological meaning in the Iranian villages and is quite different from its concept in the industrial societies which implies the separation of home and work as well as the segregation of consumption, production and distribution.

The Role of Women in Production

According to the country's official statistics, the ratio of the rural active females has declined from 12.9 per cent in 1976 to 8.2 percent in 1981. Compared with the rates in the developed countries the figure is quite low. The rate of women's participation (in economic activities) in Iran in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1985 as reported by the FAO were respectively 0.5, 9.4, 20.8 and 22.1 per cent. However, studies conducted at provincial levels as well as case studies show that the rate of women's participation in production of some agricultural items such as rice, cotton, tea , domestic animals and birds as well as handicrafts is very high. Of course, as compared to men and with regard to products, regions, cultural and historical circumstances, the rate of women's participation decreases or increases. For example, areas where rice-plantation is done with the help of a seed spraying machines, women's activity is less than that of women living in the villages of Gilan and Mazandaran provinces. As observed, the rate of the activity of women in low income groups is much more than those in high income groups.

To earn a living, indigent women even assist men with traditional tools in pre-cultivation stage. In fact, work is divided between men and women during all the stages of production. Women in high income groups do not take part in the pre-cultivation stage, but extend a helping hand in other stages of cultivation and harvest. Today, specialists argue that the expanding trend of trade and development in the rural areas has decreased the role of the rural females because they have been replaced by men in a lot of activities which require machine handling. However, this issue is not indicative of the lessening of women's activities. In addition, the expansion of petty feudal units after the land reforms and even after the Islamic Revolution shows an increase in the number of family productive units which mostly employ the female labor force. This, in turn, indicates that women's activity is increasing. Women's traditional cooperatives; in the forms of Yavari (assistance) and Hamyari (cooperation) come to the help of women in family productive units which bear evidence of the volume of work done by women.

Case studies show the situation of women and their labor force. In the villages of Gilan and Mazandaran provinces, women are considerably active and have a high share in productive activities. In the village of Ahandan in Gilan, women form 76 per cent of the labor force in rice-planting and 80 per cent in tea- planting. However, their share in Mazandaran is lower in rice- planting; it is estimated to be 50 per cent. In growing cotton which is widespread in most villages of Gorgan and Gonbad, and in planting and growing vegetables, women constitute respectively 40 per cent and 90 per cent of the labor force (as a case study showed in Amir-Abad).

Another activity is animal husbandry which is mostly carried out by women if it conducted in its traditional way. It requires cleaning, grazing, collecting animal excrements, milking and preparing dairy products. Provincial studies show that taking cattle to the fields to graze is taken care of in Boushehr and Hormozgan by women without any help from men. Collecting animal wastes is very tiring and time-consuming task which begins with macerating the hardened excrements in water, stamping them for several days, heaping up and putting them under the sunshine to be dried and used in the winter, as fuel.

Weaving carpets and Gilims is a handicraft in which women are highly involved. Provincial studies indicate that women's share in weaving Gilims is between 50 to 100 per cent. Furthermore, case studies conducted in Fars and Varamin show an 80 per cent share for women's labor force. According to provincial studies, their share in carpet-weaving is from 60 per cent to 100 per cent, while case studies indicate that it is 100 per cent. Girls Play an important role in this handicraft. In most cases, they leave school in order to assist their parents or to provide for their dowries. The point is that the quantitative and qualitative significance of women in production, in different regions, is best indicated in case studies rather than macro-studies.

Immigration of Rural Women

The immigration or displacement of population takes place in different forms in the Iranian villages. It is sometimes permanent, sometimes temporary and at other times in rotation.

While researchers offer a variety of analyses about different kinds of immigrations, the immigrants themselves have explicitly announced that the main reason for immigration from a village to another or to the cities is to find a better job.

As a whole, the reasons given for immigration can be summarized in the following social and economic indices.

  • 1. Finding a job;
  • 2. Continuing education;
  • 3. Getting married;
  • 4. Family considerations;
  • 5. Benefitting from the cities' facilities, entertainment, etc. The most important reason men offer for immigration is to find a job. The reason for women's immigration, however, is different from men's. This is due to either social restriction on their way to employment or family considerations - which is more important for women - that is, when a man as the head of a family goes, either temporarily or for good, to a city to find a better job and more income, his family also follow suit. Therefore, women's immigration is more often subjective (rather than optional). This trend is the same all over the world.

    In Latin America, western Africa, and southeast Asia, the economic factor is important in women's immigration. While according to sporadic studies conducted in Iran, social motivations - family considerations in particular - are the cause of the immigration of the Iranian women rather than economic factors. Case studies in a village show that the immigration of 15 per cent of all immigrants - 7.2 per cent women and 7.8 per cent men - was permanent. The immigration of 91 per cent of men is economically motivated while women's immigration is subjective, taking place mostly for getting married; joining their husbands or close relatives. The studies also indicate that the immigration of boy and girl students, who go to neighboring or big cities in order to continue their education, is rotatory.

    Although the social reasons are the most important factor in, women's immigration in Iran economic factors cannot be denied. To earn a better income, women immigrate to nearby villages or cities where there is an opportunity to work. In the village of "Maloumeh" located in a mountainous region in Gilan, women temporarily go to the neighboring villages in fall and winter - the less busy seasons - to help pick oranges and other citrus fruits, to earn more money. In most villages in Gilan and Mazandaran, a group of women under the supervision of a woman who is called "Mobasher" (Supervisor) go to the neighboring villages for weeding and planting seedlings. No need to mention that this kind of immigration is seasonal.

    According to the conducted surveys, men's seasonal immigration has its consequences on their families, particularly on women. That is, in the absence of the men, woman undertake the supervisory duties of the family in every aspect.

    In Iran, when men immigrate due to any reasons, women take charge of the family. But this is not reflected in the statistics.


    1. Agricultural Census in 1991, by the Iranian Statistics Center.

    2. Women Labor Force, Chapter 13, Volume II, World Report, by Labor International Office in Geneva.

    3. A study of Theoretical and Practical Obstacles in the Way of Women's Increasing Participation in Economic Activities, Women's Journal, Volume two, Farvardin & Ordibehesht (April & May).

    4. A study of Socio-Economic Role of Rural Women in Production, by Farideh Sarhadi etal, 1971

    5. A study of Socio-Economic Role of Rural Women in carpet- weaving, by Farideh Sarhadi etal, 1994

    6. A study of Socio-Economic Role of Rural Women in weaving Gilim (coarse carpets), by Farideh Sarhadi etal, 1994

    7. Statistics of Census in 1986, by the Iranian Statistics Center

    8. A study of The Socio-Economic Role of Rural Women in Ahandan, by Farideh Sarhadi and Nahid Motia, 1990

    9. Development of the Role of the Iranian Rural Women in Agricultural Activities, by Nahid Motia, Women's Journal, Volume two, Mehr & Aban 1372 (October & November 1993)

    10. Population Statistics of selected countries in 1987, and the U.S. Statistics Office

    11. World-wide Estimates and Projections of Agriculture and Non- Agricultural Population Segments 1950 - 2025 Statistical Analysis Service, Statistics Division, Economic and Social Policy, Division FAO Rome 1986

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