The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on all sectors of Iran's fragile economy. But it's the country's female workforce — less than 20% of all workers before the crisis — that may be hardest hit.

Often the first to be laid off, women are also more likely than men to lose customers. Iran's Statistics Center estimates that 1.5 million fewer Iranians were working in the March-May period compared to the same months in 2019. Of those, nearly 685,000 are women.

The pandemic began to take off in Iran around February, compounding problems for a country that had already been dealing with intermittent Western sanctions in past years.

Mahnaz Qadirzadeh, a labor relations specialist, recently told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that women were "not even a fifth of the workforce" and had now become a sixth, following layoffs. The labor market in Iran "is not fair on women," Qadirzadeh said. Even in the best of times they find it hard to secure work. "More importantly, they struggle to keep their jobs," she added.

The pandemic, Qadirzadeh explained, has shown that women are the first to suffer from economic instability. Of the approximately 1.5 million people who've lost their jobs, the "rational" proportion of women affected should have been "between 250,000-300,000," she said. Instead it's more than twice that number.

Reports from Tehran suggest that the pandemic has been particularly hard on small businesses and the self-employed. Many of the latter are female heads of household.

Even in the best of times women find it hard to secure work.

A deputy-head of the state welfare organization, Habibollah Mas'udi-Farid, observed in late April that the spreading epidemic in Iran and "rising prices" had an especially negative impact on self-employed women, who are often excluded from the categories of workers to whom the government is paying unemployment aid, benefits or loans.

The pandemic's hardships have merely added to more traditional hurdles facing female workers, such as inferior wages or working without proper contracts. Women are usually the first to be dismissed as the pervasive belief among employers is that men are the household breadwinners and should keep working if possible.

Qadirzadeh said the crisis is particularly affecting working women in cities, and that many are trained or educated and entered the job market in recent years. So far the women working in farming or as craftswomen appear to be less impacted.

The situation is especially worrisome given how precarious things already were for so many working women. A worsening economy, she explained, may force them to "to accept more unfair working conditions" or even "exploitation."

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