In Iran, Working Remotely Is a National Controversy

A new plan to have civil servants work from home is raising thorny issues about gender norms in the Islamic Republic

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Tehran's skyline / Reuters

The Iranian government's recently announced plan allowing up to 20% of Iranian civil servants to work remotely from home could lead to more interesting and lively discussions over gender roles in the country. In a society where men and women are increasingly segregated, even this small change is a reminder of the difficulty of maintaining traditional social norms alongside a modern economy.

This news comes in the middle of an ongoing debate in the Iranian media about whether men helping out with the chores at home will mean that they are Zan Zalil, a derogatory term used to describe men who are henpecked. In Iranian machismo, this is a true insult. Although Iranian society has been gradually becoming more modern and more men are helping their wives with household chores, there is still a significant number who prefer the concept of Mard Salari, a system whereby men are in charge and women follow orders.

The change is not necessarily good news for some of the wives of civil servants, who until now have been happy to see their husbands outside of the home, instead of inside, bossing them around and interfering in everything they do.

But Iran is not alone in struggling to integrate decidedly old-fashioned gender roles into a more modern society. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Japan. Recently, many older Japanese women have begun to divorce their husbands once they retire and return home. They could not take their husbands scrutinizing everything they do at home.

To be sure, some Civil servants and their wives would probably be very happy with this new remote working arrangement. It would mean less time being stuck in traffic; Tehran's, never good, is becoming more horrendous. It could also mean less time exposed to contaminated air, also a problem in Tehran, a city where breathing every minute is said to be equivalent to smoking 9 cigarettes. And, of course, it will also mean more time with their families.

It will probably be a number of years before we can establish whether the new arrangement could have an impact on the rising level of divorce in Iran.

Rising unemployment and increasing housing prices are also making life much more difficult for Iranians and putting strains on relationships. According to a new study in Iran, housing in Tehran is becoming increasingly unaffordable. While a Canadian lining in Toronto spends approximately 33 percent of his wage on housing, in Tehran this figure for a civil servant is 66 percent.

One report found that rising housing costs are leading an increasing number of young Iranians to get married at a later age.

This is a worrying phenomenon not only for Iranian families but also for Iran's government.

Despite the Iranian government's efforts to portray Iran as a society based in religion and morality and disconnected from decadent western culture, in reality Iran is no different from other countries.

Iranian television may not show Desperate Housewives or Sex and The City, but the absence of such shows -- which the regime views as damaging to family values -- does not mean that Iran is free of divorce, which is increasing.

Discrimination against women, of course, continues in Iran. The problem is getting worse every year. Things have never been so bad.

When it comes to marriage, some Iranian women are victims of their own success. A majority of Iran's university students are female, but a university education is not always an asset for Iranian women. It is unfortunately common for Iranian men, especially those who have not been to university themselves, to view educated women as less desirable.

As with racism, ignorance is a major contributing factor to sexism against women everywhere, including in Iran. One way to fight this ignorance would be for men to get to know the opposite sex better. Sending more Iranian men to work from home, though obviously far from a solution to Iran's deep gender problems, just might help.