Opinion| Oppressing women, from Tehran to Washington, is it about sustaining the patriarchy or money?

Iris Boutros
10 Min Read

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while detained by the Iranian morality police for allegedly violating dress rules has tapped into outrage in and outside Iran over women’s rights, and inside the country over economic and political stagnation.

Governments and companies utilise the profound connections between women’s rights and economic and political progress to their advantage. People would do well to understand this and to also see that it’s about money, not just the patriarchy.

“Solidarity with the courageous women and allies in Iran protesting for their freedom. Mahsa Amini was senselessly murdered by the same patriarchal and autocratic forces repressing women the world over. The right to choose belongs to us all, from hijabs to reproductive care.”

This tweet from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) — the US Congresswoman from the State of New York — is of course referring to the US Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, which previously federally legalised abortion in the United States.

I think AOC has it mostly right. It is the same things that drive the killing of Ms. Amini and the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Patriarchy, autocracy, religion, or whatever else; these are effective mechanisms, dials to turn to get the right outcome. I do not mean to diminish religion or the ills of autocracy.

But they are useful mechanisms for getting people to behave in certain ways – so ultimately a select few can make money.

It’s best not to think about it in the usual way — women fighting for the equal rights and benefits of men, and white men especially. I really do wish I had $5 for every time a white man complained to me about facing discrimination, but I digress.

Let’s imagine a world where women and men have equal rights and benefits, namely in education, reproduction, marriage, income, wealth, property and business ownership, inheritance, voting, and holding public office.

Women, children, and families would likely be better educated and healthier. The economic research is so very clear, no matter the country — money in the hands of women is the best strategy for human capital development. Controlling fertility and therefore family size is key to these outcomes.

Better health and education, often means better personal incomes, provided markets are working. Higher incomes can translate into investments into productive assets, meaning more wealth and capital income. This is all good for economic growth, and it translates into a more equitable distribution of resources.

Politically, female voters and lawmakers with equal power and rights are less likely to allow the passage of laws that do not serve their interests.

Clap – now back to reality.

Who benefits from Ms. Amini’s death? No one, specifically. Her death is senseless, collateral damage from a few overzealous individuals, pawns in a grander strategy.

Iran’s previous president, Hassan Rouhani, was more moderate — a centrist pragmatist whose administration negotiated the first nuclear deal with the US. He ushered in a more relaxed stance on Iran’s morality laws. It is said that he antagonised Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr. Rouhani had the explicit goal of significantly changing Iran’s market access, but if that means a stronger population, economically and otherwise, that’s not in everyone’s interest.

People who can make money in Iran without public oversight or the objection of its citizens benefit from a morality code used to oppress all Iranians.

Iran’s current President, Ebrahim Raisi, is favoured by the Ayatollah, and is seen as his possible successor.

In 2019, the US government estimated the Ayatollah’s wealth at $200bn, up from the 2013 Reuters estimate of $95bn. He is the exclusive owner of a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate with commercial and real estate assets.

About a dozen profitable religious institutions owned by the Ayatollah are exempt from taxes and can use public budgets to carry out religious activities.

It’s not hard to see how — in a country with an estimated 1% of the global population but 8% of the world’s natural resources — morality laws to oppress people might come in handy for the Ayatollah.

I’m not saying he is not interested in morality laws for religious reasons. I am saying, at the very least, he has other good reasons too.

Although very difficult to measure, it is estimated that about three-quarters of Iranians live under the poverty line. Agriculture, normally a significant productive sector, has been increasingly affected by drought and other climate-related issues.

Specifically oppressing women – in addition to men – is important because of their repeated critical role in history in changing political frameworks and in leading food riots.

Historians disagree on the extent of women’s roles, but even more conservative accounts place women as critical in food riots from the 17th to the 21st centuries in countries around the globe, such as Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Peru, Russia, Spain, the US, as well as during the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, and World War I.

Since women more often than men focus on a household’s food, they are more likely to be sensitive to changes in food prices. Historically, food riots typically started in marketplaces near shops and mills, which is where women gathered the most. 

This is just food riots. Now, let’s think about elections and get back to AOC’s tweet.

US elections time and again prove the power of female voters. After Senate confirmation hearings revealed the misconduct of US Supreme Court associate justice Clarence Thomas, the number of female lawmakers in Washington increased in the next election.

Analysts often argue that female voters elected Donald Trump as president, and they later evicted him from the White House, chiefly because of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The US mid-term elections is weeks away, and both political parties have been fighting to get more female voters on their side. Women show less party loyalty than men.

Everyone is waiting to see how changes to abortion laws will affect changes in elected lawmakers around the country at all levels — although abortion is obviously more significant than an election issue.

Why have so many companies and influencers (real ones, not the social media kind) put so much money and effort for so long to create a US Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade, especially when it will affect the political power of those elected officials that most often do their bidding?

Look at the list above in which women have equal rights and benefits to men in a fantasy world. In the US, the law adequately protects American women from unequal treatment in most of that list – not income.

There are not too many laws protecting women’s rights that could be changed except for those protecting reproductive rights; laws where money, power, and religion, could be used to create certain outcomes.

Speculation about the laws guaranteeing access to contraception being next is not surprising after the court overturned Roe v. Wade.

One, bigger households are often poorer, and their children can do worse economically. If women are focused on the battle for abortion rights, like many are this election, they will be less focused on other battles. Moreover, like in Iran, the uncertainty of how laws will be applied creates a mental load.

In many countries, attacking women’s rights is a distraction. The goal is to make money, a very unequal share of it. Some will influence political and legal frameworks and what happens inside a private home to achieve this goal. As food prices continue to be high, I would expect more attacks on women’s rights.

Dr. Iris Boutros is a behavioural and development economist and strategist. She writes about employment, enterprise development, inclusion, and economic growth. Her work currently focuses on gains and value from connecting behaviour, the brain, and the body.

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Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros