Why Iranian women are among the most vulnerable to US sanctions

Cost of feminine hygiene products soars as salaries drop with analysts warning traditional family dynamic is at risk.

Iran Women

On November 5, further US sanctions on Iran went into effect and are expected to bring devastating consequences on the Islamic Republic and its people. 

It is feared that women along with children and impoverished Iranians are most at risk.

Fatemeh, 27, works at a public health policy start-up and teaches biology at a high school in the Iranian capital, Tehran. 

Born in Iran in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, she and her family moved to Canada and relocated to California at age 13.

After graduating, she decided that she wanted to return. Like many others, she has already started to feel the effect of sanctions.

“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” she told Al Jazeera. “Six, seven months ago, when the dollar and [rial] went crazy, prices went up. It makes me doubt if [returning] was really a good decision, and whether I can sustain this for much longer.

“No matter how much money I make, it is worth nothing in dollars.”

With the devaluation of Iran’s currency, Fatemeh’s monthly salary is equivalent to about $160, a steep decrease from what it used to be, around $800.

To add to income woes, women’s products such as menstrual hygiene items and certain medication have become steadily more difficult to find and much more expensive.

Fatemeh said searching for Western brands like Always or Kotex can be frustrating. 

“I went to six or seven pharmacies in a day and I just couldn’t find them anywhere,” she said.

She ventured to Jordan, a more affluent part of town, but the shelves were empty there, too.

Even Iranian brands have become more expensive; what was once 100,000 rial is now being sold for 160,000 rial, which is now worth around $3.80.

Azadeh Moaveni, gender consultant at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera: “There are micro-shortages of every day things which erode the quality of life of different classes in different ways. Over time, sanctions eventually impoverish the middle class and they are designed to do that.”

The scarcity has also led to panic buying and hoarding.

“From the seller’s perspective,” Fatemeh said, “they might hold on to them and wait until the next week to try to sell their products for a higher value.”

Yasaman, a 22-year-old university graduate, works in her family’s fast food restaurant in Shiraz. 

“People just aren’t buying anything right now if they can avoid it. I haven’t gone shopping recently, all the items have become more expensive,” she told Al Jazeera. “We had to increase the prices on our menu but customers understood that we didn’t have a choice.”

Khamenei’s call

After Norouz (New Year) celebrations last March, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to support domestic production.

“A lot of people have taken it to heart,” Fatemeh said, “even those who don’t necessarily politically agree with Khamenei.”

But even locally made products are more expensive. Nappies, for example, are made with imported raw materials.

Analysts warned that economic sanctions could ultimately affect the traditional family dynamic and leave women vulnerable [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]
Analysts warned that economic sanctions could ultimately affect the traditional family dynamic and leave women vulnerable [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

One woman told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition of anonymity, that the sanctions could lead to a lower birth rate.

She explained that people have been reconsidering having children because essential items such as nappies and formula are now unaffordable, even for an average dual-income household.

“When the Central Bank is sanctioned, it makes purchasing goods near impossible,” said Washington, DC-based Sussan Tahmasebi, the director of Femena, an organisation supporting women’s rights. 

She explained that the inability to transfer funds through SWIFT – meaning from one country to another – is the main problem.

Long-term effect

Beyond the immediate and visible effect – shortages and high prices – analysts warned that sanctions could disrupt the family dynamic.

Moaveni, the International Crisis Group consultant, said: “Women, as organisers of family life, healthcare, education, will often carry the burden of trying to come up with alternatives for their families in all instances.

“If men can’t provide for their families in a society that is still largely traditional and patriarchal, if they can’t fulfil the [perceived] duties of their gender role, it does tend to create tension and encourage forms of more assertive masculinity that are not as constructive to women having a say in the family unit.

“Not being able to earn or support the family has an impact on men’s conception of themselves.”

Further US sanctions on Iran went into effect on November 5, 2018 [Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE]
Further US sanctions on Iran went into effect on November 5, 2018 [Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE]

On Monday, US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo tweeted in Farsi: “[US] sanctions do not apply to the sale of food, agriculture, medicine, and medical devices.

“[The US] stands in solidarity with the Iranian people.” 

But according to more than 50 academic studies, economic sanctions in the past on Iran have had a humanitarian effect.

They have adversely affected the standard of living for ordinary Iranians, made certain medications inaccessible, and triggered public health concerns. 

“People say medicine isn’t sanctioned and that humanitarian aid isn’t sanctioned,” said Tahmasebi, “but it is.”

Source: Al Jazeera