Lessons for Iran's working woman

Sudaveh, left, with one of her employees.

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: Even as Iran's presence grows in the region, Iranians themselves are restless. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, fundamentalist Shiite Muslims clerics set the strict tone for government and public life. But inside people's homes and businesses the scene is quite different.

Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, brings us the tale of two women who came from very different religious backgrounds, and used those difference to stitch together a business.


BORZOU DARAGAHI:A wealthy woman in her late 50s, Sudaveh once had an elite post with a state-owned bank, but like many women in her class who led a secular lifestyle, her job was swept away by the Islamic revolution. So she started a children's clothing factory. It was rare for a woman to run a business. The morality police promptly visited. She didn't know how to respond. Zarir, in her 40s, was her young assistant from the pious slums of South Tehran. She knew exactly what to do.

ZARIR: You have to answer them quickly. If they say "Why are you wearing makeup?" You say "I don't wear makeup for men." If they say "Your socks are too thin," you say, "But my hijab is long."

Sudaveh, who favors tight designer jeans and open-toe high-heel pumps, found the help indispensable.

SUDAVEH: I didn't even know how to wear my hijab. I had no one in my family teach me how. Not even my grandmother wore hijab.

Sudaveh also ran into numerous other hassles in the male-dominated business world.

SUDAVEH: At first, work was very hard. The stores would try to rip us off. They thought I was some simple rich woman whose husband was letting her do this just to keep her busy. I had to show them that I knew what I was doing.

Zarir came from a strictly religious family. At 16 she was married off, but her husband was abusive and divorced her. He won custody of their two children and refused to let her see her son and daughter. With no means to look after herself, she persuaded her father to let her leave the house and look for a job. That's when she met Sudaveh. It was the late 1980s.

ZARIR: When I came here, I was in a really bad state.

Sudaveh soon learned Zarir's story and gave her some sophisticated uptown advice: discreetly befriend her ex-husband's new wife, and offer to take care of the children now and then. It worked. Soon Zarir and the second wife were conspiring, getting her the time with her children that had been denied by their father and the Islamic courts.

Sudaveh hired more women, who now total 12 of her 40 employees, and there were other male-female headaches. Women wouldn't even look at the men and shrieked if they came too close to touching. If a woman wanted to hand some needlework she'd done to a man assembling shirts, she'd find Sudaveh to do it. This had to stop. It was hurting the bottom line. One day some years ago, Sudaveh gathered all the women working in the factory's upstairs rooms.

SUDAVEH: "I want to send you downstairs," I said. "You won't put your head down. You'll raise your head and look men in the eyes."

Now they work together, listening to Iranian pop music while parakeets chirp in the background.

SUDAVEH: Now they're so normal with each other. It's like nothing. No one quit. They got used to it.

As the years went by, Iranian society continued to change. People began moving from villages and farms to big cities, cramming into tiny apartments. They had fewer kids and began doting on them with pricey clothes. Seven years ago Sudaveh opened her own shop with her own brand. The company has since expanded to about a dozen stores nationwide. It generates millions of dollars in annual revenue. Recently, Zarir's father fell ill and was in a hospital. She went to visit him, and sat by his bed. A business associate came in, and he introduced her. "This is my daughter," he said with pride. "The one who works."

In Tehran, I'm Borzou Daragahi for Marketplace

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