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Journal ArticleDOI

From Rags to Riches

01 Jul 1997-IDS Bulletin (Institute of Development Studies)-Vol. 28, Iss: 3

Abstract: Summaries This article examines the contradictory implications of rising rural incomes – generated through export crop production – for women in a rural community of south‐eastern Iran. It uses two different, but related, ways of capturing how women have fared in the context of these socioeconomic changes. First, defining well‐being in terms of lsquo;functionings’, it looks at the gender‐differentiated patterns of deprivation expressed in terms of infant and child mortality. It then explores issues of ‘vulnerability’ which are highlighted in women's own accounts of well‐being; vulnerability refers to the bundles of risk from the deterioration in women's independent entitlements and from the changes in conjugal relations that are hemming women in and making them more dependent on male incomes. By juxtaposing these two accounts the article concludes that while conventional well‐being indicators (measured directly on the individual) are more conducive to obtaining a gender‐differentiated picture of deprivation than are household‐based measures (as in the poverty line approach), they are nevertheless limited in the extent to which they can capture different aspects of gender discrimination. These neglected dimensions of gender discrimination may be precisely the ones that get exacerbated when rising cash flows are directed into male hands.
Topics: Poverty (51%)

Content maybe subject to copyright    Report

Volume 47 | Number 1A | March 2016
Transforming Development Knowledge
Editors Deepta Chopra
and Catherine Müller

Introduction: Connecting Perspectives on Women’s Empowerment
Deepta Chopra and Catherine Müller Article first published March 2016, IDSB47.1A
Liberal vs. Liberating Empowerment: A Latin American Feminist Perspective on
Conceptualising Women’s Empowerment
Cecília M.B. Sardenberg Article first published December 2008, IDSB39.6
From Rags to Riches: Looking at Poverty from a Gender Perspective
Shahra Razavi Article first published July 1997, IDSB28.3
Editorial: Tactics and Trade-Offs: Revisiting the Links Between Gender and Poverty
Naila Kabeer Article first published July 1997, IDSB28.3
Beyond the Rhetoric of Choice: Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment in
Developed Countries
Claartje J. Vinkenburg Article first published July 2015, IDSB46.4
Family, Households and Women’s Empowerment in Bahia, Brazil, Through the
Generations: Continuities or Change?
Cecilia M.B. Sardenberg Article first published March 2010, IDSB41.2
Introduction: Quotas – Add Women and Stir?
Mariz Tadros Article first published September 2010, IDSB41.5
Women’s Voices, Work and Bodily Integrity in Pre-Conflict, Conflict and Post-Conflict
Reconstruction Processes in Sierra Leone
Hussainatu J. Abdullah, Aisha F. Ibrahim and Jamesina King
Article first published March 2010, IDSB41.2
Beyond the Mantra of Empowerment: Time to Return to Poverty, Violence and Struggle
Uma Chakravarti Article first published December 2008, IDSB39.6
Gender Equality in the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Lessons from the MDGs
Gita Sen Article first published September 2013, IDSB44.5–6
Introduction: Negotiating Empowerment
Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards Article first published March 2010, IDSB41.2
Razavi From Rags to Riches: Looking at Poverty from a Gender Perspective
DOI: 10.19088/1968-2016.116
Vol. 47 No. 1A March 2016: ‘Connecting Perspectives on Women’s Empowerment’

This article takes up the theme of 'gender and
poverty', but looks at it from the vantage point of
women living in an increasingly opulent setting.
The case study comes from a small rural commu-
nity in south-eastern Iran. The selected region has
some distinct features which make it interesting for
exploring this particular conjunction of social
forces: relative opulence generated through agricul-
tural export earnings, on the one hand, and pow-
erful gender discriminatory relations sanctioned by
local custom and reinforced through state policy,
on the other. The article will explore the contradic-
tory implications that the rising levels of household
income have had for women. lt does so by using
two different, but related, ways of capturing how
women have fared in the context of these socio-
economic changes.
First, defining poverty/well-being as a 'state of
being or doing' (as in Sen's 'functionings'), we look
at gender differentials in well-being indicators. In
this context we focus on some of the most extreme
forms of deprivation - infant and child mortality -
to see if they reflect gender bias in parental care, as
one might expect from the geographical distribu-
tion of masculine sex ratios. Although it is difficult
to draw any firm conclusions about changes in dis-
criminatory practices on the basis of time-series
trends in mortality sex ratios, we offer some tenta-
tive explanations for the observed patterns.
We then explore issues of vulnerability which are
highlighted in women's own accounts of well-
being. Vulnerability here refers to the complex
bundles of risk that are hemming women in, mak-
ing them more dependent on male incomes: the
weakening of women's independent economic
sphere; the withdrawal of female labour from farm
work; and their forced reliance on a labour market
that is highly segmented and discriminatory In
many ways these changes seem to add up to a dete-
rioration in women's 'fall back position'. However,
in response we also find a series of coping strategies
through which women seek to make their lives
more secure - demanding a share of the family
legacy (land); demanding remuneration for their
labour obligations within marriage; and a tendency
to invest their wages in assets that are less vulnera-
ble to male predation.
From Rags
to Riches
Looking at Poverty
a Gender
Shahra Razavi
IDS Bulletin Vol 28 No 3 1997

Although it is difficult to generalise from the expe-
rience documented in this case study, some of our
findings may have wider relevance. Strategies for
increasing rural incomes may entail a number of
unforeseen negative consequences for women. The
specific ways in which these macro-policies affect
women depend on a variety of factors, amongst
them the growth trajectory, the various institutions
which mediate the benefits of growth (markets, the
state), and the pre-existing gender relations. In the
case study documented in this paper, for example,
'underemployment' rather than 'overemployment'
seems to be the critical gender issue that is
The article also draws attention to the relative
strengths and weaknesses of 'objective' measures of
well-being. While well-being indicators (measured
directly on the individual) are more conducive to
obtaining a gender-differentiated picture of depriva-
tion than are household-based measures (as in the
poverty line approach), they are nevertheless lim-
ited in the extent to which they can capture differ-
ent aspects of gender discrimination. Some of these
limitations are highlighted in this paper by drawing
on women's own accounts of well-being which
focus on issues of vulnerability and security within
marriage. As we see below, the way in which the
concept of vulnerability is used here differs in sev-
eral respects from its usage in the mainstream liter-
ature and highlights some of the ways in which the
concept has to be reformulated if gender is to be
brought in as a core concern.
2 Opulence and Well-Being: The
National Context
The study region is set within a country which, by
standard opulence criteria, is considered to be 'mid-
dle-income'. Some of this wealth at least seems to
be contributing to the achievement of basic needs.
With an average life expectancy of almost 68 years,
an infant mortality rate of 25 per 1,000, and an
adult literacy rate of 65 per cent, Iran ranks
amongst the
'medium human development'
In the context of export promotion in many African
rural economies, in contrast, an important gender issue
appears to be women's increasing work loads (e.g.
Uganda Women's Network 1995; Palmer 1991).
'The state commitment to improving basic needs was no
achievers (UNDP 1995). A critical factor in this
process seems to have been Iranian state policy
which in the post-1979 period has identified the
improvement of basic needs as one of its main pri-
orities! Over a period of almost 15 years infant
mortality has dropped from 104 per 1,000 to 25 per
1,000; life expectancy has risen from 55 to 68 years.
Literacy rates over the same period have gone from
under half to around two-thirds, and are still rising;
the gap between urban and rural literacy is closing;
and rural infrastructure - safe drinking water, elec-
tricity and roads - has been significantly improved
(The Economist, 18 January 1997). Even though
the rationing system which was put in place during
the Iran-Iraq war has now virtually ceased to exist,
universal state subsidies on bread, fuel, medicine
and other basic necessities continue to shield the
population from the vagaries of market forces
unleashed by Iran's liberalisation and restructuring
programs (albeit without IMF loans).
Cross-cutting, and potentially off-setting some of
the benefits of these economic and social policies,
are a set of powerful gender relations which are
institutionalised within the household and the mar-
ket, and reinforced through state policies. Falling
within the so-called classic belt of 'patriarchy-
patriliny-patrilocality', the typical Iranian house-
hold is a corporate entity with women's economic
independence and personal autonomy highly cir-
cumscribed. Hand in hand with the more benign
social and economic policies noted above, state
presence of a more ambiguous kind has tended to
reinforce these gender-based restrictions. The
schools, the mosques, the mass media and various
revolutionary organs convey messages about 'pro-
priety' and 'decency', backed by powerful sanctions
(including force where necessary), which serve to
preserve and reinforce men's privileged position
within conjugal and gender relations. Symbolising
the entry of the urban Islamic culture into the rural
milieu - which has been historically more lax about
women's physical mobility and attire - is the black
veil (chador) that increasingly adorns school girls
and young women.
doubt an outcome of the revolutionary process that
brought the Islamic regime to power. As many have
argued, the Islamic Republic itself is a highly eclectic
entity which combines traditionalist elements of shi'i
Islam with aspects of Third World populism and state
socialism (Abrahamian 1993).

Looking more closely at the Rafsanjan district, the
first point to note is that as the main producer of
Iran's leading export crop (pistachio),
it ranks
amongst the most affluent regions in the country
While commercial relations have had a long history
in this region, since the mid-1960s a number of fac-
tors (state policies, water shortages) have hastened
the transition from semi-subsistence agriculture
into full-scale cash cropping so that by the early
1980s most of the villages in the Rafsanjan basin
produced nothing but pistachio. At the same time
the persistence of a hierarchical class structure -
where the descendants of the absentee landlords
still own a significant proportion of the region's land
and water resources - has meant that the export
earnings are very unequally divided. Yet a number
of social changes - some of them sanctioned by the
state - have served to reduce class inequality
Irrigation technology - which prior to 1979 was the
preserve of the rural elite - has become more widely
accessible; this has led to the emergence of a small
strata of rich peasants (some of whom are politically
connected to the state), and a labour force that is
marginally landed ('garden owners'). More impor-
tantly though as far as the landless and the land-
poor are concerned, the landlord-peasant relations
have undergone a qualitative sea-change; a more
enlightened style of capitalism has replaced the
archaic 'feudal' relations of domination. A progres-
sive Labour Code backed by state sanction has
obliged the absentee owners of large-scale pistachio
farms to provide their attached male labourers with
a wage that is above the national minimum wage,
health insurance, paid holidays, and compensation
in case of unfair dismissal.3 The labour market nev-
ertheless remains rigidly segmented, and the labour
relations within the female segments bear no resem-
blance to the favourable conditions that prevail in
some male segments of the market (more on this
The general point raised above about state presence
certainly applies to the study villages. On the one
hand, this has been reflected in the development of
rural infrastructure; most villages in the district now
have piped water and electricity, paved roads, pri-
mary schools and access to state-funded mobile
immunisation units. At the same time, the very
structures that have brought 'development' to these
remote villages - schools, roads, electricity (televi-
sion) - also serve as a conduit for state propaganda
and control. The dominant household model, and
the symbols and social norms that accompany it,
legitimise male advantage within the conjugal con-
tract, redefine the concepts of gendered space, and
tighten the female segments within the labour mar-
ket. Moreover, the failure to recognise women as
independent persons means that state efforts to dis-
tribute assets (land, water) more fairly and to pro-
tect the rights of agricultural workers completely
by-pass women.
3 The Strengths and Limitations
of Well-Being Indicators
There has been much debate on the gender biases
that imbue measurements of poverty As many have
argued, using human development indicators (as
opposed to opulence criteria such as income), is
preferable not only for drawing attention to the
actual realisation of basic needs (as opposed to the
potential value of income in achieving those needs),
but also because it is less prone to gender bias as it
is measured directly on the individual (Kabeer
1996). Moreover, 'objective'
indicators of well-
being are not subject to the same cultural biases that
are likely to affect people's self-perceptions of well-
being - a bias that is particularly acute in the case
of women (Sen 1987). For all these reasons gender
differentials in infant and child death rates can cap-
ture an important dimension of relative female
deprivation. Do the Iranian mortality figures con-
form to the pattern emerging from other parts of the
patriarchal belt (Pakistan, North India, Bangladesh)
where significant social factors outweigh and
reverse the pattern that is expected on the basis of
biological sex differentials in life chances?
Unfortunately, the Iranian vital statistics obtained
through large-scale sample surveys are quite old
1978). As one might expect, however, they
indicate a significant degree of female disadvantage
in early age survivorship, which is particularly acute
during infancy (rn/f ratio of 0.91) and early child-
hood (rn/f ratio of 0.8). To put the picture of
To escape the requirements of the Labour Code, the
labourers who, as refugees, are not entitled to the same
capitalist owners increasingly resort to hiring Afghani
rights as Iranian workers.

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