5 WOMEN’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE TOURISM ACTIVITIES OF IRAN: ATTEMPTS TO PROMOTE GENDER EQUITY – Contributions by Fatemeh Bagheri and Sarasadat Makian
I am Fatemeh, a 32-year-old Iranian woman who has always been looking to earn insightful knowledge and research. Everyone has known me since childhood as an independent, optimistic, hard-working person. I was born in a small and beautiful city in the Fars province of Iran. After living in several Iranian cities (Kerman, Tehran, and Rasht, in chronological order), I am now living in Lisbon, Portugal. At 18, I was accepted into the tourism management major by (mistake), but now I call it a (chance!) because I have found how much I love visiting and learning about new cultures and places. Being interested in this field and due to my husband’s encouragement, I decided to continue my master’s degree in tourism marketing management at Tehran University in 2012. Studying at the greatest Iranian university was one of my dreams come true. So, I have been trying to learn, study, and explore new things more and more. I remember I did not miss any classes and attended every one of those (earlier than my classmates), even at 8 am. After successfully passing the Ph.D. exam, I started my Ph.D. studies in tourism at the public university of Allameh Tabataba ‘i in 2015. During my Ph.D. program, I was awarded Iran’s national Elites foundation prize two times. I graduated as a top student in 2018. In 2020, I was hired as a faculty member at Guilan University. Finally, in 2022, I decided to immigrate to Portugal and launched a collaboration with Algarve University as a postdoctoral researcher. Tourism management and marketing topics are my research interests. You can read my research here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Fatemeh-Bagheri-6.
I am Sara, originally from Iran, but now living in France. Learning new languages, visiting new places, and experiencing new things have always interested me. Since I did not desire to be confined to daily routines, I always sought novelty. Learning and sharing what I learned were two of my greatest passions. All these aspects of my personality are what brought me to tourism research. I graduated with a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree in Tourism Management from the University of Allameh Tabatabai in Iran. Having worked and taught in tourism in Iran for two years, I moved to France in 2016 to study for my second master’s in Tourism, Innovation, and Transition at Grenoble Alpes University. Due to my love of the French language, I chose this country. Having a passion for academia, I started my Ph.D. in 2018 on the future of ecotourism. I forgot to mention that one of the master’s professors gave a lesson on future studies during one of the classes. This was my aha moment: I want to be a tourism futurist. Since then, my interest in tourism foresight has grown. Although I started studying tourism in 2008, it was only in 2019 that I started publishing internationally. I have published articles and book chapters. If you want to get to know me, here is my Orcid ID: 0000-0002-9935-5877.
Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the morality police on 16 September 2022 triggered nationwide protests by Iranians, especially women, for freedom and an end to the oppression they have suffered for over four decades. This movement’s slogan is “Woman, Life, Freedom,” which represents the dream of many women to be free of oppression and compulsion, especially in Iran. Since the purpose of this book is to raise the voice of women in tourism research, we, as two Iranian women, decided to write about the role that women have played (or will play) in the development of Iranian tourism, which you will read below. It is hard to tell when this book will be published and whether the freedom movement was won or lost, but we dedicate this contribution to the women, men, girls, boys, and children killed in Iran seeking peace.
Located at a critical junction in the southwest of Asia, Iran is the origin of one of the oldest large civilizations in the world (Araee, 2008), traced back to a 10,000-year-old (O’Gorman, McLellan, & Baum, 2007). Iran’s geographical extent, ancient heritage, and cultural/ ethnical diversity result in various potential tourist attractions throughout the country (Hamedi, 2016). However, mainly due to its exceptional geo-political location and oil extraction legacy, historically, Iran has been a politically unstable country. In 1979 and 1980, the revolution of the Islamic Republic and the Iran–Iraq War was the last major political events leading to considerable socio-cultural, economic, and political changes in the Iranian community. The typology, policies, services, and target markets of tourism development, as a socio-cultural phenomenon, have changed dramatically over the history of Iran, specifically after the revolution of 1979 (Heydari Chianeh, Del Chiappa, & Ghasemi, 2018) and the ideologies of the Islamic government has affected every aspect of this industry. For instance, tourism activities changed to religious and cultural rather than coastal and nature-based, or the target markets shifted to Islamic countries rather than the US (the most popular target market before the revolution) and western countries. However, in recent years, many factors have rejuvenated the Iranian tourism industry, including improving infrastructure and services, marketing programs and social media, trained human resources, and various attractions and activities.
Although the revolution stopped Iranian women’s progress for a short time, increasing Iranian women’s participation in different activities is one of the most important recent changes in the community of Iran. However, since Iran’s governance is related to the Islamic religion, the presence of women in different social activities depends on the confirmation of the traditions/ laws rooted in Islam. The relatively traditional society of Iran, which until a few decades ago did not even agree with the active presence of women in the society, changed its approach. However, women’s participation in society, hijab, and social interactions must be done according to Islamic laws. Following changes caused by modernization and challenging conventional gender clichés, Iranian women do not give into early marriage. Even when married, alongside parental responsibilities, they increasingly seek to participate in the community economically, socially, and politically (Bagheri, Ghaderi, Abdi, & Hall, 2022). However, Iranian families, society, and the government impose different inequalities on girls and women implicitly or explicitly. According to SISC (2015), women’s participation rate in the Iranian labor market is only 12.4% despite the increase in educated women. One of the new fields of activity for women is tourism and hospitality.
Iranian women play many roles in the tourism industry: as leaders, innovators, employees, business owners, and even as teachers and academics, tourism guides, and, of course, tourists. Since there is no sign of gender equality in tourism activities in Iran, women make the most effort from the beginning due to their lack of access to professional training, lack of benefits in daily life, cultural expectations from them about the role of women in the home and the sexist prejudices which have been excluded them from the workplace. The tourism industry, which has usually been a priority sector for boosting the social inclusion and empowerment of disadvantaged groups (Lima & Eusebio, 2021), is an ideal platform for social, political, and economic participation of Iranian women not only in cities but also in remote rural areas of the country. According to Hosseini et al. (2022), tourism has made women more visible in public despite the restrictions imposed by Iran’s religious-patriarchal society. As such, to bring the voice of Iranian women to this contribution to knowledge, we will discuss the role of Iranian women in different tourism activities and specifically focus on the ecolodge, a new trend in tourism accommodation in Iran and where Iranian women entrepreneurs are known as flag bearers.
Tourism activities in Iran: a gender-centric perspective
Iranian Women as Tourists
In terms of finances, time, and norms, there is an unequal distribution of leisure opportunities between the sexes in the Iranian community. Yet, traveling solo or as a single gender gives women a chance to experience, consolidate, and prove their power, agency, and independence in contemporary Iran (Razavizadeh & Baradaran Kashani, 2018). According to Islamic laws, traditional Iranian men hold to the gheyrat behavior code, which allows for a sense of possessiveness toward their daughters, sisters, wives, and even mothers (Abedinifard, 2019). “Generally, gheyrat limits women in freely doing what they want and requires them to obey their father or husband. In the case of travel, the freedom of movement for women is legally constrained by the requirement to gain permission from their father or husband to travel domestically or internationally” (Nikjoo, Markwell, Nikbin, & Hernández-Lara, 2021, p.1). However, in recent years, Iran’s society has changed significantly in favor of women’s position despite all of the judgments from religion, law, and tradition, and the demand for female-led holidays has grown in Iran (Hosseini et al., 2022). This is mainly due to women becoming more educated and economically independent and, of course, the emergence of the Internet and the rise of informal communication channels (Shahvali, Shahvali, & Kerstetter, 2016). Traveling solo is a type of active resistance against gender inequities and creates opportunities for women to overcome personal fears and challenge discriminatory traditions. Furthermore, Nikjoo, Zaman, Salehi, & Hernández-Lara (2022) research on middle-aged Iranian women showed that being away from family routine responsibilities and gender-related restrictions, as well as advancement in their social and personal selves resulting from these types of traveling, contributed to their well-being.
Most Iranian women solo travelers share the story of their travels across Iran or to other countries on Instagram. The following images show four Iranian solo-traveler women who actively advocate for Iranian women’s rights through their travel blogs.
Iranian Women as Tourism Leaders
Despite all the mentioned limitations, women’s entrepreneurship and their role in tourism development in today’s society have been growing worldwide and in our country. Due to social changes and the increased education rate, women in Iran are searching for independence. According to the World Bank (2022)data, the female labor force participation rate was 14% in 2021, which is very low considering that women make up the majority of the population of Iran. Besides, only 5% of tourism companies have female managers in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iran. For example, Iranian women are highly educated, but government regulations prevent hotels from hiring them (Hutchings, Moyle, Chai, Garofano, & Moore, 2020). One of the obstacles to women’s entrepreneurship is the various forms of gender discrimination that exist in society, which results in business and job discrimination. Although Iranian women have become more involved in tourism-related activities, the traditional view of them as housewives has changed (Seyfi, Hall, & Vo-Thanh, 2022).
In recent years, Iranian women have played a variety of roles in the development of tourism, ranging from working as travel guides (nontraditional fields) (Hosseini, Macias, & Garcia, 2022) to becoming entrepreneurs in rural areas. In Iran, women run and manage small or medium-sized businesses, including guiding domestic and international tourist groups, creating and selling handicrafts, teaching and training in tourism, and managing a variety of accommodations and related services, etc. in different cities. Additionally, the number of Iranian women activists is rising and they are becoming more involved in different projects related to sustainability and tourism, women’s empowerment through tourism, and environmental preservation. Tourism has been, therefore, a valuable tool for increasing the participation of women in Iranian society. Alternatively, women’s activities and entrepreneurship can contribute to tourism development and achieve gender equality. A recent study by Bagheri et al. (2022) empirically showed that Iranian women’s entrepreneurship in tourism leads to their (economic, social, psychological, and political) empowerment through creating shared social and economic value for society. However, they discuss that some of the entrepreneurship fields of the tourism industry (such as transportation) are highly gendered in Iran.
Several successful Iranian women share their experiences and activities on social media. However, many of them remain the hidden treasures of Iranian tourism. We expect Iranian tourism to improve in the future under the influence of women. Four Iranian women are presented in the following images as tourism leaders, including the tour organizer, ecolodge manager, tourism journalist, and lecturer.
Ecolodge: an opportunity for Iranian women to be leaders in designing the tourism experience and promoting gender equality
In recent years, ecolodge has been known as the most common accommodation type in the Iranian tourism industry, especially in rural areas. Locally owned, small-scale businesses such as lodges contribute to sustainable tourism development by protecting the environment, developing local economies, and promoting small businesses locally (Makian, Borouj, & Hanifezadeh, 2022). Furthermore, eco-lodges are based on a philosophy that emphasizes natural and cultural attractions, educational opportunities, and community involvement. Besides benefiting the local community, ecolodges engage tourists and give them an active and collaborative experience (Varmazyari et al., 2022). In other words, ecolodges have considerable potential to attract tourists interested in rural life, culture, history, ethics, and geographical roots with natural attractions. Makian et al. (2022) emphasize that the creation, management, and monitoring of ecolodges are prerequisites for sustainable development. In the following images, you will find cases of Iranian ecolodges managed entirely or partially by women.
Nartitee Ecolodge (Taft, Yazd, Iran)/ Source: Instagram account of @nartitee_house
(Khomam, Gilan, Iran)/ Source: Instagram account of @telarkhaneh_bordbar
Fardis Ecolodge (Qeshm, Hormozgan, Iran)/ Source: Instagram account of @fardisbeach
From 320 ecolodges in 2017 to 1500 by 2020, the number of Iranian ecolodges has increased 4.7 times in Iran (Varmazyari, Mirhadi, Joppe, Kalantari, & Decrop, 2022) and most of these accommodations are managed by women. Various benefits of these lodges have contributed to income generation in disadvantaged areas and the empowerment of women (Makian et al., 2022). In Iran’s economy, an eco-lodge plays a significant role in empowering women, especially rural women, by increasing their social participation. In most areas of Iran, local women play an essential role in tourist accommodation as managers or employees. Developing and managing an ecolodge requires creativity (in integrating culture and nature into tourist experiences), so Iranian women have demonstrated their talents in this area. Creating and selling handicrafts, and decorations, preparing local cuisine and hospitality, and designing tourism routes and creative experiences for guests and tourists are some of the important contributions Iranian women make to the stays of tourists in eco-lodges. Therefore, Iranian women play an inevitable role in preserving the local culture and traditions. Most of them have been able to achieve financial independence through the sale of various products and services in eco-lodges. Increasing women’s economic empowerment increases their psychological independence and confidence.
In addition to financial independence, women’s participation in this kind of tourism accommodation and experience creation for tourists leads to their voices being heard in political decisions for tourism. Iranian women, particularly those with a long history in this field, are members of the policy-making associations of ecotourism and ecolodge at the national or local level. In this way, they can contribute to the policies and decisions in this field. It means they can access resources and opportunities regardless of gender and be politically empowered and powerful. In recent years, Iranian women have tried to decrease gender-based stereotype cliches (on lack of women’s managerial abilities) and create gender equity in the tourism industry.
The photo of the eight women mentioned was picked from their Instagram accounts.
Written by Fatemeh Bagheri (Research Center for Tourism Sustainability and Well-being, Algarve University, Portugal) and Sarasadat Makian (Social Sciences Research Center, Grenoble Alpes University, France)
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