What Iranian women do in hard times

TEHRAN, Iran — The train stops at Tehran’s 7-Tir station. Doors open and a rush of female passengers elbow their way inside the woman-only wagon. On the window, a sign in bold letters reads “Women Only,” as though anyone needs to be told in this strictly segregated society.

It's much cooler inside after the scorching heat outside, and the ride starts quietly, with only the hum of murmering passengers, but that is broken by a loud voice with a demanding tone:

“Ladies, I have here the best T-shirts in the market. They are free-size and come in six bright, fun colors. Wear them in front of your husbands and make them feel happy to be home after a long day at work. Just 4,000 tomans (about $4).”

The vendor is a short, chubby woman around 40 years old. When asked the quality of the material in the shirts, she huffs her way through the crowd to let the woman feel the fabric, carrying on all the while about its myriad qualities. Next comes out the nail polish remover, and after that hair pins and bracelets. The list goes on.

It's an all-too-common sight in the metros of Tehran. Since the subway system was put into use in 2000, and with its rapid expansion, more and more of these women vendors have taken to plying their wares inside the carriages. 

Their emergence coincides with the downturn in the Iranian economy over the past few years and the corresponding rise in living costs. Over the past year alone, housing and utilities prices have risen 16.3 percent, according to a report published this week by the Islamic Republic’s Central Bank. Food prices have increased 13.8 percent. The inflation rate in 2009 hit 20.21 percent, according to the same report. Iran's GDP is almost a quarter that of the U.S., according to the World Bank.

The economic situation is such that it emboldens critics of the government to speak out despite the recent evidence of its determination to quash dissent.

In the short trip between two stations, the vendor talks and sells, scrunching the money she earns to fit in her purse. Eventually she gets off the train with a smile.

Iran's subway saleswomen are not the typical ragged beggars that are a fixture in so many of the world's other transport systems. Young and old, they’re clean and presentable. Just like the women riding with them, they wear sunscreen and mascara. But they need to work. Selling goods in wagons is their job.

The practice is illegal, but subway authorities tolerate their presence as long as they are not a nuisance to passengers. Ali, a male security worker at 7-Tir station who declined to give his last name, said he even tried to help women vendors get away with selling goods. “We know they work here because they need the money," he said. "We sometimes give out notices, but we usually try and resolve the issue without making a fuss.”

In a letter published recently in the "Mardom-Salary" newspaper, Mohsen Javid, a war veteran, reminded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that one of his first campaign slogans was to “put the oil money on people’s tables.”

He went on to describe the extensive economic pressure everyday people are facing in the country. “Inflation, this huge and ugly monster, has broken the back of the nation’s men, they are ashamed to look into their families' faces. All everybody can think about these days is how to put dinner on the table.” 

Before, some of these women (who mostly have little education) would be stay-at-home mothers and have the privilege of a decent life with their husbands wages. But these days, everyone has to work. Traditional women in Iran prefer not to be seen working, especially by other men. Down in the enclosed metro wagons, they can be sure not to bump into the neighbor’s husband, but they can pay next month’s rent, too.

But not all of these women are wives and older women. Some of them are young students trying to pay for college. It’s not a norm for students (especially women) in Iran to, for example, wait tables. There are very limited jobs not frowned upon that young women with limited education can do.

One of the students working in the metro writes an anonymous blog in Farsi, “Memoirs of a metro vendor,”  which has become hugely popular. She writes in one of the posts that she keeps her blog using the internet from a coffee shop in the 7-Tir station.

One of the first posts is a poem and, translated from the Farsi, it reads:

“I’m a metro vendor/ Because I need the money/ I sell here because there’s nowhere else/ I’m educated, but jobless/ I want to write here/ Because I have no one else.”

Another post reads:

“It’s September and I only have a month to have my tuition money ready. Sometimes I feel so happy that Abadeh (a city in Iran) is so far away from here. This way my classmates would never see me working as a vendor.”

A shift is taking place rapidly in the Iranian society. It is becoming more acceptable for women to be present in less sophisticated professions. Inflation, high costs of living and unemployment has prompted these women to find innovative ways to earn a living. And it works. They sell their products and passengers get what they need.

“It’s convenient,” said Atousa, a female who frequently rides Tehran's metro, “instead of going to the bazaar, the bazaar comes to you.”

It helps the vendors that the wagons are women-only: the (typically) male authorities can’t enter and enforce the law. There are a few female police, but the vendors outnumber them and know how to avoid them.

The segregation also makes the carriages a desirable place to earn money: In effect, they double as small sanctuaries because they shelter them from the preying eyes of men and the hostile working environment outside.

Inside the closed doors vendors deal with women, their counterparts and their friends. Atousa recognizes a lot of the women who sell on the subway. “I don’t mind them,” she says, “in fact I kind of like seeing them," she adds. "If one day I travel, and they’re not there, I feel like there’s something missing. I get bored.”