A different perspective on empowerment in a tourism context
The following is a blog by Yeganeh Aghazamani, who graduated with a Ph.D. in Tourism Management from the Pennsylvania State University. For her doctoral dissertation Yeganeh conducted a field study in an Iranian tourism destination evaluating local women’s perceptions on empowerment. The below excerpt is taken from this dissertation, titled “Pathways to women’s empowerment in northern Iran” and her paper, titled “Women’s perceptions of empowerment in Ramsar: A tourism destination in northern Iran”, by Y. Aghazamani, D. Kerstetter, and P. Allison, and published in Women’s Studies International Forum in early 2020.
Imagine yourself in a coastal town within close proximity to the mountains. Here, you can swim in the Caspian Sea waters and walk on sandy beaches. If you become tired of the Sea, you can go up to the mountains which are packed with various trees and green plant species. Walking in a boulevard lined by sky rocketing palm trees ending at the beach or shopping for vegetables at local bazaars are some other options.
You are in one of Iran’s tourism hubs, Ramsar, which is called Iran’s Bride Town because of its beauty. Tourism has been one of the main sources of income for a long time in Ramsar. The town hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
However, the question is whether local women have benefited from tourism in the area. I conducted a qualitative research study applying in-depth interviews with local women and local officials to understand how tourism contributed to local women’s empowerment, if at all. In the following lines I describe women’s experience with tourism in Ramsar and their perceptions of empowerment.
I interviewed 20 local women who worked in tourism. They had different roles, including founder and CEO of a travel agency and a hotel, travel agent employee, reservation employees, handicraft makers, and a chef. Most of them had a university degree and were in their late 20s to 50s.
Women believed that tourism contributed to their lives. Many participants acknowledged that having a job in tourism resulted in improved social interaction, self-confidence, financial and intellectual independence, and happiness.
Tourism brings tourists from different backgrounds and cultures to the town. It provides the opportunity for women to interact with tourists and become confident about talking with people who come from different socio-economic background than theirs.
For Roshani, who worked as a museum guide and tourism instructor, having a job in tourism had improved her self-confidence as she had become financially independent. She expressed that, by becoming independent and self-confident, work which had seemed hard had become “a piece of cake” for her.
Women are also able to earn income and decide for themselves and their families. For instance, Peymani, who owned a clothing shop, was able to freely plan for a trip without asking permission from her husband. Tourism raised women’s capacity for critical thinking in that they were able to exchange ideas with tourists and compare ideas. It taught them the ability to make decisions.
A street handicraft maker, called Deyhimi, managed to make good friends by interacting with tourists. She not only sold her crochets to tourists, but also she added them to a Telegram page she had created to sell her products online. Now that the study is completed, she owns a car, which she managed to buy by selling her handicrafts on the streets of Ramsar.
It is important to note that she was able to achieve her goals by working as a street vendor despite the stigma against that kind of trade. Other women who worked as a chef or a costume shop owner, for instance, had also overcome the stigma against women who worked outside the home, interacting with strangers.
Women felt happy as their economic and social status had been enhanced following their employment in tourism. Working in a traditional clothing shop had made Simaie come out of her “gloomy home” and have fun by interacting with her boss, Ms. Peymani, and others at the shop.
Mrs. Simaie, who was a chef and owned a kitchen in the town, used to be invited to speak at the community events as a woman entrepreneur or to present her local foods at the fairs. She was proud of herself and mentioned that if she did not have this job, no local authority or other people would have known her.
Women linked empowerment to financial and intellectual independence, sociability, self-confidence, being active (e.g., having a job), and being a game changer. However, participants expressed different levels of empowerment including strongly empowered, somewhat empowered, and not empowered. Most of the women expressed they were strongly empowered.
Strongly empowered women worked in different sections of tourism as entrepreneurs and the self-employed (e.g., a crochet weaver, a hotel owner, a grocery shop owner), employees (e.g., a manager of a souvenir shop, a tourism expert in Tourism Organization), and a street vendor. They linked their empowerment to their job, financial independence, improved social skills, self-confidence, and ability to make decisions.
Peymani had worked as a sewer for a while and her efforts led her to own a traditional clothing shop in Ramsar. It was not common for women to own a shop in Ramsar as most of the shops were run by men. Being active had made her empowered. She was called “Mr. Monir” by others, as she ran her own business and interacted with men.
Paymani believes “Water which moves never become stinky. Empowerment is like this water. When you move in whatever amount you attempt, you earn the same amount of output”. This commitment to improve one’s life was called “seriousness” by Moini, who worked as the head of reservation department at a hotel. She mentioned, “In our culture, if women are not serious they will not be taken seriously.” This “seriousness” helped her to obtain respect from other employees and raise self-confidence.
Women who expressed they were somewhat empowered believed that they had some signs of empowerment but they had not achieved what they wanted. For instance, Hoseini worked in reservation department at a hotel with a master’s degree in information technology (IT).
She managed to resist the socio-cultural norms by not compromising with traditions, which she believed made women dependent to their parents and husbands. Although she expressed that she was independent, educated, and resisted traditional norms, Hoseini was not allowed to work in a senior level IT-related position at the hotel.
Three women mentioned they were not empowered as they had not achieved their goals. Although Kasraie was a founder and CEO of an online hotel booking platform and highly educated, she believed she was not empowered. She was not able to study the Ph.D. program she loved due to financial and marriage barriers. A travel agent employee, who had a bachelor’s degree in economy, called herself not empowered as she had not found her desired job in a bank.
The study demonstrated that empowerment is not a zero-sum notion. In contrary to the current literature, which believes in empowerment and disempowerment, the study showed that there is a spectrum for empowerment.
A final example: The female entrepreneur who had founded and managed a travel agency, which had become the most successful travel agency in Ramsar. With this successful business and financial and intellectual independence, she still called herself only somewhat empowered. Why? Because she was not able to strike a balance between her business and family and failed to spend more time with her child.
The “leveled empowerment” implies that an individual can be empowered and not feel empowered at the same time. It is associated with women’s expectations and needs. We need to consider leveled empowerment in our research studies and policy development as women’s expectations, priorities, and needs differ.
Names mentioned in this blog are pseudonyms. If you are interested in finding out more about the study, please contact Yeganeh at Yegi_fr@yahoo.com