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Iranian Women Morgue Workers Fight for Their Rights

March 8, 2021
Amir Hossein Miresmaeili
5 min read
Women mortuary workers do the same job as men but they are denied insurance and unemployment.
Women mortuary workers do the same job as men but they are denied insurance and unemployment.
“It is as though we were born to be exploited,” says one woman mortuary worker.
“It is as though we were born to be exploited,” says one woman mortuary worker.

Statistics from around the world show that more women than men have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Iran is no exception. A report by the Statistical Center of Iran shows the majority of jobs lost after the coronavirus outbreak a year ago belonged to women and especially to women laborers.

But in this report IranWire talks to women workers who have not lost their jobs – in fact who have had to work harder and longer than before and who are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus: women mortuary workers. The ritual full-body purification of the deceased mandated by Islam also makes this work particularly demanding.

Women morticians have had to deal with the standard challenges of working through the pandemic. And they have had unique grievances, saying that although they do the same job as their male counterparts, they are denied insurance coverage and are considered day laborers rather than full-time employees with benefits and job security.

Besides the problems of working during the pandemic, these women have other grievances as well and say that although they do the same job as men they are denied insurance and are considered day laborers, not employees.

IranWire spoke to two women working in mortuaries in northern Iranian cities that have been especially hard-hit during the pandemic.

A woman mortuary worker in Babolsar in the northern province of Mazandaran tells IranWire that the pandemic has not only increased her workload but has also put her life at risk.

“I am the family’s breadwinner, because my husband has lost most of his eyesight and is not able to work anymore,” says Khadijeh. “The number of fatalities in the city rose after the coronavirus outbreak and observing health protocols to wash and shroud the bodies has also increased our workload. In the early months of the pandemic, I myself got infected with the virus and I was bed-ridden for a month. Who was going to pay me? Without the help of charitable people and my employer, me, my husband and my children would have starved to death.”

Khadijeh says that she and her coworkers do not benefit from unemployment insurance and they are only paid according to the number of corpses that they process.

“If one day I fall sick or there are no bodies to prepare then I would have no income,” she says. “I am 55 now and I ask myself how we are going to survive a few years from now when I can no longer work. In the past year, with the increase in the number of fatalities, the pain in my back and my knees has gotten worse. But I have no choice except to continue doing what I am doing. In a small city like Babolsar there are not that many jobs for us women and I am forced to, reluctantly, wash dead bodies. Who likes to do this job? I get paid 30,000 tomans [$7.30] for each body. If, on average, I wash two bodies a day I would be paid a maximum of 1.8 million tomans [$438] per month. How can one live on this pay and with these high prices?”

Next we call a 30-year-old woman mortuary worker, Maryam, in Gorgan, the provincial capital of Golestan. This province, along with the two other northern provinces of Mazandaran and Gilan, has suffered from a higher rate of Covid-19 fatalities because they are among the most popular destinations for vacationers. Iranians from other parts of the country have travelled to these provinces and increased the infections rate as a result.

Maryam says that besides the meager pay and her difficult job, it is the disdain in which people hold her work that troubles her. She sometimes curses her luck for having to make her living this way.

“I am a human being and it is difficult for me to deal with the disdainful looks in the eyes of other people,” says Maryam. “They look at us as though we have the plague or we have chosen this job because we love it, even though they can see we wear masks and layers of [protective] clothing to avoid coronavirus, which has made our job doubly difficult. In this cemetery there is a shortage of manpower for burying bodies and family members are to terrified to help. I sometimes even have to descend into the grave myself. Earlier [in the pandemic] city workers used machines to cover the bodies with lime. But now they don’t care and everything is on the shoulders of us: the workers.”

Maryam, who has a two-year-old daughter, complains of her low pay and says that no government agency helps her and her colleagues.

“All workers are insured except women mortuary workers,” she says. “Are men more true-blooded or do they wash bodies better? Every day I work from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon and, at the end of the month, I am paid 2.5 million tomans [$607] of which a million [$243] goes to rent. Is this fair? I cannot have the same pay, benefits and insurance because I am a woman? I am not an animal. Before the pandemic there was a woman who worked here, who resigned after the outbreak, and now I am the only mortuary worker for deceased women. I am exhausted beyond measure. Why doesn’t the municipality employ me? Women mortuary workers in other cities are also in the same situation. It is as though we were born to be exploited.”

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