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This article is contributed by Balu Iyer, International Co-operatives Alliance Asia and Pacific

This building is dedicated to Maryam Mirzakhani! Do you know who she was? The young girl leading me to the meeting hall, without waiting for my answer, burst out with pride, “She was a mathematics professor, she was from Iran, and she was a woman!” Maryam was the first woman to win the Fields Medal (2014), awarded to those below 40 making outstanding contributions in mathematics. Maryam died in 2017 at the young age of 40. This article is not about Maryam but the women of Rah-e-Roshd Cooperative Educational Complex (RCEC).  Yes, there is a connection to Maryam, RCEC and co-operatives! Ms. Pabarja, the Principal of RCEC and member of the cooperative, taught Maryam geometry and Maryam’s brother is a teacher at the school!

We were in Tehran for my organization, International Cooperative Alliance Asia-Pacific, biennial Regional Assembly, which was being held in Iran for the first time. As part of the many events held in conjunction with the Regional Assembly was one, where youth from across the region were to interact with youth in Iran. The campus of RCEC provided the ideal location to host the event.

Tehran, located at the foot of the Alborz range, is a sprawling city with a population of around 8.6 million and an additional 15 million in the metropolitan area of Greater Tehran. The city has all that ails cities across the world confounding freeways, bumper-to-bumper traffic, blanket smog (we were lucky as it had rained) and concrete edifices. With its history dating back to 1796, Tehran offers a rich cultural, historical, political, religious, and social kaleidoscope. A couple of things are striking in Iran (Tehran in particular and in general) – youth and women.

A third of Iran's population are aged between15 and 29 and the median age is 30.3 years. Half the population was born in 1987 or more recently. Iran has reduced illiteracy among youth and has significantly increased its capacity for higher education. The total number of students enrolled at universities in 2016 was 4.3 million. Women constituted 50% of students enrolled in programs that offered a bachelor’s degree or higher and 46% of student enrollments in all higher education programs. Female students are the majority in major fields of study, especially in medicine and the basic sciences, women account for upward of 65% of students enrolled. Of the 26.4 million people in the labor force in 2016, 3.4 million (13%) were unemployed and looking for a job. Nearly 2 million (60%) of the unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 29. While Iran has the potential to reap from the demographic dividend, the challenges it faces relates to rising unemployment, lack of meaningful opportunities and increasing sense of disillusionment.

Women in Iran are not only more educated but also have a more visible role in life than in many other Islamic countries. Iran, as a Persian nation provides more space (relative) for women – prohibits discrimination against women in the work place, many are self-sufficient and independent, drive cars and taxis, and hold public offices. That said, Iranian law still favors men. Women are not equal under Iran’s constitution, adopted in 1979 after the revolution and it mandates that the legal code adhere to Sharia law. Women are legally required to wear head coverings in public as mandated by an edict in 1979. There have been protests rights from the time it was introduced and still continues. These days the younger generation has been voicing their activism through social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, and messaging apps like Telegram.

We arrived at RCEC and were welcomed by the school management and students, mostly women and girls.  After a brief introduction, we were divided into three groups each led by students about to graduate – Parnia Badiei, Has Aliyari, and Parinaz Asare.

Rah-e-Roshd (the way of growth) is a cooperative. A cooperative in simple terms is formed when a group of people see a felt need, come together on their own, work jointly, contribute equally, and manage affairs democratically (for more on co-operatives, visit https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/what-is-a-cooperative). In 1985, at the height of the war between Iran and Iraq, seven women came together to provide space for their children to play and be on their own. The space then evolved into a kindergarten with each woman pooling their savings to run the place. The kindergarten was a success but there was still the need to have a different type of school that would provide quality education at affordable costs and to counter the privatization trends underway. According to Anahita Eslahpazir, a founding member and the Chief Executive Officer of RCEC, “It was in 1996, 11 years after the kindergarten was started that we decided to form a cooperative as it fit well with our core beliefs. A part of the teacher’s salaries was deducted to provide the start-up capital 40 million IRR and 1,400 shares. 34 years later, we have done much more than we imagined! Would you believe, a few of the original members are still here?!”

Rah-e-Roshd has grown in number and reach and educates students from kindergarten up to high school. There are 200 members in the cooperative (teachers and parents), 700 teachers, and 3,000 students (boys and girls). The complex was bustling with students of all ages and all with head cover. Parnia our guide and an aspiring physicist who has studied at the school from kindergarten, was excited to tell us about the school and its activities, “the school is like an extended family. I spend more time here than my home!” RCEC provides a holistic experience to its students; it focuses not just on the curriculum but also practical skills (range from crafts to IT to mechanics to foreign language), extra-curricular activities (clubs for science, music, yoga), and civic responsibilities (contributing to students, school, and society). The teaching methods go beyond lecture to hands on experiments, critical thinking, and inculcating values.  The government has recognized the efforts of Rah-e-Roshd. In 2017, Rah-e-Rsoh was enlisted as a Nationally selected cooperative in recognition of its two outstanding characteristics – educational field of activity – a rare cooperative field in Iran; and decent social responsibility endeavors in promoting cooperative values. In 2018, RCEC formally joined the ICA as a member.

Rah-e-Roshd has taken the idea of co-operatives beyond just the school. The workers at the school canteen have been formed into the Hamyaran Atye Rah-e-Roshd cooperative; the financial needs of teachers are met through a thrift and credit society; to promote IT based services, the Asre Ertebatat co-operative has been setup; and the Manzoomeye Barge-e-Noo cooperative to promote research, training and education. The cooperatives have been formed to address need, to experiment, and to test. For example, Barge-e-Noo was formed to address the need for research (which is lacking), experiment with ideas (do collectives work in different contexts and in emerging sectors?), and to test (models). Semiramis Shahesmaili, a member of the research cooperative who is pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology is looking at restoring power to Iranian women through co-operatives. According to her, “women in spite of having high educational qualification are driven into the informal sector. The policy emphasis is on formalization. Historically, women in Iran have been successful in collective work in two ways: through traditional cooperation systems such as "vareh" and the second through the modern form of cooperatives in the 60s after the land reform programs. If this be the case, why not we promote co-operatives in all sectors where women work?”

It was very refreshing for me to visit RCEC, mingle with the students and management, and see the work being done by them. I had read about their work, but seeing it in person was a totally different experience. RCEC is not resting on its laurels but seeing how it can address the needs of their two core groups - youth and women. The results of their work can have a bearing on Iran as these two groups are the pillars of the country. We left with words of Anahita ringing in our ears, “Cooperation is our Strength, it inspired our members to turn crisis into opportunity.” Amen to that!

The views expressed here are in an individual capacity and do not reflect that of ICA or ICA-AP.




  1. Discussions with Anahita, Semiramis, Farshad, Babak, Alireza to name a few
  2. Report of the Development Meeting and Joint Workshop on Youth and Co-operatives in Educational Institutions on the theme, Building Resilience & Sustainability through the Fifth Co-operative Principle on Education, Information & Training.
  3. Rah-e-Roshd: The first cooperative school working to advance inclusive and quality education in Iran
  4. Iran’s Women Are Not for Turning
  5. Co-operative education in the heart of Tehran
  6. Iran’s Population Dynamics and Demographic Window of Opportunity