'Change' for Iran women: Pastry chef rises to the occasion

AFP , Monday 6 Mar 2023

She could have left Iran, as many of her contemporaries did, but Paris-trained pastry chef Shahrzad Shokouhivand decided to stay and work to make women's lives better inside the country.

Iranian pastry chef Shahrzad Shokouhivand, poses for a picture with members of her team
Iranian pastry chef Shahrzad Shokouhivand, poses for a picture with members of her team in the kitchen of her luxury pastry company in Tehran, on February 26, 2023. AFP

 

And the icing on the cake? She and her husband now employ 70 people -- mostly women.

"It's only by working here that we'll change things in Iran," said the 36-year-old, speaking to AFP in one of her two chic cafe-pastry shops in Tehran.

She and her husband do admit that at one stage they thought of leaving the Islamic republic, choosing the path of exile.

"Most of our friends have gone to Canada, the United States or Australia," said her husband Babak Mehrabani.

"But we decided not to emigrate."

For many young graduates, economic considerations influence the decision to stay in their sanction-hit home country or move abroad.

Such concerns may be bolstered by the protest movement that has swept the country since the September death in custody of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, following her arrest for an alleged breach of strict Islamic dress rules for women.

Their decision to stay in Iran has paid off, Shokouhivand and her husband believe.

Like many other residents of Tehran she fervently wants to hope that "things are changing".

"Despite everything, I remain optimistic for women in Iran," she said.

That belief is shared by 27-year-old Minoo, also a chef, who notes fewer women than before wear obligatory headscarves in public places in the teeming capital.

'Respect the law'

The requirement for women to wear the headscarf in public was enshrined in law shortly after the Islamic revolution of 1979.

"What I see on the faces of women today is very different from six months ago" before the protests erupted, Minoo said.

Not all women feel the same way.

Homeira, a retired 58-year-old teacher, said she "grew up with the veil".

"Wearing the hijab is the law of our country and we must respect the law," she said.

"Unfortunately, our young people do not accept it and criticise the religion," Homeira added, while also defending the right of people to choose.

Shokouhivand believes that as a woman, "you have to work a lot harder if you're to succeed in business, at home and also in your social life".

But experiencing such obstacles "also means that you progress".

It was her childhood dream to become a pastry chef, and in 2017 she went to Paris for three months to the renowned Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.

On her return she opened a pastry shop in the city centre on the site of a store that used to sell handbags. She kept its name, Femme Chic.

Now the well-off of Tehran flock to sample her tarte Tatin, baba -- without the rum -- and even a version of the Breton kouign amann cake.

'Uncertainty'

Now, five years later, she and her husband have two shops and a 70-strong workforce of mostly women.

The business is also profitable, despite them having to reduce their margins because of the rampant inflation sweeping the country.

But "despite the uncertainty, we remain ambitious".

Now she and her husband are thinking of opening pastry shops in other cities such as Shiraz in the south and Mashhad in the east.

And maybe also abroad -- Dubai or Doha if they can find local partners.

They even have the "slightly crazy" desire to open one in Paris.

But back to the present, Shokouhivand hopes to see the lifting of the severe, mostly US, sanctions over Tehran's nuclear policy that are squeezing the country.

Because of the sanctions, she says, "it is very difficult to find quality chocolate, good butter and vanilla" among other essential baking ingredients.

But even this drawback has a plus side.

"It forces us to be creative" and make more use of Iran's own abundant resources of fruits, nuts and spices, like pistachios, hazelnuts and saffron.

With alcohol banned in Iran, her take on the famous baba is the baba Tabrizi -- named for the northwestern Tabriz region -- in which a syrup of cardamom and saffron replaces the rum. Delicious.

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