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Women in Iran, the Creation of Patriarchy 3000 BC 21st Century
Last Updated: October, 2009

Women in Iran, The Sasanian era

The Sasanian era witnessed the elevation of the royal and courtly women, demise and exploitation of the rights of the lower class females. Inscriptions, art works and coins show that the female members of the royal family received an unusual amount of respect and attention. They owned vast properties and the most important were commemorated with fires of their own and even sacrifices. Adur-Anahid the daughter of Shapur I had the important title “queen of queens” and she is mentioned before the king’s sons. Shapur’s wife is called ˜khoramzem” meaning ˜the queen of the empire”; she preceded Adur-Anahid in enunciation of people commemorated with sacrifices. There is coinage of Bahram II, showing the king with the queen and the crown prince. Denag, Ardashir’s sister is pictured on gems and all had their own seals. Women also ascended to the thrown, as was the case with Puran and Azarmidukht in the late Sasanian period. The Sasanian family included the entire household and both the nuclear and extended families are described in Middle Persian terminology. Survival of the house and fulfillment of ritual and religious obligations were primary concern of the lawmakers. The master of the house was called kadkhoday and his wife was named kadbanu.

Members of the house- hold formed a legal unit with the head of the family, adult sons and grandsons categorized “as in their own right”, while women and minors were classified as “in another’s right”, which meant the latter were subject to the power of the head of the family. Marriage contracts were drawn between the bride’s guardian and the bridegroom and mutual claims and commitments were stated. A man could marry at age 15, however most were recommended to marry older since Zoroaster himself was married at age 20. Women could marry before she came of age (15) but not against her will. Polygamy and concubines existed with the rich. Lawful marriage contracts could be drawn between one man and several women and marriage between close relatives was a common practice.

After marriage the wife participated at the religious obligations of the house cult. The extent of her involvement in property affairs was stated in the marriage contract with no reversal. Her dowry remained her property during the marriage and her husband could only act as a trustee. If she died childless, the dowry was returned to her father’s household. Husband and wife both could initiate divorce but needed the consent of the other party. The wife’s agreement ceased to be required only if there was proof of an offense on her part or of black magic. A wife could take her husband to court for abuse and her husband would loose his privileges over her until the court decision was made. A divorce like marriage had to be made public and confirmed by a divorce document, which returned the dowry and a “nuptial present”. The children inherited their fathers’ name, fortune, social rank plus his ritual and economic commitments. The wife inherited like a son with a full share of her husband’s fortune but fell under the guardianship of the new head of the family, i.e. her eldest son or another close male relative; however, at her deathbed she would name the next guardian. If the widowed wife was childless, she had to marry the closest male relative (similar to levirate in the Old Testament). Even after such marriages the wife still remained the wife of her deceased husband with full rights. If she produced any children through the new marriage, they became legitimate heirs of the deceased man and not their own father. If there were no sons but an inheriting daughter, she would have to marry the closest male relative of her father to preserve the father’s household. Even if she was married, she had to divorce her husband and marry the relative. Again, her new children would be recognized as her father’s legitimate heirs. The object of such arrangements was to keep the household and preserve ritual cults specific to the households.

Different kinds of marriages existed with different legal implications. For example a woman whose husband was sterile could marry another man at the same time and her children from the new husband belonged to her original husband, or a husband could lease his wife to another man and again all children were his. Most such marriages like chakar zani were temporary arrangements as opposed to the real or principal marriage called Padeshah zani. Such marriages exposed women to exploitation by either husband and at the same time indicate a relatively relaxed and liberal approach to sexual relationship between the two sexes. In fact such practices were so common that other nations and religions including Romans and Christians who banned such marriages amongst their citizens and adherents regarded the Persians as sexually promiscuous and immoral.

Adultery was recognized and was regarded as a major sin and the husband could kill the man, forgive him or receive heavy monetary compensation. The wife could be physically punished, divorced or forgiven. If a child was born while the case was still at court the husband was responsible for the well being of the child until the court had reached a decision. If it were proven that the child was not his he would not be responsible for the financial support of the child any more. There were other forms of union between man and women, such as a woman’s free choice of a partner without a formal change of family. There were marriages with spirits when a deceased man with no family would be married off to a woman with children and the new wife and her children would become the dead man’s legitimate substitute heirs. Again this was done to preserve the household and the name. Also Zoroastrian religion regarded marriage as a religious task and single people would not be saved in the other world. Girls past age 15 could legally marry without the consent of their guardian but this was not regarded highly. Such girls could loose their inheritance. Unmarried couples existed and their relationship was also regulated. If children were produced, the paternal or maternal relatives could care for them. All children inherited and depending on the kind of marriage or the marriage contract sons and daughters inherited the same or none at all.

Women in the Sasanian era enjoyed vast employment opportunities and worked at many professions. They were highly regarded as actors, musicians, dancers and singers. There are many art objects depicting women in such professions. They were active at religious functions and at the same time were restricted because of purity laws. Such laws regarded blood as a pollutant and therefore menstruating women could have been severely restricted by religious fanatics. Prostitution existed and was regulated by law however, such people had low status. There is no evidence that veiling was practiced and the Sasanian female personalities including royal women are depicted without any veil. Nudity does not seem to be objectionable either. Many women artists and household staff are pictured half-naked and there are no codes in religious books with respect to veiling. Although women were legally and religiously inferior to their husbands or guardians, they nevertheless were protected by the legal codes. In the case of royal women, they enjoyed far more privileges and opportunities than most men would in the society at large. The Sasanian legal codes changed and evolved with time. Reforms were introduced, other codes such as Roman laws were studied and comparisons were made. Certain practices such as leasing one’s wife to others became obsolete toward the end of the Sasanian period and the status of lower class people and slaves improved.


Women in Iran, the Islamic period
Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia

The conquest of Islam in the 7th century AD introduced many changes and sealed the fate of women for many centuries. Arabian women before Islam like most other tribal societies enjoyed more freedom and flexibility compared to urban women and the Islamic period. A number of marriage practices existed including polyandrous marriages (women with more than one husband). Many were matrilineal and uxorilocal, meaning the women remained with their tribe and her husband stayed with her family and children belonged to their mother’s tribe (the Prophet’s mother, Amina stayed with her tribe and her husband Abdullah visited her). Some aspects of this matrilineal tradition have remained.

In most Muslim countries married women keep their maiden name and in legal documentation such as passports etc. do not take their husband’s name. Nevertheless the culture was patriarchal with men having more power than women. There is evidence of polygamy (one man, several wives) before Islam but the lack of references to it suggests that the polygamy as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad was rare. Very likely men (and women) with multiple mates visited their mates in their tribes, rather than having all wives living together, as was the case since Islam. Divorce and remarriage was common for both sexes and both could initiate divorce.

Divorce for women was not followed by idda or waiting period, as is the case with Islam. This was because children belonged to their mother’s tribe anyway. There were no taboos with respect to widows remarrying, as was the case with Khadija (Prophet’s first wife) and the Prophet. Marriages were initiated by women as well as men indeed Khadija was the one who asked for Prophet’s hand in marriage. Adultery (zina) did not seem to be regarded as a crime, as was the case after Islam with stoning to death as the punishment. The men of Taif after accepting Islam were complaining that they were merchants, traveled around and not committing zina was very hard for them. In other words no stigma seems to be attached to committing adultery. Free women questioned Prophet on how as free women they could be accused of committing zina? Such dialogues again indicate lack of restrictions with respect to sexual encounter between free women and men. This might explain why four witnesses are required who have seen the adulterous couple before they are convicted. If such sexual relationships were accepted norm, the ruling suggests both that those engaging in such sexual activity were doing it with some openness, and also the fact that the Prophet had realized that such common practices can not be instantly eradicated.

Women enjoyed greater sexual freedoms, the accounts of early battles mention stories about the young men captured by the Muslims who wanted to see or be with their lovers before execution (Seerat Rasul Allah, by Ibn Hisham is the earliest biography of Prophet and contains such accounts). There are others mentioning how in pre-Islamic Arabia when a child was claimed by several men to be their child, the elders would gather to decide who resembled the child most and he would be accepted as the father of the child. According to the Quran, female infanticide (killing babies at times of war and drought) existed; this practice was eradicated by Islam. Women were active participants, even leaders, in a wide range of community activities, including warfare and religion, as was the case with Hind, Abu Sufyan’s wife (leader of Mecca) who tore Prophet’s uncle’s body into pieces after a battle and is nicknamed “Hind the liver eater”. The three main deities in the house of Kabah, Al Uz, Al Manat and Al lat were all ancient goddesses. In fact the last two keepers of the key to Kabah, Sulafa and Hubba were both females. Female soothsayers (kahinas) and priestesses also existed. The two key keepers could be one of those. Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife was a trader and had inherited her modest wealth from her dead husbands. In fact she hired the Prophet to work for her and send him on trips overseeing her business. However, Arab women’s autonomy, independence, status and participation were curtailed with the establishment of Islam.

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