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

The concept of veiling was expanded into every aspect of life and eventually resulted into the segregation of sexes. This further damaged the economic status and overall well-being of women. Unprecedented in the history of human kind, segregation meant loss of employment opportunities, mental and psychological disorder and abnormal patterns of behavior by both males and females. Islamic architecture created inner courtyards and women’s quarters were inaccessible to unrelated males. The only jobs left to urbanized women were domestic work, begging and prostitution. Segregation was imposed by using extreme force and by creating codes of behavior and ethical values that stressed the virtuosity of veiling and segregation. Hadith (Islamic narratives) and other religious literature are full of recommendations about such matters and condemning any deviations. Force was also used, Nasir Khusrau (11th century) in his traveling accounts (safarnameh) mentions that in the city of Tabas (still existing) the ruler of the city would execute any unrelated male and female caught talking together (Taliban have the similar policies). Ibn Batuteh the famous traveler of the 14th century AD visiting Constantinople (Istanbul) still ruled by the Byzantines expresses amazement at seeing unveiled women working and carrying out business. He was so disturbed that he had to buy female slaves continuously and satisfy his sexual urges aroused by the sight of the unveiled women. He also mentions how the Mogul rulers of Persia had their wives participating unveiled at public events and stormed out of a friend’s residence in Muslim Spain for letting his unveiled wife talk and debate intellectual topics with an unrelated man.

The Islamic codes were particularly detrimental to the Byzantine women who had enjoyed greater legal rights since the introduction of Justinian codes in the 6th century AD. The new code, a revision and improvement of the ancient Roman laws, had three objectives; improving the rights of slaves, women and guaranteeing the political rights of all citizens. The corpus was the most progressive set of laws ever produced and eventually became one of the foundations of the western legal system in use currently. It was produced by a dedicated group of lawyers and headed by scholars from the Beirut school of law (equivalent to today’s Harvard School of Law) over a period of three years. Women’s legal and financial status was improved and they had the same inheritance and divorce rights as men. Even prostitutes were taken care off by eradicating pimps and housing them at the expense of the government. Criminal women were not imprisoned because they could be sexually assaulted in jails and instead a bail was imposed on them.

Daughters in the absence of brothers inherited their father’s profession and women had many employment opportunities. The empresses acted as regents for their sons and if the emperor had not chosen the next heir before death, it was the empress’s duty to propose a candidate for approval to the Senate. Marriages were permitted amongst various classes, including the highest-ranking males and all females including harlots. Justinian himself had married his powerful empress to be Theodora, who was a mime actress with an illegitimate daughter when she married the future emperor.


Women in Iran, Medieval Period to Modern Times

The strangulation of women continued throughout the centuries it was better during the early Mongol period and became worst in the 16th century with the Safavid dynasty of Iran. Though capable administrators, Safavids have one of the worst records with respect to human rights. Persecution of all minorities, including religious minorities (even Sunni) and oppression of women became a common pattern during their reign. Enforcement of segregation policies and destruction of hundreds of acres of vineyards (to make sure no wine was produced) by the Safavid rulers damaged the rural economy resulted in massive unemployment and created the highest number of prostitutes in Iran, probably only second to the Islamic Republic. The prostitutes were so numerous that the administrators regulated, registered and even taxed them. The 19th century saw the beginning of modernization in Iran. The reformists introduced new ideas of government, leadership, law, human rights and emancipation of women.

 In the 1800s, the Babi leader Qurrat ul Ain (the solace of the eyes, also known as Tahereh meaning pure) appeared unveiled in religious debates and demanded emancipation and Babi women organized meetings and the first women’s societies appeared aimed at rescuing their persecuted supporters. An offshoot of the Shaykhi school of ulma (clergy) who challenged the established religious leaders, the Babi movement was crushed, it’s leaders executed and eventually emerged as the Baha’i faith. Though they remained sectarian they nevertheless introduced and practiced emancipation of women and equality of sexes. Earlier on Ismailies had introduced similar reforms and improved the women’s legal and social standing in their own communities.

The constitutional movement of the early 1900s gave the masses of women the opportunity to get involved. Both men and women demanded reforms with respect to women’s rights. Constitutional revolution succeeded but women were not given any electoral rights and family laws remained under the control of Shari’a, although, inheritance laws improved and Islamic compensatory system was replaced by modern European style legislation. For the first time the concept of civil law as opposed to religious law (Shari’a) was introduced. The period between the 1890 to the 1930s was the peak of women’s movement in Iran. Tens of women’s societies were formed with magazines, newsletters, books and even underground organizations with flyers and shabnameh. Missionaries and private citizens despite opposition from religious authorities opened girl’s schools and reform was demanded on every front with pleas being made to the parliament with no success.

The Pahlavi era was the most constructive and liberating period in the history of women’s lives in Iran. For the first time a powerful centralized government, intentionally and even forcefully despite opposition by the religious leaders legalized women’s emancipation, participation in public life and provided mass education and employment opportunities at all levels.

By the1960s and 1970s, family laws were partially reformed for the first time and women were given electoral rights. There is no doubt that the Pahlavis introduced reforms, but how such reforms were implemented has been questioned since their downfall. The Pahlavi reforms were opposed and resisted by the clergy, the religious intellectuals and masses alike who claimed Muslim women were corrupted and alienated from their Muslim roots by the new changes and had become too westernized.

The Islamic Republic’s leadership reversed the Pahlavi reforms. Shari’a once again became the legal code. Marriage age elevated to 18 was reduced to 13. Polygamy and concubines were encouraged. Abortion became illegal and family planning was discouraged for a while but renewed again. Compulsory veiling was introduced with severe penalties for disobedience and all opposition was crushed.

The emergence of the President Khatami in the 1990s eased the situation for women slightly, but no fundamental reforms were introduced. The women’s movement remained strong and articulate, but despite many attempts so far only minor/secondary reforms have been introduced with no substantial changes in the status of women. The election of the hard-line president Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005 made the situation worst for women. Arresting women for not following the Islamic hijab properly increased. While in detention the female prisons are subject to terrible abuses including rape and murder. The most famous example has been that of Zahra Kazemi the Iranian-Canadian journalist arrested in Iran. She died in custody and the authorities in Iran refused to conduct any inquiry.

There was an attempt by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government to allow men to marry other wives without the permission of the first wife. The bill was received with such hostility by the women’s activists that they were forced to withdraw. However, the government did impose a quota on the number of female students admitted to the universities to reduce their numbers in institutions of higher education. After the disputed election of June 2009 mass arrests and allegations of extreme violence and rape of the detainees, Mr. Ahmadinejad to calm down women activists, proposed three female candidates in his cabinet. Only one was approved by the parliament.

For more information on women in modern Iran see the Women’s Movement 1850 to the Present.

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