What’s to Admire About Iranian Women?

by Brian Griffith.

It probably sounds condescending to say that Iranian women are often powerful—intellectually, artistically, morally, sexually, financially or spiritually. Such a statement suggests surprise, and of course it should be no surprise. It has been normal for rulers to claim that their subjects are submissive. But most women have been focused on their own lives, their own goals and their own values, which are commonly quite different from those of leading men, even in Iran.

For example, over the past two decades, the percentage of female students in Iran’s universities has steadily increased. As entrance to the top schools is normally based on test scores, and as women increasingly take more top marks, their majority in universities has risen to around 65%. At this, the clerical establishment grew concerned. What if these women took over the country? To help maintain a traditional balance of power, conservatives in Iran’s parliament proposed quotas for males and restrictions of women from certain fields of study. But why were women performing better academically in the first place? Were they, as Iranian law claims, more mature than males at a younger age, so that their legal age of adulthood is lower than for men? Some people said the difference in academic achievement arose because men are subject to two years military service, or that they have more pressure to start making money for their families. Others suspected that a traditional sense of entitlement made men more lazy. A female teacher at the Foreign Ministry’s School of International Relations complained, “I want to marry someone who is at least as well educated as I am, but few of the men I know have a college degree, let alone graduate degrees. And they don’t speak good English.” Was the tight modern job market making women more worried about self-reliance? Have they always been this talented?

I’m interested in Iranian women partly because I married one. My wife earned a PhD, emigrated to the West and became a scientist. Also her nieces, who are scattered about several countries, are among the most accomplished women I know. However, I will not mention their names or provide any further details about them, as that would violate their privacy. Privacy is very important in Iranian culture, as it is across the Middle East. Privacy seems to be, not a luxury or even a right, but more like a basic necessity of life. It seems obvious: some things and places are private, others are public, and anyone with a brain should know the difference.

This distinction between public and private realms has played a central role in Iran’s history, especially for women. Because in past centuries, this division applied to both spaces and to whole classes of people. Women themselves were generally deemed to be part of the private realm, as if they were “the private gender.” Why? No doubt there is more to it than I will ever understand. But I suspect there have been two main types of reasons: the reasons of men and the reasons of women, and both of these have been rooted in fear.

In the past, Iran was usually ruled by a constant stream of conquering warlords or passing nomadic raiders. The rulers were usually the strongest warlords, who often rose from confederations of militarized tribes. The warlords and raiders generally took what they liked from the subject people, and the locals tried to conceal what they had. Women tried to conceal themselves from the “evil eye” of the warlords’ men, and the men of each family tried to play “guardian” for their mothers, wives, or daughters. This was how keeping women out of the public eye could seem a matter of honor and protection for women, rather than simple oppression. Naturally, such “honor” applied mainly to wealthy women, or the warlords’ women, rather than to poor or nomadic women who had to work all day in the sun.

In fear for their lives and property, local people raised walls and watchtowers around their villages, manned by watchmen in the night. It was as if whole communities veiled themselves from the evil eye, and that’s the way it was. It was not until the 1930s that Iran’s modernized army pacified the countryside, bringing nomad raiders and corrupt officials under a new kind of law and order. Then, as Hassan Ghasemi and his American friend Terence Ward explained, the walls and towers of Tudeshk village “were dismantled by hands that knew that the marauding days of the raiders were finally over. Slowly, all over Iran, villagers and townspeople poked their heads out their homes and tasted the forbidden view of the horizon.” Supposedly, women could now come out in relative safety. The formerly hazardous “male” spaces of the outside world might belong to women as well.

In the urbanizing, industrializing world with its modern police force, growing numbers of Iranian women took roles outside their families. In going to school, taking jobs, or organizing community services, they were entering public, formerly male spaces. Most women, however, continued to wear their portable walls of cloth, protecting themselves from the evil eye. Then in 1936, the shah ordered all women to remove their veils, to fit in with the modern world. For several years the police were under orders to rip the scarves off women’s heads. Then things settled down to a passive tolerance for letting women decide what to put on their heads. And whether they kept their cloth walls up or not, they increasingly mixed with strange men in public. It seemed to be the wave of the future, and it was—except that tradition had a life of its own.

In the midst of these socially awkward changes, many men (and women) argued that the old concealment of women must go on, as if it was an end in itself. Had not history shown that women who showed their beauty in public would be kidnapped or raped? Was it not an eternal reality that restraining men from abusiveness required restraining women? Traditional religious leaders upheld traditions from the pre-Islamic warlord age, as if these were essential for Islam. And many men who had aspired to protect women from abuse now seemed more concerned to protect society from women. Despite massive protests from women in the early 1980s, the Islamic revolution re-imposed hijab-wearing by force of law. In 2007, President Ahmadinejad authorized a major crackdown on women who were failing to properly cover themselves, and a joke got around: When Ahmadinejad combes his hair, he carefully separates the male and female lice to opposite sides of his head. And concerning such traditionalists, former vice-president Massoumeh Ebtekar used her own Islamic ideology against sentiments from the warlord age:

Islam must face modern challenges and the requirements of a new generation. In order to apply Islamic principles to modern times, we need ijtihad [reasoned interpretation]. Conservatives feel that if we emphasize the dynamic qualities of our religion, we will lose our principles. They don’t agree that we need to adjust ourselves to the reality of highly educated women entering the workforce. They think they can ignore reality. We reformists believe that we need to apply the dynamic quality of Islam to recognize the reality of social change.

I’m hoping to write a book telling lots of stories about great Iranian women, what they have done, what battles they have fought, and what difference they have made. Naturally, these tales will challenge all sorts of stereotypes, and that is part of the agenda. But it is basically the women themselves who defy stereotyping and provide the edutainment value. Of course the past invisibility of women to the public eye puts a limit on what we can tell, and the women whose deeds are recorded are disproportionately rich and powerful. Still, there are enough stories about women of all classes and periods to fill many books, and the “ordinary” grandmothers are often fit for reality TV. For a simple example, Michael Axworthy reports an interview with 60-year old woman who recently started her taxi business in Tehran. A Western reporter asked about her motives for entering this formerly male-dominated field. The woman said she did it because she wanted to make money. The reporter asked if there were any other motives, and she said “No.” After the reporter left she added, “My grandmother could shoot an apple in half from the back of a galloping horse, and these people are surprised that after all these years we know how to drive cars?”


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