In the Iranian calendar, January 7 corresponds to the 17th of the Persian month of Dey which represents “Women’s Day” for Iranian people. Such a day is extremely significant in these repressive times in Iranian history.
The etymology of the term for “woman” in Farsi (Persian), namely “zan”, is quite revealing. It has roots in the word “zendegi” or life. Respect for women and their rights in Iran dates back to the ancient Persian Empire before 550 B.C., where it was common practice for women to serve as monarchs, army commanders, or naval officers. In fact, women’s exalted role in ancient Iranian society has been vividly portrayed in Persian literature, especially in the writings of the very well-renowned medieval Persian poet Ferdowsi, who wrote of gallant female leaders, monarchs, and army officers.
However, when the great Persian Empire was occupied by fanatical followers of Islam in the seventh century A.D., Iranian women lost many of their privileges and were reduced to a status inferior to men. Some were even condemned to live as slaves.
Over seventy years ago, in December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved and put in motion by the United Nations General Assembly, consisting of almost all countries including Iran. This was the first modern human rights declaration of freedom in the world.
The main article of this declaration reads, “All humans across the world are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The concept of human rights has deep roots in the history and culture of Iran and is consistent with the spirit of Cyrus the Great’s charter. Cyrus the Great, king of ancient Persia who lived nearly 2,600 years ago, offered to the world the first rudimentary human rights declaration which was based on the concept of secularism and anti-slavery.
In recent times the practical struggle of Iranian women to regain their status began with playing a great role in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905. Furthermore, that struggle continued in the efforts of the citizenry during the former Pahlavi monarchical government of Iran.
Reza Shah the Great, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, courageously abolished the veil (an Islamic code of dress for women dictating that a woman must wear a garment covering every part of her body including her face, except her eyes and her hands). He commenced this task first with his own female family members to avoid hypocrisy. He rightfully considered the veil as the emblem of an obsolete tradition which, among other things, aimed to hinder Iranian women from equal educational opportunities. His policies mainly encouraged women to work outside the home.
Furthermore, he demanded that the laws be reevaluated to purge them of any potential sexist practices, and that school textbooks be scanned to ensure that obsolete and pre-conceived notions of women were completely eliminated. However, the most important advancement of Iranian women’s rights was established by his brave son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, in 1962, as part of a great reform known as the “White Revolution” that granted women the right to suffrage and right to run for elected office. The late Iranian monarch continued to respond positively to the aspirations of the Iranian women for a full emancipation.
Therefore, until 1979 before the so-called Islamic revolution Iranian women did enjoy a high degree of equality with men. There were female college professors, ministers, mayors, parliamentarians, ambassadors and even high ranking police and military officers. As women were playing an increasingly active role in public life, they were pursuing higher education to meet their career goals. Therefore, in a short time the number of female students undergoing higher education skyrocketed from 35 percent in 1973 to 65 percent in 1978.
Clearly, superior education was enabling women to acquire superior jobs. Therefore, women were entering the job market in a much wider range of fields and at higher levels of skill and competence. It is worth noting that this liberation and empowerment of women in Iran under the monarchy was unprecedented in the Middle East; no other country in the region at that time had allowed women this degree of freedom, and the status of Iranian women during the Pahlavi Dynasty even surpassed that of women from certain European countries of that period.
Reza Shah the Great’s policy of forced de-veiling was thus a booster for women’s rights which jolted the backward Iranian society of that period and ended slavery during the monarchical time of Mohammad Reza Shah. This policy, however, was made a target of sharp criticism by religious leaders and certain Intelligentsia. Interestingly, the latter simultaneously praised Abraham Lincoln for the use of force officially ending another type of slavery in America.
Of course, the Intelligentsia overlooked the fact that sometimes a muscled policy, such as the one resorted to by Lincoln, is needed to overcome the fanatic promoters of a backward culture, especially one institutionalized to the level of Godly commandment.
On the other hand, the present leader of the Islamic regime in Iran, Khamenei, in one of his speeches against America to his followers, stated that slavery abolition in America by Abraham Lincoln was a façade. According to Khamenei, historical inspection shows that the American civil war was not about slavery, but absolutely was about the years-long war between the North and South, and disputes over land, farming, and industry. Therefore, as Khamenei asserts, blacks are presently still oppressed and their lives imperiled.
Most of the clergies’ animosity toward the Pahlavi Dynasty resulted from their decisions which emancipated the Iranian women who had been condemned to live as inferior beings, deprived of their God-given rights for about fourteen centuries since Islam had been imposed on them. Therefore, any improvements in women’s status were seen by clergies as “insults against the sanctities of Islam” as has been claimed presently so many times by high-ranking clergies in Iran.
The Islamic regime’s attitude regarding the status of women is an instance of gross and systematic inhumanities inflicted on the Iranian people. Women particularly have been victims of the Islamic revolution, having suffered a loss of the rights they had under the previous monarchical government.
For example, the ancient institutions of polygamy and temporary marriage have been re-instituted by the Islamic regime, and women have been forced to abandon their right to divorce. According to the regime’s interpretation of Islam, a girl could be married at the age of nine by consent of her father or grandfather, even if the nine year old child is unwilling or is not physically ready.
On the other hand, her husband-to-be, according to Islamic Law, may have two other “permanent” and as many “temporary” wives as he desires, while he could be in his sixties, seventies or possibly older than the bride’s father. He could also have children, and even grandchildren, from his other wives. Of course, all of this depends on his wealth. Furthermore, men can divorce their nine year old brides at will and at anytime, with no legal responsibilities. Yet women cannot dispute anything at all, because it is against the Islamic Sharia. Further, the custody of children, regardless of age, is always with the father.
Last December, the Islamic regime’s so-called “Islamic Parliament” rejected the bill to ban marriage of girls under 13, as has been demanded for the past forty years by Iranian citizens who wish to abolish this barbaric practice of child marriage. The regime’s response was that “it is deemed against Islamic Law.” Is it not self evident that forceful marriage at such a young age causes irrevocable psychological damage?
Interestingly, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam nearly fourteen centuries ago and the current center of the Islamic world, recently revised its marriage laws. The Shoura Council of Saudi Arabia in early January approved fresh regulations for minor marriages. The marriage of children under 15 years of age is outlawed, and marriages of children from 15 to 18 years of age require judiciary approval.
The special court for “family protection”, which was established in Imperial Iran in the days of the late Shah, was an efficient legal alternative for women that had addressed all family issues fairly and on the basis of men and women being legally equal. However, the court was dismantled on the very first day that Islamic Law was imposed after Islamists took over in 1979.
The resilience and constant rebellion of Iranian women, despite all hostilities and despite forty years of the cruelest dictatorship ever, is truly due to their knowledge and admiration for the accomplishments of their predecessors. After four miserable decades, millions of Iranian mothers still do not compromise their aspirations and continue to educate their daughters, teaching them that no one can force them to live under the “veil” nor should they yield to the false role of a second class citizen who is inferior to men.
In the modern world, amidst all international laws and human rights organization, there is a country called the “Islamic Republic of Iran” where women are used for sex slavery, and unfortunately the civilized and free countries have ignored this calamity that has been going on for forty years. Now more than ever, “Women’s Day” in Iran has profound meaning in this regressive stage of Iranian history. It shall be cherished in the name of all those women who fought and died for their freedom and God-given rights at the bloody hands of religious dictators since the so-called Islamic zealots occupied their homeland.
*Mansour Kashfi, Ph.D. is president of Kashex International Petroleum Consulting and is a college professor in Dallas, Texas. He is also the author of innumerable articles and books about the petroleum industry and its market behavior worldwide. [email protected]