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Divided Iran on the Eve

exercise a double standard wherein a woman’s infidelity (but not a man’s) is seen to allow tangible and damaging impurities to infiltrate the family, both physically and morally…. A woman’s sexual and reproductive functions turned her body into a contested site of potential and real ritual contamination. The concept of namus (honor) and the need to control women’s chastity may be related to this fear of sexual contamination.

The sexual double standard was effectively institutionalized in all the mainstream Islamic traditions: men were permitted up to four legal wives and the right of divorce by repudiation (talaq). However, in pre-modern Iran (prior to the 1920s) male prerogatives were enhanced by the practice of temporary marriage (sigheh), which was exclusive to Shiism, and by the availability of concubines, which persisted after the formal abolition of slavery at the end of the nineteenth century. Sigheh was a sexual charter for men: the ease with which it was contracted meant that consensual affairs between men (married or unmarried) and single women could hardly ever be labeled fornication, and therefore subject to Islamic penalties.

Gender segregation—common to most Islamic societies—contributed to the prevalence of other practices that are rarely discussed in social histories of Islam: boy concubinage and pedophilia. Although liwat or lavat (sodomy) is condemned in the Quran (the word alludes to the Old Testament story of Lot), homosexual relationships between older men and boys were tolerated, not least because they posed a lesser threat to the patriarchal order than unregulated heterosexual interactions.

Afary’s book exposes the absurdity of claims by ideologues such as Ali Akbar Natiq-Nuri, a former Iranian minister of the interior and presidential candidate, who blame the West for “spreading corruption and obscenity, propagating debauchery and homosexuality.” She provides plenty of evidence to show that the prohibition against liwat was honored in the breach. Beardless boys, not yet being men, could be “penetrated without losing their essential manliness, so long as they did not register pleasure in the act, which would suggest a pathology liable to continue into adulthood.” In a society where beards were de rigueur, the beardless European male was often thought to be an amrad (catamite). Institutionalized pederasty was part of a wider culture in which family security balanced or compensated for the turbulence prevailing in the public domain.

Under the Qajar dynasty, which took power in the 1790s, Iran had a rigidly hierarchical social order, with clearly defined class and ethnic boundaries, a coherent religious establishment, and above all a pattern of family obligations that fostered strong communal identities. Marriage—including child marriage—was nearly universal, with parents choosing spouses for children of both sexes.

The available records can only hint at the sexual culture that flourished in the privacy of homes:

Reported crimes were low in a world where girls, boys, and women endured or quietly resisted incest, sexual molestation, and rape.

Yet contrary to assumptions about the emancipatory effects of Westernization, urban women in pre-modern Iran enjoyed a considerable amount of personal freedom. In the 1850s the wife of Britain’s ambassador observed that women of all classes

enjoy abundance of liberty, more so, I think, than among us. The complete envelopment of the face and person disguises them effectively from the nearest relatives, and destroying, when convenient, all distinction of rank, gives unrestrained freedom.

Afary points to references in the indigenous literature to pimps and love-brokers and to the secret affairs of married, divorced, or widowed women. In a patriarchal order where honor was defined by women’s conduct, with sexual transgressions of respectable women severely punished, it was the veil itself that provided opportunities for resistance.

Afary’s perspective throws useful, if unfamiliar light on the impact and consequences of the social reforms instituted by Reza Shah Pahlevi—the Cossack general who rose to supreme power in the chaotic aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. The changes he imposed—European-style dress codes for men that reduced ethnic or religious distinctions, compulsory unveiling for women, and the desegregation of gender, along with measures such as raising the age of marriage to eighteen and improvements in public hygiene—were modeled on the perceived advantages enjoyed by people in the industrialized West. Mired in their medieval fortress mentality, religious leaders adamantly resisted, waging propaganda against vaccination, protesting against the installation of faucets in public bathhouses, and forbidding the use of alcohol for sterilization. The religious establishment instinctively recognized that in enacting reforms in the realms of hygiene and dress, the state was appropriating their powers as the guardians of purity.

These reforms accelerated divisions that were cultural as well as social. A new middle class, exposed to modern education, comprising less than 10 percent of the country’s labor force, became increasingly secular in outlook and distant from the dominant religious culture, while the majority—the rural peasantry and the small traders of the urban bazaars—remained attached to the instructions of their mullahs. The outcome may be described as an era of profound psychic discomfort for a majority of Iranians going about their daily lives. “Modernity,” Afary concludes,

instituted a double life for pious Muslims. Outwardly, they behaved as modern citizens of the state, ignoring religious hierarchies and engaging not just in business and trade with women and non-Muslims, as they had always done, but also mingled socially, shaking hands and sharing tea or meals with them. Inwardly, many bazaaris harbored a constant sense of anxiety since they continued to believe that a pious Shi’i Muslim who ignored the proper rituals of purification after encounters with najes (polluted) individuals had “nullified” his prayers and supplications to God and the Imams.

Initially Khomeini’s revolution upended the Pahlavi reforms, leading to a drastic reversal in women’s rights. The compulsory hijab (veil) was imposed for women in public, with even slight violations bringing severe punishment (seventy-four lashes or a year’s imprisonment), though since the face is exposed, it no longer gives the advantage of anonymity. Women and men no longer enjoy equality under the law, with evidence from a man worth twice that of a woman. Lashing, amputation, and stoning have been applied by the courts, with the latter punishment reserved for women convicted of adultery. The courts apply lighter sentences than previously for husbands, fathers, and brothers accused of “honor killings.” There are even regulations against public displays of affection.

Under Khomeini child marriage was allowed once more, with the age of marriage reduced from eighteen to nine for girls (revised, after protests, to thirteen) and fifteen for boys. New laws encouraged polygamy and prevented women from leaving abusive husbands. The husband’s right of unilateral divorce (limited under the Shah’s reforms) was reinstated. New policies encouraged temporary marriage as a “morally sanctioned substitute for Western dating,” with trial sigheh marriages recommended for high school students and sex workers invited to enter short-term marriage contracts with returning war veterans.

In sum, Afary suggests that the sexual doctrines instituted by Khomeini vastly increased the authority of men and the state “over women’s sexual and reproductive capacities.” This was not a

minor side effect of the [revolution]. Rather, it formed an important, though often unspoken, reason for male support or acquiescence in the face of Islamization.

At the same time, change is moving in the opposite direction. Paradoxically, the revolution released many young women from their family ties, which is why many found it attractive or expedient to join Islamist movements. During the war with Iraq, women were encouraged to enlist in the armed forces, with Khomeini urging women to “defend their Islamic and national honor” and to complete “the military, partisan, and guerrilla training appropriate for a resurgent Muslim nation.” Female volunteers reported that years spent on the front, alongside their “brother warriors” were the best in their lives.

Statistics reveal a picture that differs strikingly from the legal texts. Despite the formal reintroduction of child marriage, the mean age of first marriages for young women has continued to rise from around nineteen before the revolution to twenty-four today—with nearly 80 percent married after the age of twenty. The revolution has maintained the momentum of the Shah’s literacy campaigns, with literacy rates exceeding 95 percent for both sexes. With young women from rural families seeing education as the path to economic independence, a majority of college students are now women. “Companionate marriage,” with couples freely choosing their partners, is becoming the norm. Modern social forces are universal. Despite its reactionary rhetoric, the Islamic revolution is being remorselessly carried on their tide.


Nevertheless it takes little imagination to see how contradictory psychic currents reflecting concerns over pollution and gender may have fueled the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Chador-clad women were prominent in street demonstrations in Tehran in which rituals commemorating the death of Hussain in 680 were taken from the relatively safe domain of “sacred time” and given the urgency of Now! In his jeremiads from within Iran, later from Najaf in Iraq, and finally from his media-friendly château in a Paris suburb, Khomeini likened the Shah to the evil Yazid, a figure more akin to Ahriman than the flawed Umayyad caliph of Muslim historiography. Khomeini’s fulminations, however, were more than the barks of an angry mullah. As Ray Takeyh explains in Guardians of the Revolution, his elegant anatomy of Iran’s foreign policy since 1979, the ayatollah’s special genius lay in resisting the trend whereby revolutionary energies usually become dissipated.

Inspired by his success in over-throwing the Shah, Khomeini in-tended a “revolution without borders” that would impose his Islamist template on Iran’s recalcitrant neighbors. The decadent princes of the Gulf with their ostentatious lifestyles and sham “American Islam” would be replaced by an “authentically Islamic” popular movement, headed by Khomeini, which would repoliticize Islam. The Islamic aspiration of universal justice under the “government of God” would finally be realized. The rhetoric was inspiring, not least because it masked age-old sectarian and national divisions, in particular the Sunni–Shia divide that, despite the revolution’s provenance, its propaganda underplayed. Not only were neighboring Shiite communities galvanized—generating dangerous tensions in Iraq, Bahrain, and eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shias languished under harsh Sunni rule—so were Islamists in places without Shiite communities, including Algeria and the Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia.

The revolution’s outward momentum was blocked by external factors—most notably Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which launched an unprovoked attack in 1980, leading to a war that cost as many as one million lives, two thirds of them Iranian. Takeyh presents Khomeini as a “relentless ideologue willing to sacrifice his nation for the sake of his religious speculations.” He waged the war against Iraq apocalyptically, with a badly equipped and appallingly led army, confident that divine support would win over better-trained and better-equipped Iraqi divisions. Having sacrificed a generation of young martyrs to repel the Iraqis, he insisted, against reason and logic, on carrying the war onto Iraqi soil. It was, he said, to be the prelude to the Muslim Armageddon, with the “path to Jerusalem passing through Karbala.”

Takeyh argues, chillingly, that it was Saddam’s use of chemical weaponry—abetted, in effect, by the Reagan administration—that finally punctured the old man’s apocalyptic zeal. Horrified by Saddam’s attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja where, as the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani put it, “people fell like autumn leaves,” the regime believed that “similar measures” would be directed at front-line cities such as Tabriz and Kermanshah. Takeyh has no doubts about the outcome.

Saddam’s use of chemical weapons turned the tide of war, and it was the trauma of this event that underpins Iran’s policy of developing a nuclear capability. Enrichment within the bounds of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty may provide a level of nuclear insurance, since materials developed for such peaceful uses can theoretically be “weaponized” within months. Iran’s policy predates the revolution. It was America’s ally, the Shah, who initiated Iran’s nuclear program with the assistance of “the Washington establishment, which was nurturing the shah’s desire to act as the policeman of the Persian Gulf.” Takeyh points out that the Islamic revolution at first viewed the program as “another ploy for making Iran dependent on the West,” and greatly reduced its scope. The eight-year war that spanned the 1980s altered perceptions:

It is impossible to understand Iran’s nuclear calculations without considering its war with Iraq. That conflict shaped the Islamic Republic’s defense doctrine and molded its values and outlook…. The fact that Saddam had used chemical weapons against Iran with impunity demonstrated that the Western powers’ hostility toward the clerical regime would always overcome their moral compunctions…. The fact that Iran had insufficient retaliatory power and could not protect its citizens from unconventional attacks was critical to its decision to end the war.

Takeyh is blunt in his condemnation of the Reagan administration’s complicity in Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, and is especially critical of the opportunities that the Bush administration missed for improving Iran–US relations after the September 11 attacks. The 1997 election that brought the moderate President Mohammad Khatami to power against the wishes of the clerical elite led by Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, should have demonstrated to Washington that the regime was far from monolithic, even if some of its agencies were engaged in terrorism.

There is no question, however, that the prospects for “one of the most intellectually vibrant democratic movements in the Middle East” were thwarted by a combination of factors. One was Khatami’s personal dislike of confrontation: “Despite his deeply held democratic convictions, [he] proved too much a man of the system” whose “penchant for order overwhelmed his desire for change.” Another was the constitutional straitjacket that Khomeini had left behind, giving the members of the conservative-dominated Guardian Council power to block the will of a parliament whose candidates they had already vetted ideologically. But external factors, driven by US policies, were decisive.

George W. Bush’s notorious “axis of evil” speech in January 2002, linking Iran to its enemy Iraq and the maverick Communist republic of North Korea, undermined many of Khatami’s achievements in improving Iran’s international profile, and convinced the hard-liners that the Islamic Republic would become the next target in Bush’s “war on terror.” The build-up to the US invasion of Iraq provided them with strong public support. In the local council elections of February 2003—one month before the invasion—conservatives regained nearly all the seats they had lost in 1999 at the peak of the reformist movement. This was not a rigged poll: for unlike the parliamentary and presidential races, candidates for municipal elections are not vetted for “Islamic suitability.” The right-wing victory was sealed two years later with Ahmadinejad’s election as president.

This month’s presidential elections will reveal if the New Right, as Takeyh terms the current incumbents, retains its grip on power. Khatami withdrew from the race earlier this year, giving his support to the former prime minister Mir Hussein Moussavi, who enjoys some conservative support and is thought by many to have a better chance of unseating Ahmadinejad. Moussavi, however, has been effectively out of politics for two decades, and may have difficulty in connecting with younger voters. Ahmedinajad, by contrast, enjoys the advantages of incumbency and is thought—unofficially—to enjoy the support of the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council has now approved two other candidates in addition to the front-runners Moussavi and Ahmadinejad: Mehdi Karroubi, former parliamentary speaker, and Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who is wanted by Interpol for alleged involvement in the July 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, in which eighty-five people died.

It will be a setback for the Supreme Leader if Ahmadinejad does not win the first round on June 12. Khamenei, it is true, was effectively overruled by the electorate when Khatami won the presidency in 1997 and 2001. Since 2005, however, the New Right, as Takeyh demonstrates, has consolidated its hold over Iran’s institutions and the international situation is hardly encouraging for reformers. Despite President Obama’s expressed desire for dialogue, the new right-wing government in Israel regards Iran, with its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, as the principal obstacle to peace, and is seeking to buck the international consensus by deferring—it hopes indefinitely—any “two-state solution” to the Palestinian problem. As one analyst in Tehran put it in an interview with Radio Free Europe, “look at the situation in Pakistan and the worsening violence in Iraq. Khamenei doesn’t want to send a pigeon to confront hawks in the region in the next four years.”

Apocalyptic talk by both sides is serving to ratchet up the temperature at a time when the Obama administration is trying to steady people’s nerves. Ahmadinejad’s threat to “remove Israel from the map of history” needs to be taken seriously in light of his recent announcement that Iran had successfully tested a new solid fuel missile with a range of 1,900 km (about 1,200 miles). In a speech doubtless intended to boost his poll ratings, he attributed this latest technological breakthrough to divine intervention and the assistance of the Lord of the Age. Counterthreats from Israel are even more alarming, not least because, unlike Iran, it already has formidable nuclear and conventional capacities. “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recent interview. “When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”

Ray Takeyh, a careful analyst, takes a much more sanguine view. It is reassuring that he has now been hired by the State Department where his knowledge and skills will be invaluable if current diplomatic feelers are to yield positive results. He writes:

Iran’s rulers should not be caricatured as messianic politicians seeking to implement obscure scriptural dictates for ushering in the end of the world through conflict and disorder. As with most leaders, they are interested in staying in power and will recoil from conduct that jeopardizes their domain.

With these New Safavids in power the Hidden Imam will remain in his cave, the apocalypse safely postponed until a new generation arises, hungry for change.

—June 4, 2009


Ahmadinejad’s Brutal Campaign Against Gays August 13, 2009

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