Women in Iran (Part One)

As folks in academia and the media industry know full well, perception shapes reality. And on aggregate, Washington’s perceptions of reality do not match the actual global reality at the moment, although things might change in the future. In turn, the general perceptions of men towards masculinity – which in turn impacts a man’s relationship towards women – can fluctuate and vary from one place to another based on the prevailing economic and security conditions of a place, which is why the condition of Muslim women in the Middle East and Afghanistan has to be assessed through its juxtaposition with a broader political and social context defined and shaped by a kind of cultural hegemony emanating from the West that is enabled in large part by economics and military power. Economics and security can also explain to a certain extent the drastic contrast and difference between the conditions of women in Iran, for instance, versus the overall condition of women in Afghanistan, even though the two countries are neighbors.

However, and as mentioned before, the group – as well as group interests – prevail over all else in the social world, regardless of our cultural and linguistic differences. Although groups vary in size, influence, ideology, power, and wealth, the very basic character and nature of a group is universal, and it crosses cultural and national boundaries. As a result, autonomous, eccentric, and open-minded individuals have to suffer the fate that is apportioned to them by the preponderant and ubiquitous state of groupthink and group mentality in virtually all societies of the world. In turn, the general condition of an individual woman – as with the general condition of an individual man – has to be seen in large part by her association, relationship, and her level of dependence with a given group. 

One of the best, most colorful, and most nuanced samples which one can find in order to demonstrate the overall complexity, diversity, and paradox of the female condition is Iran. As one American female editor of a foreign policy magazine who is married to an Iranian man once said, she empathizes with “those poor men” in Iran who have to bear the power and tenacity of an Iranian woman. And as mentioned before, there is a “pre-revolutionary” female status in Iran versus a “post-revolutionary” female status in Iran. 

Forugh Farrokhzad was a famous and renowned female Iranian artist and poet during the pre-revolutionary period of Iran at around the middle part of the 20th century. In turn, Farrokhzad serves as a symbol of the paradoxical condition of Iranian women during that period of Iran’s modern history. Farrokhzad very much demonstrated the difficulties and the pain borne by an Iranian woman as a result of the contradiction and paradox of the appearance and semblance of emancipation and liberation alongside the real and true condition of male domination and patriarchy during Iran’s pre-revolutionary period. As Michael C. Hillmann argued:

“Under the Pahlavis…many Iranian women may have found new opportunities to participate in society beyond domestic courtyard walls. But even in the 1960s and 1970s, when a woman achieved success or prominence in the public arena, she did so, more often than not, as a result of her relationship to an influential man, as his mother, wife, sister, or daughter, or as a result of governmental tokenism.”

Pre-revolutionary Iranian history “is of men and their exploits.” And as Hillmann noted, Farrokhzad was one of the few Iranian women during that period of time to achieve fame and success without dependence on privileged men. But the autonomy and freedom also took an emotional and psychological toll on Farrokhzad, given the broader social context of male domination and patriarchy in pre-revolutionary Iran, which perhaps contributed to Farrokhzad’s untimely and tragic death as a result of a car accident at the tender age of 32. In a sense, Farrokhzad could neither live with the pressures of patriarchy nor with the stigma which came from resisting it during the pre-revolutionary period of Iranian history. 

And as mentioned before, while the paradox of Iranian women during pre-revolutionary Iran was one based on the appearance of emancipation and liberation on one hand and the reality of male domination and patriarchy on the other hand as symbolized by the life of Farrokhzad, the paradox of Iranian women in the post-revolutionary age in Iran is based on the appearance of religious repression on one hand and the reality of education and empowerment on the other hand. And what is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about the post-revolutionary status of women in Iran is that the appearance and semblance of religious repression in Iran also has certain degrees and levels and it runs parallel with a socioeconomic spectrum, in the sense that the appearance of repression is less on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum and more on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, as is the case in virtually all societies. 

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