Womens' Role in the Islamic Democracy of Iran


There is no other place in the whole Middle East one could find, where women live under a double identity considering their approach to the public sphere and the private one.

Women in Iran must keep a low profile as soon as they come out of their house. They must wear their hejab and follow the sartorial and behavioral rules that the regime imposes.

But once they enter their private space, where they can easily express themselves, we can find many households where women study for the university, listen to rock music, share the housekeeping with their husbands and generally act like normal people without gender bias. And that is happening behind closed doors, so that no one can see that even the Iranian men confront their women as equal human beings, a conscious procedure which has to do with personal growth and maturity, but under the theocratic moral principles of a country which is close to religion (and not necessarily Islam), might have been forgotten.

We can easily come down to the conclusion, that this binary behavior has to do with the recent history in Iran. Of course, Iran may now be a theocratic state, but it has gone through a cultural and political brewing during the Pahlevi period, which gave to the society a valuable time to come close to another perspective and gave the regime useful insights about a different approach in everyday life.

But that is not enough or able to explain a deeper fact that lies beneath the obvious.In reality, this dual approach of women in public and in private sphere, has also to do with the Shiite Islam. Shi'ism is very different in its concept from the main concept of Islam, the Sunnis. And this argument hints nothing about the Sunni Islam, it is simply an argument about Shia Islam and the role that a woman played in shaping the religious identity of Iranians.

According to Islam the most important figure in the shaping of their faith is Prophet Muhammad. But the Sunni Islam gives credit in the "Rightly Guided Caliph Period", which means that after the death of the prophet there were 4 legal successors named: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. Those are the "Rashidun" the legally chosen successors of the prophet Muhammad.But this dogma is not accepted by the Shiites.

Shiites, believe that a successor of the prophet should have charisma and virtues similar to Muhammad, otherwise no council can legalize his power. So Shiites, believed that the successor of the prophet was Ali and they accepted as next successors only the descendants stemming from the marriage between Ali and Fatima (Muhammad's daughter).

But except for pointing out differences between Shi'ism and Sunni Islam, the way Shia Islam was crystallized is extremely important. During the battle of Karbala in 680 c.e. Ali's son Husain got killed. His sister Zaynab carried her brother's head in Damascus thus protecting the honor of the unique male successor of Ali.

In other words, a woman, named Zaynab, with her presence assured the continuation of the Shia dogma. Shiites admire the strong character of woman figures.Another example of this is the Bibi Shahrbanou temple, where the princess Shahrbanou (daughter of the last king of the Sassanids in Persia and wife of Husain), was buried. The grave is settled symbolically on a high mountain, gazing the poorest neighborhoods in South Tehran.

For Iranian people the marriage between Bibi Shahrbanou and Husain symbolizes marriage between Iran and Shiism.

In case anyone would wonder or attribute this binary behavior of Iranian women in everyday life only in recent historical facts, it would be better to pay attention to their religious background and culture.

                                               written by Themis Panagiotopoulou, PhD in Political Science

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