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Is Khamenei Afraid to Contradict Grand Ayatollahs?

December 13, 2017
Aida Ghajar
10 min read
Mehdi Khalaji says that Ayatollah Khamenei dismissed the traditional religious authorities as “fossils”
Mehdi Khalaji says that Ayatollah Khamenei dismissed the traditional religious authorities as “fossils”
According Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, Khamenei has tried to keep religious authorities happy by being cautious — and through bribery and intimidation
According Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, Khamenei has tried to keep religious authorities happy by being cautious — and through bribery and intimidation
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi (right) objects to women being allowed in stadiums — but is Ayatollah Khamenei really against it?
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi (right) objects to women being allowed in stadiums — but is Ayatollah Khamenei really against it?

Iranian officials have announced that, after years of controversial debate and sustained campaigns, women will not be allowed to enter sports stadiums. The decision came after a grand ayatollah, Naser Makarem Shirazi, strongly objected to removing the ban, showing just how much power the highest senior clerics wield in Iran. But how does this influence balance out with that of the Supreme Leader — and would he dare speak out if he disagreed with their decisions? 

Over the last few days, officials — including representatives for women’s organizations affiliated with the regime — have declared that the matter is closed and that female fans have lost the battle. 

“The case is closed forever,” Minoo Aslani, head of the women’s division of the paramilitary organization Basij, told Fars News Agency on December 9 [Persian link]. Aslani spoke a day after the Socio-Cultural Council of Women and Family (SCCWF), which works under the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, announced that it was removing the matter off its agenda. This followed an announcement from Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi that he opposed any change to the ban and the status quo.

Ayatollah Shirazi and other marjas — or “sources of emulation” as religious authorities of this rank are called — have repeatedly and consistently opposed the expansion of women’s rights and the rights of other citizens, and the refusal to lift the ban on stadium entry is just one part of this control over society.

The battle to remove the ban against women in stadiums goes back years. In 2015, Shahindokht Molaverdi, who was then President Rouhani’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, faced immense pressure when she took steps to lift it. Eventually, she announced that plans to remove the ban had been scrapped “out of respect for the marjas.”

But even before this, back in 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that women would be allowed into stadiums to watch football matches. At that time, Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani announced that the presence of women in stadiums was against sharia law and amounted to “abandoning Islamic positions.” Another grand ayatollah, Mohammad Fazel Lankarani, said that lifting the ban would mean “mixing” the sexes and could not be tolerated. And Grand Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani raised yet another reason, arguing that it was impossible for women to ensure their hijabs were kept properly in place while watching sporting events.The onslaught continued until the Supreme Leader vetoed the idea and instructed Ahmadinejad to abandon the matter.

But it’s important to note that Ahmadinejad claimed that initially Khamenei had actually approved of his plan, but when the political climate became inhospitable, Khamenei told him to abandon the idea, stating that it was not a “primary issue for the country.”

Marry without Delay!

Marjas have also voiced strong opposition to raising the legal age of marriage. In 2016, parliament’s Women’s Caucus considered a proposal to amend Article 1041 of the Iranian Civil Code [PDF], which would have raised the age of marriage for girls to 15 from 13. Then Tayebeh Siavoshi, a reformist MP and the deputy chair of the caucus, announced that they were waiting for the views of Grand Ayatollah Nouri-Hamedani before they could proceed. However, Siavoshi already knew that the ayatollah had said that anyone who had reached puberty had a duty to “marry.” This was backed up by Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani, who said that when girls reach puberty it is “highly recommended” that they be married off “without delay.”

The marjas have also actively sought restrictions on women’s right to sing or perform music. Ayatollah Nouri-Hamedani believes that men should not even hear a women’s voice unless it is “necessary” — let alone hear a woman sing, which he describes as the “source of corruption.” Nouri-Hamedani is also opposed to women being seen on television. In 2015, he said that Iranian TV should not broadcast any images of women that clearly shows their faces. 

Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi has said that women are only “allowed” to sing at gatherings where only other women are present. Here Shirazi was somewhat kinder than grand ayatollahs Mohammad Fazel Lankarani, Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, Hossein Vahid Khorasani and Mohammad-Taqi Behjat, who all declared that listening to women singing was “strictly forbidden.”

However, when it comes to women and music, the Supreme Leader’s views do not quite match those of the grand ayatollahs. Khamenei is on record saying that women singing, whether solo or in a chorus of men and/or women, is not a problem, provided it is not “lustful” and does not lead to “corruption.” But Khamenei’s views notwithstanding, Iranian women are banned from singing solo in the presence of men. Choruses including female members are continuously harassed and interrogated and their concerts have been subject to cancellation.

Shia Islam became the dominant religion in Iran during the Safavid Dynasty (1501–1736) but, according to religious scholars, although Shia religious authorities have always played an important role in giving legitimacy to Iranian rulers since that time, it has traditionally been the rulers who have had the upper hand. The stronger the government, the weaker the authority of the mullahs. Even in the first decade of the Islamic Republic, immediately after the revolution, the situation did not change dramatically. The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who himself was an influential marja, described traditional marjas as “reactionary,” tended to disregard what they said and acted according to his own views and opinions. For example, Khomeini ignored marjas’ calls to ban playing chess and showing women on TV.


...Then Khamenei Came Along

Ayatollah Khamenei, however, lacks Khomeini’s authority, and has not been recognized as a marja

Mehdi Khalaji, a scholar of Islamic studies with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that during Ayatollah Khamenei’s years in power, he has dismissed some traditional Islamic jurists as “fossils” and has had no qualms about thrashing them.

“Ayatollah Khomeini used such an insulting and disrespectful language in talking about traditional Islamic jurists and their views of ‘Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist’ [the philosophy behind the Islamic Republic] that perhaps was unprecedented in the history of Shi’ism,” says Khalaji. “But the credentials of Ayatollah Khamenei as a jurist are not well-established, so in his official statements about issues of Islamic jurisprudence and his behavior towards other jurists he is cautious and guarded. He is afraid of undermining his own legitimacy in jurisprudence so he always heeds the views of other high-ranking marjas and issues fatwas that agree with their views. This is why the views of well-known Qom ayatollahs like Makarem Shirazi and Nouri-Hamedani have become important. Mr. Khamenei’s shaky standing in the field of jurisprudence does not allow him to publicly express an opinion opposed to theirs or to stand up to their fatwas on social issues. Unlike Khomeini, Mr. Khamenei not only needs the support of these ayatollahs, he sometimes needs their silence as well.”

On certain occasions, Ayatollah Khamenei has issued fatwas that go against the views of traditional marjas — although these are considered to be “political” fatwas, not religious ones. But Ayatollah Khomeini did not stop at political fatwas. For instance, during the mourning period for the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, some Shia Muslims self-flagellate, hitting their own heads with a machete until blood flows, a practice known as “Qama Zani”. After he was shown a video of the mourning ceremonies, which were aired on CNN and other international television networks, he ordered the practice to be stopped so that Shia Islm would not become known for violence and savagery in public opinion around the world.

Conforming to Save Himself

Ayatollah Khomeini declared that the interests of the Islamic Government take precedence over religious edicts and fatwas. But, says Khalaji, “although Ayatollah Khamenei presents himself as the political and intellectual heir to Mr. Khomeini, he is forced to behave as a conformist among the marjas and does not issue fatwas that go against well-known views of the others.” Khomeini’s priority, he says, “is to safeguard his own credibility as a jurist. So, in cases such as women in stadiums or music, even if his views are different from the community of marjas, he does not dare to express them because that would mean contradicting traditional jurists publicly, which then would leave him vulnerable to charges of ignorance of Islamic laws. Had Ayatollah Khomeini obeyed the fatwas of well-known marjas we would have been condemned to live under a Taliban-style government.”

In Qom, decisions about social issues officially rest with the city’s marjas. But in some cases, as with the policies of Iranian state-run TV and radio, Ayatollah Khamenei proceeds with his own decisions. A case in point is the 2004 movie The Lizard, directed by Kamal Tabrizi. The storyline focuses on a small-time thief who dons the garb of a cleric to escape — but the more he plays the role, the better person he becomes. Traditional mullahs opposed the idea of showing the movie on TV, but the director showed it to Khamenei, who ordered that it be broadcast. “The Lizard has everyone but clerics giggling in Iran” is how the New York Times summed it up.

According to Mehdi Khalaji, Ayatollah Khamenei supports some freedoms at an unofficial level — but he does not dare to do it officially.

Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari is a religious scholar, a former member of the parliament and a dissident cleric who was defrocked and spent four years in prison. He holds a similar view to that of Ayatollah Khamenei and believes that when the Islamic Republic was established it was expected that the boundaries between religious and political powers would disappear. And yet Ayatollah Khomeini maintained the boundaries because he did not believe in traditional marjas.

Eshkevari says that the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, once heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, was insistent that the Qom Seminary, the base of most grand ayatollahs, be kept independent because he suspected that as supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei wanted to absorb the seminary and make it a tool of his own rule. And when Montazeri questioned Khamenei’s credentials during a speech, Khamenei supporters surrounded his home carrying hanging ropes in their arms. Eventually Montazeri was put under house arrest. “Khamenei hoped to turn Qom Seminary into [the equivalent of] Al-Azhar [the Egyptian university and the most influential voice of religious interpretation in Sunni Islam], which is under the control of the government,” Eshkevari says. “But up to now he has not succeeded.”

Keeping the Ayatollahs Happy

According to Eshkevari, Qom Seminary’s power as an institution increased because Khamenei has not been recognized as a marja. “In all the years that Khamenei has been the Supreme Leader he has tried to keep Qom Seminary happy through conformity, bribery or intimidation,” says Eshkevari. “After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini the influence of the marjas increased and government institutions found themselves in a weaker position because Khamenei was not a marja. Nowadays the most progressive fatwas, especially in regards to women, are issued by Ayatollah Yousef Saanei, but because he has no influence with the power structure he is not a deciding factor.”

Eshkevari has another insight. “All other marjas are misogynists,” he says. “When Ahmadinejad appointed a woman cabinet minister, these marjas put pressure on Khamenei to reject [the appointment].” He suggests that a substantial amount of effort is put into the supreme leader’s aims to please Iran’s grand ayatollahs, and a lot of it goes on behind the scenes of official power.  

Of course, Khamenei’s weakness produces some clear losers: women and other groups of citizens who repeatedly have their rights trampled on, whether it’s because repressive legislation continues to be passed or legislation that could usher in greater freedoms is rejected. So now it seems obvious that the marjas originally supported Khamenei’s election as Supreme Leaders in a bid to increase their own power and have the final word in decision-making. Of course, when it comes to influential bodies, the Guardian Council is certainly powerful. Yet the supervisory power of the traditional marjas consistently works to neutralize changes that some members of parliament want to introduce, or else leads to the passage of laws that can only be described as “reactionary.”

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