To mark Iran’s annual Women’s Day, the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that a woman’s first duty is to her home and family, that gender equality is a Western cliché, and that the question of women’s employment was marginal to the national debate. “It is the security of women in the family environment, women’s opportunity in housekeeping for talents to bloom [that matter],” he said to a gathering of women. “Women’s employment is not the main question,”
Khamenei’s remarks and his proclaimed public position on gender roles directly clashed with President Hassan Rouhani, who in a separate speech urged equal status for women and criticized those who consider equality for Iranian women a threat.
The dueling positions reveal a sharp divide in the Islamic Republic over how the regime should publicly confront the changing role of women in Iranian society, given changes over the past decade that have transformed women’s role in the economy and at home. With more women serving as breadwinners, attaining higher education, and entering the workforce than ever before, the country is experiencing what is effectively a bottom up revolution in women’s social status, a shift that has rattled both the country’s rulers and helped propel Rouhani’s electoral victory.
“The main question is the woman’s stewardship of the family,” said Khamenei, who advised women from being misled by notions of feminism. “We must clear our minds from Western clichés. One the biggest errors of Western thought is the subject of sexual equality.” Women, he averred, are naturally built for “a specific area of human life.”
Like many deeply religious conservatives who are uncomfortable with the rising influence of women in Iranian family life, Khamenei challenged Western attitudes toward gender equality by focusing instead on the sexualization of women in European and American popular culture.
To prove his point about the West, the Supreme Leader even quoted from “A Call to Action”, the most recent book by former President Jimmy Carter. “Every year more than a hundred thousand girls are sold into slavery in America,” said Khamenei, quoting Carter. “Only one percent of sexual offenders in the military are put on trial. It is enough to make one weep!”
While the Leader’s recent statements suggest a warning to Rouhani not to take his electoral promises of promoting women’s equality too far, it is not the first time that Khamenei has expressed such views about the role of women in the society. He has made his views on women’s role in society consistently clear since taking his position in 1989. In September 2000 he declared the Western claim of defending women’s right to be a complete lie. “Westerners are 1300 years behind Islam in this regard,” he said. “West has built a faulty foundation for women. What the Westerners do is to promote triviality and promiscuity.”
“Western societies have sunk so low that millions of youngsters in Europe or US have become corrupt and felons from the ages of ten or twelve—thanks to their materialistic culture, under the shadow of those imposing palaces, those nuclear bases, those hundred-some storied skyscrapers. They commit crimes, they are addicts, they smoke cigarettes and grass. Why is it?” he asked. “Because the Western woman did not appreciate the family.”Women’s Rights for the Sake of Capitalism Khamenei believes that the West has granted women certain rights with a hidden agenda of promoting an amoral form of capitalism. “With the new technology and industry, factories in Europe needed workers but they were short of workers. To get them to work in the factories and to exploit their labor, they declared that women have the right of ownership! Of course they paid them lower wages.”(i)
He had said this before from a slightly different angle. “The Europeans needed cheap labor with low expectations. So they began talking about women’s liberation to take women away from home and into factories as cheap labor.”(ii)
As he sees it, “what they call women’s liberation nowadays and has been promoted by the decadent Western culture is to expose women to men’s eyes so they can use them for sexual gratification.”(iii) This model originated from “ancient Greece and Rome.” (iv) This “drunken, crazy and ignorant West, under the influence of Zionists, is promoting the [taking away of hejab and chastity] as a way honoring women.” (v)
He has tried to repudiate other Western arguments for women’s liberation as well. “They say that hejab is a religious symbol; they don’t want to have religious symbols in their societies which are secular. This is an absolute lie. This is not a question of religious versus secular. The point is that the fundamental policies of the West is based on exposing and prostituting women and hejab is against it.” (vi)
A Crisis They Don’t Seem to Notice
Ayatollah Khamenei sees the “crisis of women” as the major contemporary crisis facing the West. “It might seem strange to talk about a women’s crisis. These days they talk about the environmental crisis, the water crisis, the energy crisis and the crisis of global warming as the main problems of humanity. But they are not.”(vii)
He concedes that in the East women have often been defined as “marginal figures who play no part in shaping history” but the thrust of his attacks has always been directed at the West, which he believes defines women as a “creatures whose sexuality overshadows their humanity, as sexual objects for men and as objects for the modern capitalism.”(viii) They “asked me what defense I could offer to what the Westerners say about the question of women in this country. I said that ‘we have no defense; we have offense!’ On the question of women it is the West who owes us. They are the ones who are oppressing women, who humiliate women, who degrade women. In the name of freedom, jobs and responsibility, they put them under mental, psychological and emotional pressures. They are the ones who must answer.”(ix) This year’s Women’s Day address is not the first time Khamenei has accorded the pressing concern of women’s employment a low priority. The question of jobs for women “is not a priority issue...the fundamental question—which unfortunately no longer exist in the West—is the sense of security and tranquility at home and in the society, among the family and in the home of a husband or a father.”(x)
Even his suggestion for creating a center to study women’s issues is not new. In December 1990 in a meeting with the Cultural Council of the Islamic Republic he called for the formation of an organization which was to ensure that women would enjoy human and social rights and to prepare necessary laws and regulation.
It has yet to happen, though in the intervening time, millions of women have pressed their way into universities, into the workforce, and have begun feeding their families and demanding commensurate legal status and social influence. That they are being told on Women’s Day to allow their talents for housekeeping to blossom only underscores the disconnect between the country’s highest authorities and the most pressing issues that 30 million Iranian women face daily.
(i) Speech to a group of women, October 22, 1997.
(ii) Speech to a group of women, December 16, 1992.
(iii) Speech to a group of women, December 16, 1992.
(iv) Speech to a group of nurses, November 13, 1991.
(v) Speech to a group of nurses, March 22, 2010.
(vi) Speech to a group of “exemplary women”, May 22, 2011.
(vii) Speech to a group of “exemplary women”, May 22, 2011.
(viii) Speech to a group of nurses, April 21, 2010.
(ix) Message to the Congress of Seven Thousand Women Martyrs, February 4, 2013.
(x) Speech to a group of women, October 22, 1997.