Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Janet Afary on Women’s Rights in Iran

Janet Afary

Janet Afary concludes a dialogue with Nawal El Saadawi initiated at Double X earlier this month. Afary is a professor of religious studies and feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. El Saadawi is an Egyptian writer famous for her outspokenness, particularly on the issue of women’s rights.

You can find Nawal’s first post here, Janet’s reply here, and Nawal’s response here.

Dear Nawal:

Thanks for your response. I am not sure the problem is either the sexual revolution or Western morality per se. I think it is a matter of demographics, education, greater longevity, the breakdown of the extended family as a result of the capitalist economy, and the changing definitions of feminism and women’s rights at the turn of the 21st century.

First, People are living much longer thanks to better sanitation and health measures. Women are going to school longer and getting married much later. Because of greater longevity and lower fertility, marriages last longer, which means unhappy couples have to endure one another for longer periods!

Second, The delay in the age of marriage also means that we have a new phenomenon in the region, a girl who reaches puberty at 12 to 13 but does not get married until much later, sometimes not until her mid twenties or even early thirties. This significant increase in the number of unmarried women without male guardians has created enormous anxieties as it is unprecedented.

Sexual Politics in Modern IranThird, greater longevity means an increase in the number of young divorcees or widows who have many potentially sexually active years ahead of them without the guardianship of a husband, father, or brother. In premodern Iranian society, such young divorcees or widows were immediately absorbed into the extended family and became the second or third wife of a married man. Today, polygamy is much less acceptable and such women often live alone rather than become the second wife of a man (unless the man is very wealthy and the woman of very modest means, in which case it is often kept a secret).

I think all of these factors give the impression to more traditional sectors of society that marriages have become more brittle, that men are less committed to marriage, that women have looser morals, and that society has become more sexualized. But I am not so sure about these generalizations. I don’t think premodern Iranians, or for that matter other Middle Eastern or Western nations, were any less sexual or more ethical than modern ones for the following reasons:

First, in many premodern societies sex with children was common and tolerated. Girls married at or before puberty and indeed this was sanctioned in many religions.

Second, sex on the part of men with boys (pedophilia and not just pederasty) was also an acceptable cultural practice despite various religious prohibitions against sodomy. In Iran, for example, it was common for wealthy men to keep boy concubines. Sex among boys or between men and boys was also common in village communities. In general many premodern societies (including the ancient Greco-Roman world) believed that children had no sexual feelings. In Iran there were prohibitions against penetration (which were also commonly ignored) but sexual molestation of boys was prevalent and a common topic in classical and even early modern Persian poetry

Third, slavery was an acceptable part of life, and in wealthy families young male and female slaves were common sexual partners. Sex with slaves was of course not limited to Iran and the Middle East, it was also a brutal part of American life in the nineteenth century.

Fourth, today Middle Eastern men are returning to temporary wives and orfi marriages. In premodern times wealthy men took multiple formal and temporary wives and discarded them when no longer of use. Many aspired to this, but only the poor did not have the financial means to practice it. However, as the old Persian saying goes, “As soon as a man owned two shirts, he took a second wife.”

Finally, most female and male victims of rape, incest, and sexual molestation quietly endured their lot and had nowhere to which to turn.

So I find premodern Iranian society (and for that matter most premodern societies) to be highly amoral and violent, in so far as sexuality was concerned.

Middle Easterners often blame modern Western societies for two vices: unmarried women’s right to sexual pleasure and the gay lifestyle. The first, is certainly preferable to the child marriages of the premodern era. As for the modern gay lifestyle, since it involves consensual sex between two adults, and is combined with laws against pedophilia, I find it ethically superior to the old type of covert homosexuality of both the West and the East, which also involved sex with children.

I don’t think American women’s greater experience in premarital sex has undermined marriage and made men rebellious.

As for the frequency of abortion in the US, I believe the problem is prevalent only where there is little sex education. Teen pregnancy, abortion and divorce are more common in conservative southern states of the US, where many parents prohibit sex before marriage and don’t talk to their children about sex, than in liberal northeastern states where sex education is commonly taught in school and many mothers take their teenage daughters to the doctor and get them birth control pills and condoms.

I do agree with you that the sexual revolution has not necessarily empowered women and that finding a marriage partner is much more difficult in the US and in Iran, where arranged marriages are dying out. However, I don’t think American women’s greater experience in premarital sex has undermined marriage and made men rebellious. I think it is the breakdown of the extended family that has contributed to a drop in marriage rates and weaker marriages in the West.

The conjugal bond is a weak one to begin with. It has always been so since the primary purpose of marriage was procreation and having a family rather than love and compatibility. However, marriage was universal in Iran and couples stayed together because the extended family arranged marriages and then helped keep the newlyweds together. When the young couple went through rough patches of life, the in-laws were always there to keep them together. Fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law helped find a job for the young son-in-law. Mothers-in-law and mothers helped the young wife with cooking and child care. When the couple became estranged (often due to multiple pregnancies), the extended family kept relations going until the new couple had grown children of its own. At that point, when the children were married, tradition and obligation required the parents to take care of the new generation and not follow their own pleasure.

Capitalism broke down the extended family as people began to move in search of jobs and family networks became less powerful in terms of economic opportunity. True, the process was liberating on many levels. Young people were no longer obligated to follow the dictates of their parents, join the family profession or marry a person selected by their parents. But the new freedoms were also terrifying as Eric Fromm showed in his Escape from Freedom. Without in-laws and their support, the conjugal unit became more fragile and given the opportunity men left marriages much more easily. This has been a crucial reason for the rise of the Religious Right throughout the world, where Islamist leaders have become surrogate patriarchs and encourage arranged marriages.

it would be more fruitful everywhere to work toward policies that protect women and children inside and outside marriage.

Talking to my students in the U.S. I really empathize with them as life can be hard for a young couple. It is not uncommon for people to move from city to city and state to state in search of jobs. A woman no longer necessarily follows her husband in his new job, not just because she enjoys her independence but because there is no guarantee he could maintain his job and support the family. If a woman has a secure and good paying job, she holds onto her job rather than relocate with her husband (or fiance). Child care is extremely expensive in this country. Most in-laws work, many live apart from their children in other states and cannot relocate; hence, they are not available for child care. In the state of California, for example, working women may receive 6-12 weeks of pregnancy leave but often have no job security, pay, or benefits if they opt to stay home longer. Health care is a catastrophe and both husband and wife must work to ensure some health care for the family. Under the weight of all these pressures, modern marriages easily crack. The Republicans with all their talk of “Family Values” did nothing to ameliorate this situation. Most immigrant families (including Iranian-American ones) continue to sacrifice everything for their children, but the daughter who grows up in such a family and watches her mother’ s devotion (and often her father’s infidelities) aspires to a better life, which means that the second generation’s marriage becomes more fragile.

Rather than assuming that our Middle Eastern cultures are more moral than Western ones, and rather than holding onto the unhappy arranged marriages of our foremothers and blaming the more individualistic marriages of modernity, I think it would be more fruitful everywhere to work toward policies that protect women and children inside and outside marriage. I mean policies such as sex education at school, protection from sexually transmitted diseases, safe and available birth control and abortion, laws against domestic violence, better jobs for women, parental leave, decent child care, community property, and better inheritance laws. And yes, perhaps men should also be taught their responsibilities to family and children by state mandated classes on marriage and parenting before and after marriage.

I have very much enjoyed this conversation with you. I have been following your community activism for years and hope our paths cross soon in one of my trips to Egypt.


Janet Afary

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Janet Afary

Janet Afary is a professor of religious studies and feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (2009)....

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