Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (AP)

By Aida Ghajar

February 8, 2021

On January 4, the birthday of Fatimah al-Zahra, the youngest daughter of Prophet Muhammad which in Iran is also celebrated as Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, once again Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei emphasized values to which he believes Iranian and Muslim women should adhere. But al-Zahra’s story from 1,400 years ago is all about male domination.

Khamenei asked Shia eulogists – the same “soldiers of the Leader” who boost his ideology and that of the Islamic Republic of Iran – to promote the so-called values that turn women into tools for a bigger “Shia army” by demanding that they have more and more children.

In his speech Khamenei repeated his previous instructions about the role of women in Iran and in Islam so that “Iran’s vital needs today and tomorrow” will be met: marry early and have children. A consequence of this worldview can be seen in the latest data published by the Statistical Center of Iran that shows that each day close to 100 girls under the age of 14 are married off in Iran. In summer 2020 alone some 9,058 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were married in Iran.

While Khamenei was making his speech his official website and social media accounts were publishing posters, videos and quotations from his previous statements about women’s role as mothers and wives. Fatimah al-Zahra is presented as “a role model in managing the home and carrying out her duties toward her husband,” Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shia Imam, who “was always on the front lines of battlegrounds.” Khamenei said of al-Zahra: “How strong a person needs to be to be able to prepare her husband, to empty his heart of the temptations of family and the troubles of life, to encourage him, and to raise their children as well as she did.” 

Under the title “The woman that Islam wants to build,” the weekly Hezbollah’s Line – a bulletin published by Khamenei’s office which is distributed in mosques and in the offices of the paramilitary Basij organization – dedicated an entire page to previous statements by Khamenei about women’s role in Muslim and Iranian societies.

A Proper Woman Doesn’t Intermingle with Men

Let’s look at Khamenei’s statements going back to 1989, the year he became Supreme Leader. In a speech that year Khamenei defined a proper woman as a woman who “does not intermingle with men and does not consider herself a tool for attracting them, a woman who believes that her dignity is above going naked to capture the attention of passers-by and to fill them with lust by her face, her hair and her body.” He defined the role model for Muslim women as a woman who is self-sacrificing and eloquent in attending to her husband and in being a mother.

In 1992, when the voices of women became louder in protest against systematic sex discrimination and against mandatory hijab after a decade of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei ordered, “don’t say that one cannot get an education while preserving hijab and chastity and while nurturing children.” Five years later he again emphasized that women must not abandon taking care of their husbands and raising children to get an education or work in various fields. He said that because of their “physical makeup” Islam does not allow women to be active in certain areas because of the “intermingling of men and women.”

In 2013 Khamenei approved a charter called “Woman of the Islamic Revolution” issued by the Women’s Basij [Mobilization] Organization. Minoo Aslani, the organization’s head at the time, defined this woman as one who “brings comfort and peace to the family environment,” “encourages her husband in supporting the Islamic Revolution,” and “brings tranquility to her spouse.”

Another tool that Khamenei uses is the Iranian parliament that unfailingly passes discriminatory laws against women and fights against bills and laws that grant more rights to women. In the more than four decades since the establishment of the Islamic Republic there have been few laws that one can say have done anything to benefit women’s rights, and even those have loopholes. For example, the age of marriage for girls was increased from nine to 13, but legislators left the option of marrying off younger girls if their guardian or a Sharia court allows it. Some members of the parliament have tried to raise the age of marriage to 18, but the Supreme Leader and the establishment ruled by him have stood fast against this.

The parliament of the Islamic Republic is supposed to be made up of representatives who are directly elected by the people, but the candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council, whose members are puppets of the Supreme Leader. In other words, Khamenei has absolute power over laws that determine how Iranians live.

Khamenei has Lost Touch with Society

Is Khamenei the main culprit in the constant violations of women’s rights and the continuous attempts to marginalize them in the society?

Sedigheh Vasmaghi, a lawyer, political activist and scholar of religion who was the first spokesperson of Tehran City Council from 1999 to 2003, tells IranWire that the Supreme Leader plays a “major role” in this issue because “if he were an enlightened person and a supporter of democracy and equality he would have stood up to the traditional religious way of thinking that wants to marginalize women and make them subordinate to men, to housework and to children.” 

Khamenei is in line with traditional religious ideology, she believes, which is “a far cry from the realities of today’s Iran. This dominant ideology has the power, the money and the propaganda tools at its disposal, but “even though it enjoys all these facilities it has not been able to impose its values on the society after four decades. Today even religious women and those who have been on the political scene since the revolution are launching various campaigns for the participation of women in politics even at the level of the presidency. Today not even peasant women accept that women must be ruled by men and be their obedient servants.”

The issue of hijab clearly illustrates the widening gap between the government and the people when it comes to women’s rights. Iranian women “no longer have any belief in such ideas,” says Vasmaghi. “A look at the issue of hijab demonstrates this gap very well. After 40 years of propaganda, even religious women who wear hijab are against mandatory hijab. And hijab has been challenged even from a Sharia point of view.”

Al-Zahra Story Doesn’t Inspire

Then what are Khamenei’s goals when he is trying to promote and enforce his ideology?

“Adherents of this ruling ideology are either deceiving themselves or are simply expressing their wishes because they cannot change themselves,” Vasmaghi says. “When the political leaders of a society don’t understand the reality of that society and can’t adapt to its demands, the crisis can only deepen.”

Presenting Fatimah al-Zahra as a role model for women appears to have lost its appeal as well. Official historians say the daughter of Prophet Muhammad married when she was 19 and died at 28. But Shia historians believe she married when she was nine and died at 18. Regardless of which story is true, Vasmaghi believes that the Islamic Republic and Khamenei are exploiting al-Zahra’s story to advance their own ideological goals without presenting valid arguments in support of their views. “This exploitation is superficial and shallow and filled with ignorance,” she says. “What do the needs of today’s women have to do with 1,400 years ago? This is an irrational interpretation of Islam and doesn’t appeal to any woman. You can’t even take it seriously.”

Iranian Women as a Tool for Fighting Western Values

Parvaneh Hosseini, a women’s rights activist and academic, tells IranWire she believes that Khamenei is a continuation of the same movement that dominated the 1979 Islamic Revolution and used similar tactics to marginalize woman. “From the very start after the 1979 revolution they defined women as primarily mothers, wives and sisters, i.e., as women who are important only because of their relationships to men, and Fatimah al-Zahra became their symbol,” she says. “But Khamenei’s stand can be seen from another angles as well. This is to use women as tools against the ‘enemy’ and to extend the Shia domain.”

According to Hosseini, what distinguishes Khamenei is that he constantly juxtaposes the Iranian Islamic model and the Western model and emphasizes the “cultural invasion” by Iran’s enemies. “Khamenei wants to portray women’s presence in various political, cultural and social spheres as resulting from conspiracies by the enemy and from cultural invasion and to contrast it with the Islamic woman that he favors,” she says. “By bestowing priority on the roles of being wives and mothers, he wants to show off the ‘national might’ of Iranian Islamic society for the benefit of the enemy. He views himself and the Iranian nation as being on one side and the rest of the world, i.e., the cultural invasion and the enemies, on the other side.”

In his recent statements Khamenei said “Islam and the Islamic Republic view women with respect and reverence, whereas the West views them as commodities and tools.” But it seems that it is Iran that is exploiting women as commodities and tools to achieve its goals, whether fighting against the “cultural invasion” or extending the “Shia domain”. As Hosseini puts it, “by emphasizing procreation [Khamenei] wants to have a bigger Shia community and a bigger Shia army because he believes he can crush his enemies with a bigger army.”

Like Vasmaghi, Hosseini believes that Khamenei has no understanding of the reality of Iranian society and what the Iranian people want. “Khamenei’s delusion is that, as leader of the Shiites and of Iran, he has the power to decide the destiny of the people, and it is not important to him whether his ‘army’ thinks the way he does or not,” she says. “In fact, it is not important to him whether the children who are born agree with him or not. What is important to him is to make the community under his command bigger.”

It seems that Iran under Khamenei’s leadership has reached a point where neither the religious faithful nor the secular opposition take his statements seriously. From where he is standing he can see only his own entourage and he is not letting go of his delusions. In fact, instead of the bigger Shia community he yearns for, it is those who object to Khamenei himself, his policies and those of the Islamic Republic who are growing in number – whether they are religious believers who now say that Khamenei has exploited Fatimah al-Zahra as a tool or those who soon after the revolution concluded that the ruling regime exploits women and uses them as tools. The ideological drumbeat is still loud, but it sounds more and more hollow. 

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.