Why Women Supported Khomeini
The Iranian monarchy presented itself as having made great strides towards equality between the sexes. Then why did the majority of Iranian women support the Islamic revolution? As always, there were a number of factors.
Women’s progress under the Shah wasn’t nearly as large as depicted by the Pahlavi regime or by supporters in the Western press. There had been slight gains in literacy but, according to studies cited by Monique Girgis, domestic attitudes had improved very little. Even among the urban educated, very young women were still forced into marriage, and women faced discrimination in society and at work—if they managed to obtain paid employment at all.
The regime’s cruelties, and economic mismanagement by the Shah, affected everyone, male and female. Anthropologist Mary Elaine Hegland lived in an Iranian village during the Shah’s regime. She documented how it was the women who turned against the regime’s violence and organized anti-Shah marches. The village men then took over, leading the demonstrations—and the women let them, no doubt thinking that this was their proper role. Again, attitudes had not changed.
Most Iranians believed the messages they got from Ayatollah Khomeini, who was living in Paris and sending tapes from exile. As a village woman told Hegland, “The religious scholars and the ayatullahs [sic] have said that men and women must revolt together, and must demonstrate together for religion and for freedom for all. Islamic government is for everybody, and the Islamic struggle is for everybody.” Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar at the Wilson center, agrees: “Khomeini said women will have a role in the society but within an Islamic framework. Nobody bothered in those days to ask, ‘What is the Islamic framework?’”
The Islamic Framework
After the revolution, under Khomeini, Iranian women and girls discovered in what ways their status had and had not changed.
In 1980 the Khomeini government executed Dr. Farrokhroo Parsa, a physician who had agitated for women’s suffrage and who had been Minister of Education under the Shah.
Haleh Esfandiari summed up women’s role as prescribed by the ayatollah. “Over the last seventeen years [1980-1997], the government has been forced to rescind every single law it passed regarding women’s rights. The Family Protection Law was suspended immediately… That meant that men once again could divorce their wives and just notify them by mail. Child custody was taken away from women. Men could marry more than one permanent wife and as many temporary wives as they wanted. Men could stop their wives from going out in the street, from working.”
For those unfamiliar with the term “temporary wife,” it means a contract between a man and a woman for a specified time period, which can be, for example, as short as one day. Under Islamic marriage law, the groom pays an agreed-upon amount, the mahr, to the bride. It is, of course, a kind of legalized prostitution.
Journalist Karuna Lakhiani writes that the mullahs reduced the legal marriage age to nine. Women activists, who had obtained higher education during the Shah’s regime, successfully pressured the regime to increase it to 13 for girls and 15 for boys. Younger children can be wed with the consent of their father and the permission of a court judge. According to Justice for Iran, a London-based NGO, “the number of girls under the age of 15 who were registered to marry increased from 33,383 in 2006 to 39,831 in 2011…177 typical primary and secondary girl schools are shut down because their student bodies [were] forced to marry and perform domestic and sexual duties expected of these children as married women…”
The NGO quotes a Khomeini fatwa: “Anyone who has a wife less than nine years of age is not allowed to engage in sexual intercourse, whether she is his permanent or temporary wife. However, other forms of sexual pleasures are permitted, such as touching with lust, hugging, and rubbing penis between the buttocks and thighs; even if [the wife] is a nursing baby.”
Minoo Jalali, a former attorney now living in exile, observes that women protested the new restrictions on numerous occasions (e.g. International Women’s Day, pictured above), but were unsuccessful. She believes they “largely underestimated the strength and organization of religious forces.”
In his 2019 report, Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad of the Brookings Institute listed the successes of the Islamic revolution. On the positive side, the new regime shifted focus from the urban elite to the rural poor. As a result, “The 1970s poverty rate of 25% dropped to less than 10% in 2014.” Most people now had access to electricity and clean water. The literacy rate more than doubled, with women making the strongest gains. For more than a decade (2009-2019), female students outnumbered males at the universities.
The New York Times contradicts Fahollah-Nejad, saying that statistics from Iran’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs show 12 million living below the absolute poverty line and 25 to 30 million below the poverty line. 14% of Iranians lived in tents. In 2018 one-third of the urban population lived in slums—a 17-fold increase since the the mullahs took over. The Times places most of the blame on the mullahs’ incompetence and corruption. It does mention a decades-long drought as being partly responsible for the failure of crops, which forced the rural poor to flock to the cities and crowd into those very slums. Perhaps that drought was due to climate change?
The Times barely mentions the primary cause for most of the increase in poverty: economic sanctions, which steeply inflated “the prices of groceries, medicines and fuel… [and] also excluded Iranians from the formal international banking system and forced them toward informal cash-based transactions, making them vulnerable to fraud and black market prices.”
As I’ve written previously, sanctions are the modern form of siege warfare. Instead of deploying troops to encircle a city and catapult rocks over the walls, we cut off trade. We deprive an entire nation of food, medical supplies, and parts to repair broken equipment. We encourage the inhabitants to blame their suffering on their own government and rebel against it, hoping that they’ll replace it with a regime more acceptable to corporate interests, so we won’t have to get our hands dirty. If all else fails, we are still free to send the drones, bombers, and ground troops.
United States Response to the Revolution
On November 4, 1979, Iranian students occupied the United States embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans as hostages. President Carter’s unsuccessful attempts to free them likely resulted in his loss of the 1980 election. He did succeed at the end, via mediation by the Algerian government, buying the hostages’ freedom in exchange for the easing of sanctions, release of frozen Iranian assets, and the establishment of a claims tribunal. The agreement was signed on January 19, 1981. Ronald Reagan took office the next day—and the GOP gave him all the credit.
Meanwhile, in September 1980, Iraq attacked Iran. According to Wikipedia, the United States sided with Iraq early on. Gary Sick, former member of the National Security Council, stated that Brzezinski “made no secret of the fact that he saw the Iraqi attack as a potentially positive development that would put pressure on Iran to release the hostages” in exchange for spare parts for Iran’s largely U.S.-built military. During the war, our government supplied Iraq with several billion dollars’ worth of economic aid, the sale of dual-use technology (chemical and biological weapons), military intelligence, and special operations training. The war went on for eight years, with an estimated one to two million casualties.
Final thoughts about arms, oil, women’s rights, and where we are today.