April 8, 2010

Women in Nineteenth-Century Iran

Women in nineteenth-century Iran were regarded as being much inferior to men, both in regard to their intellectual capacity and their spiritual worth. The religiously devout men looked on them with suspicion and disdain as a potential cause of the loss of their religious purity; women were regarded as having been placed on earth to lead men astray. The less religious would merely think of women as a source of sexual pleasure and domestic management. They were not much above chattels and slaves, certainly not worthy of being consulted about family affairs or entrusted with making any decisions for themselves. Indeed, a woman's temperament was felt to be totally unsuitable for any serious deliberation or rational thought.

As a result, few women received any education, and there were almost no opportunities to make any meaningful contribution to society outside of domestic commitments. A woman's social contacts were limited to her own husband, her immediate male relatives, and a circle of other women. She was strictly and jealously guarded from contacts with other men. She might be killed by her husband with impunity on the mere suspicion of infidelity. Although Islam granted women certain strictly defined rights, few of them were able to exercise these rights, since there was no mechanism whereby they could act in society independently of men. Nor did wealth lead to any improvement in a woman's lot; the women of the upper classes were caged in the vacuous monotony of harem life. Thus for most women, the only way to exert any influence over their own lives was to dominate their husbands by teasing, cajoling, and intriguing. Many women achieved a degree of power in this way -- but this provoked more distrust and disdain on the part of men and, not suprisingly, often led to divorce.

Although the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh had elevated the status of women, therer were severe limitations on the extent that this could be put into practice in the Bahá'í community of Iran because of the prevailing social situation. Although the Bahá'í community led the way with regard to women's emancipation, the majority of Bahá'ís at this time were recent converts and were still much under the influence of the society around them and of their former ways of thinking. Moreover, the severe persecutions that occurred frequently put a brake on the extent to which reforms in the position of women could be introduced. Nevertheless, the Bahá'í community in Iran made strides in this direction and was to pioneer, in later generations, the introduction of education for women; the election of women to their representative bodies, the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies; and the encouragement of women to lead more active and fulfilled lives. 
(Moojan Momen, forward to ‘Munirih Khanum, Memoirs and Letters of Munirih Khanum, translated by Sammireh Anwar Smith )