//Finding Equilibrium: The Trilemma of Being a Woman in Iran
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Finding Equilibrium: The Trilemma of Being a Woman in Iran

Delving into contemporary Iranian history, this article aims to unravel how Iranian subjectivity deals with its ambivalence towards women’s positionality in the nation’s present-day cultural and socio-political life. Freudian psychoanalysis suggests that experiencing ambivalent thoughts and feelings about life and our existence is part of human subjectivity.[1] Nevertheless, living in a state of “disequilibrium” continually can lead to instability and unpredictability, making it hard to develop and implement sustainable and appropriate public policies to accommodate social change and this, in turn, can cause short-term and long-term psychological harm.[2]

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For instance, when it comes to work-life balance, many modern Iranian women struggle to balance the pressures of competing rationalities and have contradictory thoughts and emotions centring on bearing and rearing children and caring for the family and the production of labour, wealth and capital. The Iranian case of multiple (dis)equilibria is an example of a social order torn between multiple identities and their associated preference structures of Persianism, Islam, or modernity, and what might constitute a viable and stable combination of them. Each of these rationalities offer their own truth packages which are themselves “unities in multiplicities”.[3] However, they interact and combine in innumerable permutations to generate different shades of the multiplicities of ways of being.

In contemporary Iranian history, three significant political events—the Constitutional Revolution, the Oil Nationalisation Movement, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution—are the manifestations of encounters with the wider world order that have had a significant impact on women’s lives in different shapes and forms. The first Pahlavi king, Reza Shah (Khan), had a very ambitious project of social transformation to modernise Iran as swiftly as possible.[4] That also involved liberating women from the chains of traditions and patriarchal social order. After visiting Turkey in 1934, Reza Shah enforced the compulsory unveiling of women in 1936 in a top-down social engineering experiment that lacked adequate emergent legitimacy, with no attempt at consensus building.[5] He largely ignored the objections and resistance of the most conservative sections of the society who were traumatised witnessing the forceful and excessive measures used to remove the sacred hijab from women’s bodies. This heretic and bold move was never forgotten nor forgiven and returned to haunt the Pahlavi dynasty later with catastrophic consequences. Meanwhile, the Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah, continued his father’s revolutionary social and political reforms and women were granted more rights under his reign, such as the right to higher education and to work even at the highest levels of ministerial, parliamentary, and diplomatic rank, as well as the right to vote. More significantly, he introduced the Family Protection Act of 1967, along with the right to abortion in 1973, enhancing mother’s custody rights of their children, limiting polygamy, and later abolishing extra judicial divorce in 1975.[6] Reforms also included changing the minimum marriage age for girls and boys, and providing welfare services for low-income women in urban areas and provincial towns overwhelmed with poverty. 

However, many of these progressive laws were repealed after the 1979 revolution and replaced by the new social order introduced based on the traditional legal discourse of Sharia law (Revealed Law). Islamic jurisprudence in its Shia version, as the mainstream discourse with its affiliated institutions and structures, is a powerful force shaping the minds and lives of ordinary people in contemporary Iran with its two features of law and image-making.[7] As a result, a body of discourse and theory rooted in the theological and ontological foundations of orthodox jurisprudence defines male/female sexuality and gender roles and consequently have a major influence on women’s lives.

In relation to women and their gendered role in the family and society, the image-making feature of the Islamic jurisprudence is the more imperative and is beyond law. It mainly serves as a philosophy shaping and informing gender relations and women’s defective and inferior position in society at large. In the context of Islamic contractual marriage, which is considered as a “kind of ownership” (milkiyyat), women should obey their husbands both in general (Tamkin-e aam) and specific terms (Tamkin-e khas). The former refers to accepting the husband’s authority as the head of the household and obeying his wishes, while also not leaving the family house without his permission. The latter refers to sexual submission and conjugal intercourse with its two features of promptness and exclusivity.[8] In return, the wife is entitled to maintenance (nafaqeh), bride-price (mahrieh), and payment for housework (ojratolmesl). If she refuses to perform her duties, she would be recognised as a disobedient wife (nashezeh) and would be punished. Meanwhile, according to this orthodox-based formulation, men also have some spousal duties. They must provide for their wives by paying maintenance, and if they refuse to oblige and their wives complain, they would be imprisoned or punished by court financially.

There are some debates about whether Islamic marriage is a “complete ownership” or “partial ownership” of the wife and whether this sexual-economic transaction could lead to the use of physical, psychological, sexual, and economic violence by husbands. According to some interpretations of the Qur’an (Sura Nisa), women who do not obey their husbands will be subjected to chastisement. However, some jurists argue that the type of recommended beating is different from battering and it is rather a symbolic gesture to show the husbands’ dissatisfaction. According to some religious narrations (hadith), no harm should come to women and no bruises and injuries should be caused to their bodies, otherwise the husband would be punished and be liable to pay
diyeh (blood money) to his wife.[9]

Nevertheless, some female academics, politicians, and activists in Iran resisted and challenged some of these unilateral rights and privileges being granted to men (such as polygamy, divorce, and child custody) and demanded new readings and interpretations of the holy text and religious sayings. As a result, some changes were introduced into the marriage contract (aqd nameh) and women were allowed to add some conditions (such as the right to work, travel abroad, education, divorce, custody rights, etc.) prior to signing their marriage contacts. However, most women are not fully aware of the legal complexities surrounding the marriage contract and how to use laws to make these conditions have legal bearing which could be problematic when problems arise. Even those who are conversant with these laws have found it challenging to pursue their rights and implement their conditions to their marriage contracts, while being surrounded by powerful family members of both sides who strongly resist and discourage the brides-to-be from putting any extra conditions in the marriage contract. Similarly, some registrars refuse to fulfil the women’s requests, viewing these rights as un-Islamic and against the sacred Sharia rulings and God-given rights of men.

While the post-revolutionary social order was frowned upon by some women, especially those with predominantly modern and non-religious preferences, other women with religious and conservative backgrounds welcomed and embraced them. Those who favour the government’s gender policies, in general, argue that the most important duty of a Muslim woman is to be a mother, raise a family, and obey their husband devotedly. These women wholeheartedly believe they will be rewarded in the hereafter as pledged in the Qur’an and in infallible Shi’i leaders’ sayings. They view their assigned gender roles as sacred and simply just and fair. They also believe in the state’s gender segregation policies, more particularly compulsory hijab, introduced in a reverse social engineering fashion by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution. According to them, these policies enhanced women’s mobility, immunity and liberty, and maximised their access to the outside world.[10] More particularly, women and girls from rural areas with a conservative upbringing gained greater chances to travel independently to other cities for education and work and this, in turn, had a significant impact in increasing the number of women graduates and their participation in the workforce.

The above passages attempted to illustrate the his­torical materiality of the structures of power, knowledge, subjectivity, and violence, and the ways in which men’s and women’s subjectivities are formulated and reinforced based on powerful discourses. Given their position and status in the Islamic Republic’s social order, which is by and large determined by their conceptualization of Sharia law, women find it challenging to negotiate their rights and safely navigate these endless tensions and contradictions. How can their desire to live a modern life be reconciled with the Islamic laws of chastity and Persianist ethics of public decency? How can their role in society be coordinated with the role of motherhood and ‘wifehood’ in the institution of the family? What is the roadmap through which society as a whole can reach a viable consensus on gaining legitimacy and a “licence to operate” in the realm of the public life in coordination with private life.[11] Ultimately, how can we reconcile the three distinct forces of Persianism, Islam, and modernity with their three contrasting structures of power/knowledge and affectivities, discursive formations, and institutional arrangements in different realms of life (family, gender relations, sexuality, death, education, and entertainment)? How can women safely navigate these endless tensions and contradictions?

The notion of a tragedy of confusion, and the incessant ebb and flow and perpetual conflicts between forces of globalisation and localisation make it almost impossible to construct stable and functional institutional arrangements and coalitions.[12] The persistent experience of institutional failure, turned Iran into a country of institutional dysfunctionalities and deformities, triggering the emergence of large- and small-scale social movements culminating in the experience of constant waves of political upheavals and socio-economic instability and crisis. Modernity is materialized through the establishment of nation states, which require a national identity that further fuels demands for resources embedded in Shia Islam and/or Persianism. This generates a demand to form a viable narrative out of resources of Islam and/or Persianism, made compatible with modernity.[13] It, in turn, leads to the emergence of three incompatible forms of nationalism (Islamic, Persianist, and modernist), and a variety of combinations of these forms with different priorities, prominences, and exceptions. The issue is the confusion permeating and prevailing in other social issues related to life and we observe the disorienting array of inconsistencies, “incompletenesses”, and “undecidabilities” at the heart of social life throughout modern Iranian history. As such, all areas of life (economy, culture and art, gender relations and family, education, health, foreign policy and security, social justice and freedom, ethical and legal arrangements) have become battlegrounds for alternative regime of truths. Institutional investments, as a result, encounter losses, reversals or irregularities and dysfunctionalities. Hence, these relentless and undecidable battles over the fundamentals of social life have produced constant shifts in the position of individuals and groups and formed unstable coalitions and alliances. Such battles continue to this day and will continue in future across time and space, it does not matter whether we are part of diaspora or reside inside the country, most of us experience the same confused preference structure and cultural trilemma.

We are facing different rival rationalities, each with a different set of historically formed and incommensurable conceptual schemes. Each has something different to offer to Iranian people. Nevertheless, in order to be free, as Spinoza believed, one must understand the ways in which one is determined.[14] To pave the way for a viable and stable equilibrium for a sense of national identity and an irreversible approach to gender equality, which eradicates all forms of discrimination against women in Iran, we need a smooth emergence of native and indigenous alternative structures of power and knowledge, with widespread acceptability and prevalence in everyday life. The essence of equality and justice should be formulated, lived, and practiced in the wider context of “the history of salvation”.[15] To create a long-term mutually beneficial equilibrium and to establish consensus between, and within, rival groups and social entities, we need to adopt a compassionate non-combative approach. Only then will women’s rights gain universal legitimacy.

[1] Stephanie Swales and Carol Owens,
Psychoanalysing Ambivalence with Freud and Lacan: On and Off the Couch (New York: Routledge, 2019).

[2] Jessica Flack and Melanie Mitchell, “Uncertain times,”
Aeon, August 21, 2020,

[3] Thomas R. Flynn,
Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, Volume Two: A Poststructuralist Mapping of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[4] Janet Afary, Khosrow Mostofi, and Peter William Avery, “Iran,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, April 4, 2023,

[5] Hamideh Sedghi, “Feminist Movements in the Pahlavi Period,”
Encyclopaedia Iranica, IX/5, pp. 492-498,

[6] Doreen Hinchcliffe, “The Iranian Family Protection Act,”
The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1968): pp. 516–521.

[7] Janet Afary, Review of
Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law, by Ziba Mir-Hosseini,
Iranian Studies, Vol. 29, no. 3-4 (2022): pp. 363–367.

[8] Zahra Tizro,
Domestic Violence in Iran: Women, Marriage and Islam (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Zahra Tizro, “The Political Psychology of Veiling / Unveiling in Iran,”
Discover Society:
New Series, Vol. 3, No. 1,

[11] Philip Sadler,
Building Tomorrow’s Company: A Guide to Sustainable Business Success (Kogan Page Ltd, 2002).

[12] Farhad Gohardani and Zahra Tizro,
The Political Economy of Iran: Development, Revolution and Political Violence (Political Economy of Islam) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[13] Alam Saleh and James Worrall, “Between Darius and Khomeini: exploring Iran’s national identity problematique,”
National Identities, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2015): pp. 73-97.

[14] Steven Frankel, “Determined to Be Free: The Meaning of Freedom in Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise,”
The Review of Politics, Vol. 73, No. 1 (2011): pp. 55–76.

[15]Mohammed Arkoun,
The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (London: Saqi, 2002).

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