The History of Iranian Women in the Zoroastrian Era to the Present Date

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By: Dr.ShahriarJahanian

Zoroastrianism is an Iranian religion, one of the oldest organized faiths, based on the teachings of Prophet Zoroaster. It has a monotheistic ontology, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, and an eschatology that foretells good’s triumph over evil.

What singled out Zoroastrians from other religions throughout history is its distinct cultural practices, especially the values regarding gender equality.

In Zoroastrian society, women have traditionally had a very exalted and liberated standing. In actuality, gender parity or equality is a central tenet of the Zoroastrian religion. Men and women are treated equally, and history is rife with instances of women who were taught to handle weapons and mount horses like men, engage in combat, and even rule as monarchs in ancient Iran. Even today, Zoroastrians celebrate a girl’s birth with the same fervour as a boy’s. Both boys and girls are encouraged to excel in their careers and pursue higher education.

In the Avesta, a man is referred to as the “Lord of the House” and a woman as the “Lady of the House,” with each serving a distinct yet complementary function in an egalitarian relationship. In a Zoroastrian family, a wife’s rank is equal to that of her husband.

Throughout the Sasanid era, women had a great deal of freedom, including the ability to own property and speak for or in defense of oneself in court. Widows were allowed to remarry, and women had the option to select their own life partners.

Prophet Zoroaster – An Advocate For Gender Parity

The Prophet Zoroaster, the spiritual founder of Zoroastrianism, was a firm believer that all men and women are equal and greatly emphasized the equality of men and women. In the Gathas, Zoroaster addresses both men and women to increase the number of goods and defeat the forces of darkness. The lack of gender prejudice is the fundamental tenet of Zoroastrianism and makes the religion stand out in society.

The Gathas are 17 Avestan hymns composed by Prophet Zoroaster, emphasizing gender equality. In several instances, the Prophet in the Gathas specifically addresses women before speaking to males. His teachings are universal and apply to all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, or nationality.

“Wise Lord, whoever in this world, man or woman performs the best in life, good deeds according to righteousness and service to humanity based on good mind, I shall accompany them in glorifying you and shall with all of them cross the bridge of judgment.” – Yasna 46/10

In this verse, Zoroaster declares that man and woman, wherever they are, through the deeds of good mind and service to people, will equally receive spiritual rewards.

Other Avestan literature besides the Gathas also clearly illustrate human rights and the equality of man and woman. The early Avestan era’s genuine position of women is confirmed by the Haptanghaiti, a text written in the Gathic language not long after the Prophet’s lifetime.

Real-Life Example of Gender-Equality in the Life of Prophet Zoroaster

When Prophet Zoroaster, the ancient Iranian Prophet, first appeared, he emphasized the equality of men and women.

He would tell his wife, “You and I are two completely equal individuals with different specialties who are traveling in this journey of life together. If we could use and put together our expertise, we will successfully have good and prosperous children travel such a road.”

This example shows how Prophet Zoroaster believed in gender equality and preached it and practiced it, starting from his own home.

Zoroastrianism Promoting A Gender-Equal Society

When gender concerns were first discussed in academic studies of Zoroastrianism, an image that was very unlike contemporary social reality was produced. Male and female adherents of Zoroastrianism had long since been treated equally, and the religion was seen as reflecting many Protestant and Enlightenment ideas. Every day, the female gender was regarded in the highest regard, and any disparaging language or images was seen to be a departure from accepted custom. As a result, whenever women were mentioned, whether directly or indirectly, the tone conveyed support for gender equality.

Womenin Leading Roles During the Zoroastrian Era

The Avestaaffirms the concept that women were rendered moral and religious agency equal to that of men. In the Zoroastrian era, Women played an important role in building their country. The history of Iran tells the story of great women. Many courageous women held high positions, such as Azarmidokht and Porandokht, the two famous and powerful Iranian queens. 

The Advent of Arab Culture in Iran – The So-Called Iranian Revolution that Deprived Women of Their Basic Rights

After the Arabs attacked Iran in 622 AD, the fate of Iranian women underwent great changes. With the invasion of Arabs and the conversion of Iranians to Islam, the Arabic and Islamic cultures influenced Iranian society. Iranian women had to wear hijabs and stay home. They were deprived of any social activities or even education.

Transformation of Iran from A Gender-Equal Society to A Patriarchal Society

The ancient religion – Zoroastrianism – firmly supported the notion of gender equality and paved the way for an open, diverse, and equal society where both men and women could lead their lives in harmony, having equal rights. The era when Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Iran was the golden period, where women of Iran enjoyed freedom and equality with men and were able to take the highest positions in the country. 

Religion reigned over Iran until the so-called Iranian revolution and the advent of Islam, which entirely altered the landscape and transformed the once gender-equal society into a patriarchal society.

The upheaval spoiled the canvas of the Persian land, known for having distinct cultural practices, which singled out Zoroastrians from other religions throughout history. The women were deprived of their right to vote, work, and even acquire education. The society where women once held dignified positions turned into a society where women were oppressed.

The White Revolution – The Turning Point in the Development of the Iranian State

Iranian women for centuries were deprived of any social activities and even education. This silence of women little by little turned into a cry for their rights. Around one and a half-century ago, this cry began. The cry came from women's chests to get their human rightslittle by little. 

The period 1960–63 marked a turning point in the development of the Iranian state. Reza Shah Pahlavi came to power in 1926. A few years later, he paid a visit to Turkey to meet Ataturk. He saw in Turkey how women do not wear hijabs and work and make contributions to the advancement of their country. When he returned, he decided to do the same for Iranian women. The first thing he did was to compel Iranian women not to wear hijab, and he also established a school for girls. Gradually, women were encouraged to participate in social work. Later his son Mohamad Reza shah granted women the right to vote in 1963.

Ousting the White Revolution

The white revolution westernized and urbanized Iran. Women were granted rights that they were depleted of, including the right to vote, education, and hold important positions.

However, some people did not appreciate the revolution and turned against Pahlavi, which resulted in them losing it all. The modernization that started in 1963 lasted till 1979.

Many Shia leaders started criticizing the White Revolution – holding that the liberalization laws concerning women were unIslamic. The revolt caused Pahlavi’s overthrow, and his reforms were chipped away at the traditional bases of clerical power. The most notable critic of this movement against the White Revolution was Ruhollah Khomeini, whose clerical governance and network facilitated the overthrow of Pahlavi in 1979, thus ending the White Resolution.

With the ousting of the White Revolution, women of Iran were stripped of all their rights, and to date, Iranian women are still fighting for them.

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