Gender Division


Jahanshah Rashidian
by Jahanshah Rashidian

We learn from the news that a new sex separation park, called "Mothers' Paradise," was recently opened for women in Tehran. Under the Sharia abiding regime of Mullahs, "Mothers' Paradise" is not the only sex-segregated park in Iran. Such only-for- women parks have already been established in other Iranian cities, including Mashhad and Qom. It is also rumoured that plans are underway for single-sex hospitals and women-only public transport. Such plans are to create an Iranian society based on the Islamic moral of strict gender division.

In general, where the religious values are dominant, gender - discrimination remains influential at all levels in society. Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), not differently from the primitive or undeveloped cultures, adamantly conserve their gender-biases. In this article, I try to make clear that gender - inequalities in Islam go beyond the above characters of other Semitic religions.

As I described in a previous article (Non-Mahram), the main reason of gender-inequalities in Islam has roots in a traditional division of society into two groups of "mahram" and "non-mahram."-the maharam group contains the non-marriageable members of family, whereas non-mahram refers to the rest of society.

The two sources of Islam, namely the Koran and "Hadith" (sayings of the Prophet) have not fixed a dress code deeming an Islamic standard of clothing for women. Gender - related restrictions, by which many devout Muslims abide, have been largely exaggerated by influential Muslim fanatics and hence coerce women to abide by an Islamic dress to cover their body from the eyes of a non-mahram.

Besides Islamic hijab, a series of social norms and attitudes has been emerged in relation to the dogma of non-mahram. For example, a Persian word like "Khirat", as routine as might be, has no real equivalence in modern languages. It defines a man's moral right to defend the taboo red lines around the body of his mahram circle (mother, sister, wife…)--this "moral right" may even lead to honour crimes in Islamic communities.

Non-mahram is a very influential dogma in the Islamic societies. It forms character formation at the level of a collective culture from which we can retrace the footsteps even in Islamic architecture-- palaces, mosques, madreseh (traditional school), all of which are based on a division of mahrams from non-mahrams or gender-segregation. Also, the non-mahram's taboo values have left red lines in the Iranian post-Islamic art, literature and especially in the gender-segregation of school system.

Since Shah Isma'il Safavid decided to impose Shiite sect on Iranian people at the beginning of 16th century, he had to import Shiite Mullahs from Arab countries to help the process of Shiitisation. Facing his rival of the Sunnite Ottoman Empire, the process was for the Shah existentially important. As a state religion, Shiism was violently established with the guidance of the imported Mullahs, who allegedly were the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Their Sharia-based teachings of Islam affected directly urban women, not rural ones. Therefore, rural and tribal life in Iran remained relatively intact from the invasion of non-mahram side-effects because influential Mullahs enjoyed living among the urban population and became an elite class under both the Safavid and Qajar dynasties.

As Nikki R. Keddi, author of Modern Iran, described, in Iran and the Middle East, nomadic tribeswomen do most of the tribe's physical labour. They are unveiled and are less segregated than urban women. Rural women also do hard physical work and "reports from the nineteen century indicate that they were mostly unveiled. Veiling has been mainly an urban (and hence minority) phenomenon." As mentioned, the separation of men and women is not a tradition of Iranian culture, but a product of Islamic-based ruling states.

Under the dynasties of Safavid and Qajar, Iran was as late to introduce modern and secular education as gender equality. Educational system was monopolised by clerical power. Teaching was Islamic, limited at lower levels on reading, writing, and learning the Koran and religion. At the end of Qajar dynasty, "madreseh" (a higher school to teach Arabic and the basics) only received gender-segregation.

Nikki.R. Keddi wrote "Many functions that in modern states are governmental were carried out in Qajar Iran, as in most traditional Muslim societies, by the ulama (Islamic scholars). These included all levels of education, most forms of judicial and legal activity, and social and charitable services." A combination of social attitudes, values and cognitive behaviour system are made of this long period of religiosity which still influences today's mind-set of most Iranians. Today, for the IRI, a return to this archaic educational gender- system is vital to prevent any secular and democratic understanding of world view.

Based on the morale of non-mahram-relations, premarital love between a man and a woman passes the level of decency. Despite many love stories and romantic literature in Iranian history, love is considered as a non-compatible feeling with the Islamic culture. In this context, marriage is arranged by the families rather than be based on mutual love and harmony of the two partners. Love and harmony may appear after the marriage.
Arranged marriage with no premarital love and harmony gave birth to "Sigheh" (temporary marriage). Sigheh flourishes in Shiite pilgrimage centres where mullahs could be intermediaries; the affair is often regarded as "legalised prostitution." It temporally removes the non-mahran barrier between two non-mahrams.

The idea of sin associated with love is not completely different from other established Semitic religions. The idea implies that women have by nature desire to be looked at, adored and cherished, while men are disposed to non-mahram women and hence a tool of gender-segregation like hijab is necessary.

Love in Semitic religions is rather associated with sin and lust than wisdom and emotion-a pious follower of Jesus--a priest or bishop--would not share his life and emotion with a woman. Legitimate love seems the one for the Truth and Devotion with a spiritual path. This is the level of lifetime love to God.

This ambiguous love is often guided by a force greater than a feeling of letting go. Such a love is presented in the Iranian post
Islamic mystics and lyric poetry. Love for a non-mahram, especially a woman's love to a non-mahram, is regarded in orthodox Islam similar to an act of indecency.

Although, woman's rights in Islamic societies are more limited through the restrictions of non-mahram, no other Semitic religion permits a woman to be ordained a religious higher rank as a " Mujthaid" (a qualified Shiite religious scholar to interpretation of scriptures), an "Alim" (an Islamic scholar, mainly in Sunnite Islam), a Rabin for Jews, or a priest for Christians. These remain in the domain of men. The Catholic Church refuses to even talk about ordinary women as priests. Many Protestant traditions and denominations have done the same, believes Jim Seers in his book, The Religion Book. However, no other religion considers women excluded from their “non-mahram” environment.

For many Iranians and most foreign observers, especially the Western analysts, who know little about the concept and influence of non-mahram's dogma, a vision of an Islamic society has been mechanically amalgamated with the Islamic hijab. They do not understand the deeper phenomenon beyond hijab which in my views must be classified a tool separating non-mahrams. Division of society based on the two alien groups of mahrams and non-mahrams imposes restricted gender - segregation, whose Islamic hijab is simply a by-product.

In my opinion, the non-mahram's dogma is a moral-based philosophy of gender - segregation in any Islamic societies, whose symbolic emblem produces different forms of hijab according to the original culture and socio- economic conditions. Although, Islamic hijab is today a blockade to woman's freedom and gender-equality, as long as we cannot recognise its origin, we will not be in the right position to free women from this traditional yoke. If we tackle the problem correctly, then we will be able to influence the entire attitude structure of our society to remove all the inequalities from which our women suffer, including Islamic hijab.

The non-mahram's dogma remains today the main barrier against woman's rights for freedom and equality. An identifiable change in peoples' values with the criteria of non-mahram must start with recognition of this dogma which is so complex that easily can go beyond any obvious understanding.

The long-term effects of reluctance and apathy of Iranian intelligentsia toward gender - issues deprived our women from any serious support. Today the ruling Mullahs invade people's minds with the norms, values, and criteria of their misogyny. No doubt that more restrictions of Gender- segregation in public life will be institutionalised in Iran.


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