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Women’s Power in the Middle East: A Brief Analysis



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Similar to many international students pursuing graduate study in the United States, I have adopted different methods to simulate cultural experiences of my country to alleviate home- sickness and more importantly, to prepare better for re-entry psychological readjustment[1] (Altweck and Marshall, 2015) or, as some have labeled it, reverse culture shock, when I return to Iran (Storti, 2003). In one of my recent attempts to address my homesickness and to prepare to return, I read Shahnameh and One Thousand and One Nights (often known as Arabian Nights in English), two major examples of the folklore and literature of my native region.

Providing a poetic account of the prehistory and history of Iran, Shahnameh[2] (The Book of Kings) includes the mythical, and to some extent the historical, tales of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of that regime in the 7th century. One Thousand And One Nights is a collection of stories and historical incidents gathered between the 8th and 13th centuries from different regions that today correspond with India, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt (Marzolph, 2007). Some of these narratives first arose in ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Greek, Indian, Jewish and Turkish folklore (Irwin, 2004).

 Among many fascinating themes, the leitmotif that specifically drew my attention in both books was the role of women and their relatively high social and political power during the time these volumes first appeared (prior to, and following, Islam’s presence and dominance in the region). As Khaleghi-Motlagh and Pirnazar have observed, "women in Shahnameh are lively figures with warmth, courage, intellect, and even a certain degree of independence" (2012, p. 20). One finds examples in the tales of women advising kings, as generals, as traders traveling to far places, as passing citizenship to their children, and occupying many other roles. This standing was true even among common people. Such representations of women’s agential power contradict the current broadly purveyed and accepted image (a mixture of reality and stereotypes) of women of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. For instance, today’s MENA women often do not share the same rights as men to make decisions, pursue a profession, travel, marry or divorce, head a family, receive an inheritance or access wealth. Despite the growing pool of highly educated women who desire to work, MENA countries still have the lowest female labor force participation rate in the world (at 24% compared to an average of 60% among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries) and the highest gender gap globally in entrepreneurship (OECD, 2017).  

As a transcontinental region, today’s Middle East is a geographically vast and culturally diverse area and one cannot generalize findings arising from analysis of any one of the countries of the region to other nations, “[t]he status of women varies widely in the Middle East, and one should not project the norms in Saudi Arabia—one of the most sexist and oppressive states in the region—onto the larger Muslim world” (AbuKhalil, 2005). In his comparison of countries with majority Muslim Populations, Geertz (1973) noted that Islamic ideas and practices have assumed widely different forms despite a common theology across the region.  Here, to avoid Orientalism[3] and for the sake of precision, I mainly focus on Iran’s women.

I have adopted Zuhur’s definition of female empowerment for this essay,  “as a condition in which women hold or are in the process of obtaining educational, legal and political rights that are equivalent or nearly equal to those of male citizens” (Zuhur, 2003, p. 18). This conception meshes well with Cherif’s framework of women’s core rights, “female workforce participation and education serve as building blocks‑or core rights-for advancement of other women’s rights” (2015, p.7). Cherif has also argued that culture and international norms constitute additional critical elements in women’s rights advancement/regression.

When considering women’s rights in Middle Eastern countries generally, and Iran, more particularly, many commentators have argued that women’s inequality in these Muslim-majority nations arises directly from Islam (Huntington, 2000). Inglehart and Norris (2003), for example, have contended that gender inequality is more evident and pronounced in societies in which Islam is the dominant faith. Relying on a number of Islamic laws concerning women's inheritance and the injunction to wear the hijab, for example, some have claimed that Islam and the Quran, "like the other Abrahamic scriptures, contains passages that are plainly sexist" (Rizvi, 2012). Conversely, scholars such as Carland (2017), have viewed the Quran as a holy book that accords equal rights to members of both sexes without discriminating between them. These analysts have also contended that Islam’s egalitarian spirit can serve as a guide for Muslim women in their efforts to advance their rights to education (Abukari, 2014) and property ownership (Bishin and Cherif, 2017).

 Some scholars have argued, in response to criticism of the Quran's content as sexist or encouraging misogyny, that the often-cited passages used in such arguments should be seen as metaphors. These analysts blame patriarchal (mis)interpretation of verses and/or taking passages out of context as the main sources of justification for restrictions in rights for Muslim women (Bakhtiar, 2011). The term Islamic Law is generally used to refer to the legal aspects of Shari'a (that is based on jurists’ interpretations of the Quran and other sources) and Muslims tend to believe that the legal quality of those principles and norms derives from their religious authority (An-Na’im, 2006, p. 4).4 Therefore, to convince many believing Muslims that Shari'a laws can change without injuring the spirit of the Quran has proven to be a difficult, if not impossible, task (Engineer, 2004).

Nonetheless, and in keeping with arguments that calls for the reduction of women’s rights are based on a biased reading of the Quran, Bishin and Cherif (2017) have suggested that patriarchal norms, and not religious beliefs, constitute the main barrier to gender equality in Muslim majority countries. They have contended that when Islamic tenets dictate support for women’s rights—such as the right to own and manage property—Muslim-majority national leaders have nevertheless been reluctant to extend or enforce those rights. For instance, most of the governments of the countries they studied tended to discriminate against women in inheritance rights (only permitting females to inherit half as much as men), but for property rights, where Islamic belief explicitly enjoins equality, the practice was more mixed (Bishin and Cherif, 2017).

If one accepts the argument that culture both underpins and supersedes religion when the two are in conflict in Muslim countries, one might nevertheless ask when the first seeds of patriarchal norms and beliefs formed in Iran and the MENA region. Bahrami has claimed that the position of Persian women relative to men began to deteriorate during the period 312 BC to 63 BC, during Greece’s long occupation of their land, due to the fact that, “in Greece women did not enjoy equal rights to men [unlike their peers in Zoroastrian Iran]” (2008, p. 29). Iranian women regained their rights and privileges during the Sasanian dynasty, 224 to 651 AD, when Zoroastrianism became the country’s official religion.

Historical explanations as well as recognition of the roles of external cultural forces are also applicable when one seeks to understand the change in women’s place in the social hierarchy following the Islamic golden age, the era in which its author wrote the One Thousand and One Nights stories. Some analysts have linked the negative shift in women's power and the growth of misogynistic cultures across the MENA region to the rise of nation-states that promoted the role of warfare in society, with members of the generally physically stronger gender assuming more power as a result. Of course, this orientation was not the product principally or singularly of Arab or Middle Eastern nations alone. Rather, as Fisher has contended, several colonial powers, in particular, the Ottoman, British and French empires, served “as the most important architects of institutionalized Arab misogyny” (Fisher, 2012).  The colonialists shaped those cultures to accommodate their dominance during the centuries they ruled the Middle East region. According to Fisher, to obtain the acquiescence of men to their rule, colonial rulers offered them power over women as a quid pro quo. This implicit bargain became the norm only slowly, but whatever the pattern and dynamics of its social diffusion, it surely promoted misogynist ideas among Arab men who might otherwise have adopted (or maintained) very different norms and beliefs.

In sum, several internal and external forces have affected Iranian women’s power negatively throughout history (additional factors have also played roles, but I could not include all relevant possibilities in this short essay). Modern Iranian women’s progress, however uneven, in the educational, economic and political arenas has encouraged those who continue to advocate for their full human and civil rights to persevere (Janghorban, Taghipour, Latifnejad Roudsari, and Abbasi, 2014). That forward movement provides me reason for personal hope as I begin planning my return to my native country after several years abroad.


[1] Repatriates must readjust to their heritage culture after spending significant time abroad.

[2] Iranian poet Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh between 997-1010 CE in 50,000 couplets (two-line verses). Definitive of the ethno-national cultural identity of Iran, this work is of central moment in Persian culture and for the Persian language (Ahmad Ashraf, 2006).

[3] “Propagated by writers, travelers, missionaries and colonial officials, Orientalist representations depicted the Orient as locked in an unchanging and mysterious cult […]They included essentialist and binary categories dividing the East and West such as irrational/rational, traditional/modern, secular/sectarian, universalistic/particularistic, and active/passive” (Charrad, 2011, p. 419).

[4] In Arabic, the word “shari’a” means “way” or “path.” It is not a legal system, nor was it revealed by God. Instead, Shari'a is the overall way of life in Islam, as people understand it according to traditional, early interpretations of the Quran or the things the Prophet Muhammad said and did. These early interpretations date from 700 to 900 CE, not long after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE. Shari’a can change with Islamic societies to address their evolving needs (An-Na’im, 2006).


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Neda Moayerian

Neda Moayerian is a fourth year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include community development through community cultural activities and sustainable tourism. Currently, she works as a graduate assistant in the VT Office of Economic Development. Neda holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning from Art University of Tehran and a Master’s degree in Urban Management from University of Tehran.

Publication Date

May 2, 2019