Iran’s two supreme leaders have both been prolific on the subject of women’s rights and obligations in an Islamic state. But their interpretations often differed, sometimes significantly.
During his one decade in power, between 1979 and 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued far more statements and fatwas than his successor. He often framed them in terms of how an Islamic state empowered women. “Islam wants to safeguard women’s nobility. It wishes to make her a serious and efficient human being,” he said in December 1978, from exile shortly before the revolution.
Asked about the role of women in the Islamic government, the revolutionary leader said women would still be able to vote and run for office. “Women have taken part in the recent struggle in Iran to the same degree as the men,” he said on January 23, 1979, one week before returning to Tehran in Paris. “We will give women every kind of freedom, but we will prevent [moral] corruption and, where this is concerned, there is no difference between men and women.”
During his first three decades in power, beginning in 1989, Khamenei has made more distinctions between the rights of men and women, effectively diminishing the ideological interpretation about whether they are equal in all aspects of life. They have “important but different tasks,” he said in August 2002. “Since a woman’s spirit is more delicate, it needs more peace and tranquility. She needs comfort and a secure source to rely on. Who is this source of reliance? It is the husband. That is how God has placed them next to one another.”
Khamenei specifically rejected sexual and job equality. “One of the greatest mistakes of western thoughts about the issues of women is this sexual equality... Why should women be entrusted with carrying out male tasks? What kind of honor is to have women carry out male tasks? I am sorry that sometimes women and ladies themselves show sensitivity over this issue,” he said in April 2014.
The difference between Iran’s two supreme leaders reflects the disparate readings of Islamic tenets on many aspects of life in an Islamic state. Khomeini was comparatively more of a modernist, while Khamenei has been a strict traditionalist.
The following are their statements and fatwas on an array of women’s issues.
More in this series:
- Part 1: Phases of the Women's Movement
- Part 2: Profiles of Women Politicians, Activists
- Part 3: Iranian Laws on Women
- Part 5: Statistics on Women in Iran
On Political Rights
Dec. 7, 1978: “Women are free in the Islamic society and will, under no condition, be barred from universities, offices or Parliament.”
Dec. 11, 1979: “Both women and men are free to attend university. Both are free to vote and stand as parliamentary representatives.”
May 11, 2013: "Take the case of a lady who has certain qualifications, who has developed her capabilities and who is suitable for a specific position. She can be allowed to hold this position because it is not illegal, but if we are proud of having such and such a number of female officials in charge of executive affairs, this is wrong. If we feel proud of having a large number of intellectual and educated women, this is good and it is alright. If we say that we have a large number of women who are active in cultural and political areas, this is alright. If we say that we have a large number of mujahid women in different areas, who are ready to be martyred, this is good. If we say that we have a large number of women who are active in political and revolutionary arenas and who write and deliver speeches, this is good. Being proud of these things is good, but being proud of having such and such a number of female ministers, MPs, deputies and managers in financial organizations, is wrong."
On Economic and Social Opportunity
June 5, 1989: "It makes me proud to see the ladies, young and old alike, playing a role in the education, economic and military arenas and should-to-shoulder with the men, ahead of the them even, actively involving themselves in the cause of exalting Islam and advancing the aims of the Most Noble Quran."
Sept. 18, 1996: “It is wrong to assume, we should prevent women from partaking in economic and social activities with reference to Islam. Islam has not prescribed such a thing. However, Islam has not recommended imposing hard works, tough businesses, social and political tasks on women, either. Islam has adopted a moderate viewpoint; that is to say, if women have the opportunity and the time, and if it does not prevent them from bringing up their children, if they are enthusiastic and eager and have the physical strength and energy and if they are willing to take part in social, political and economic activities, they should not be prevented. But if they are forced to take a job and work certain hours per day so that they can have a share in covering the household expenses, this is not what Islam has asked women. Islam considers this as a form of imposition on women.”
April 19, 2014: “There are some jobs which are not suitable for women's make-up. Therefore, women should not pursue such jobs. One of the tasks is that we should not impose on women those fields of study which lead to these jobs. Some people want to create uproar by saying that there is discrimination against women over the issue of universities, education and other such issues. Well, such discrimination is not bad in some areas… In such discrimination, you entrust different tasks to individuals. Therefore, we should see what fields of study are suitable for women by paying attention to the lofty goals that have been specified for them. We should prepare the ground for women to study such fields.”
On Sexual Equality
Dec. 7, 1978: “What will be checked equally among both men and women is moral corruption which is prohibited for both sexes. As far as birth control is concerned, that depends on what decision the government will take on the matter.”
April 19, 2014: “One of the greatest mistakes of western thoughts about the issues of women is this sexual equality. Justice is a legitimate concept, but equality is sometimes legitimate and sometimes illegitimate. Why should we separate an individual who has been built for a particular domain - in terms of one's natural make up, whether physical or emotional - from that particular domain and drag her towards another domain which Allah the Exalted has built for another make-up? Why should we do this? What reason do we have for doing so? What kind of sympathy is this? Why should women be entrusted with carrying out male tasks? What kind of honor is to have women carry out male tasks? I am sorry that sometimes women and ladies themselves show sensitivity over this issue.”
On Dress Codes
Dec. 28, 1978: “Women, like men, are free in all these things, women are in no way different from men. Yes, in Islam, women must dress modestly and wear a veil (hijab), but that does not necessarily mean she has to wear a full-body cover (chador). Women can choose any kind of attire they like so long as it covers them properly and they have hijab. Islam does not want women to be an object, to be a doll in our hands. Islam wants to safeguard women’s nobility. It wishes to make her a serious and efficient human being. We shall never allow women to be merely men’s sex objects."
Sept. 12, 1979: “If we tell the people to come out and demonstrate their approval for Islamic dress, whether the chador or some other form, out of our population of 35 million, 33 million would come out. What right do you have to stop them? What kind of dictatorship is this you want to impose on the women? Secondly, we do not say a woman has to wear a specific type of dress… there are no specifications. We are concerned mainly with the younger women who when they make up and dress up draw hordes of young men after them. It is these women we are stopping. They don’t need your sympathy.”
April 21, 2010: “In ancient Persia, the wives of aristocrats and senior officials used to wear hijab. But the wives of ordinary people did not all wear hijab, and there was no obligation to do so. Then Islam stepped in and abolished all these discriminations and said that women must wear hijab. It meant that the right to wear hijab was for all women. That was an Islamic view [that brought about this change]. Now [Westerners] accuse us of violating women's rights. They are the ones who have to be condemned….They talk about women's rights and complain that we have imposed hijab on women. They themselves have turned the lack of hijab into a law and imposed it on women. They prevent female students from entering the university just because they are wearing a head scarf. Still, they condemn us for having made hijab obligatory. Our laws are all attempts that we have made to preserve women's honor, but their laws are there to disrespect women.”
May 11, 2013: “Modest clothing one of the preconditions for preventing corruption…This should be prevented because this is a big danger and a big disaster. The issue of hijab is one of the preconditions for this. The way we should dress and the way men and women should interact are among the preconditions for this issue. These things should be done so that this great disaster - for both men and women - can be prevented. Of course, this moral corruption humiliates women, while they are not aware of it. Today, this issue is thoroughly discussed in the world.”
#Hijab doesn't thwart social, political, or academic activities at all. Some may be surprised to see women in top positions wearing hijab.— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) July 12, 2017
Dec. 28, 1978: “Women can gain the right to execute a divorce, if she adds this condition to her marriage contract.”
Feb. 1, 1980: “A woman can stipulate that if her future husband turns out to be of corrupt moral character or if he mistreats her, she would possess the right to execute a divorce. This is a right that Islam has granted to women… just as Islam has granted man the right to divorce, it has also granted it to women, on condition that the parties stipulate at the time of the marriage that if the husband behaves in a certain manner, the wife will have the right to execute a divorce. Once the man has accepted such a stipulation, he can never repudiate it."
Sept. 3, 2016: “The Islamic Republic’s movement should be directed towards… preventing social harms and factors that result in the collapse of family particularly the issue of divorce, compensating for the harm that divorce inflicts by continuous identification of factors leading to divorce and to the collapse of family, and creating the right culture for denouncing divorce."
Andrew Hanna, a program specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, assembled this report.