Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is no fan of gender equality, which he routinely decries as a Western concept that damages women and distracts them from their vital roles as wives and mothers.
And again this week, at a speech on March 19 marking the birth of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, Fatima Zahra, Khamenei doubled down, suggesting that Westerners themselves are having second thoughts.
“Today, Western thinkers and those who pursue issues such as gender equality regret the corruption that it has brought about,” said the man who has the final say in religious and political matters in a country of 83 million people.
He even blasted gender equality as a “Zionist plot” aimed at corrupting women’s role in society.
“Making women a commodity and an object of gratification in the Western world is most likely among the Zionist plots aiming to destroy society,” Khamenei was also quoted as saying.
Women in Iran are denied equal rights before the law in divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other areas. A woman’s testimony in court is considered to be half the value of a man’s. Women need the permission of their father or husband to travel. And women are forced to cover their hair and body.
There are rare reports of women being sentenced to death by stoning, although it is unclear how many such sentences are carried out under Iran’s opaque justice system.
Khamenei suggested that Western views of women used to be “more decent,” “more prudent,” and “more suitable” with “the nature of men and women.”
“When you look at the literature in European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was absolutely different from the 20th century,” Khamenei said. He added that “it is obvious that there has been political work from the Zionist and the colonial system.”
Khamenei went on to say that Iran’s overwhelmingly male, clerically dominated establishment does not aim to keep women at home. Yet he added that, in his eyes, the roles of mother and wife are the most important a woman can play.
“The role a woman can play as a family member is in my view more important than all other roles that a woman can play,” the Iranian leader said. “The question is whether a woman has the right to ruin her role as a mother and a wife because of all the good, interesting, and sweet [opportunities] that could be there for her outside the family environment.”
Khamenei has said in the past that the effort to establish equality between men and women was “one of the biggest intellectual mistakes” of the Western world. “Why should a job that is masculine be given to a woman? What kind of honor is it for a woman to do a man’s job?” he asked in a 2014 speech.
Iranian hard-liners routinely accuse women’s rights champions of promoting “obsolete” feminist views and claim that such views and demands are anti-Islamic.
In December, the head of Iran’s female Basij militia called the promotion of gender equality illegal and demanded that the country’s powerful judiciary take action against people who speak out against gender discrimination.
Women’s rights activists have been persecuted by the Iranian state through interrogation, arrest, and jail sentences. Many have been forced to leave the country.
Homa Hoodfar, a retired professor at Concordia University in Montreal known for her work on gender relations, was imprisoned in Iran last year for more than 100 days for what a state prosecutor called “dabbling in feminism and security matters.”
Iran’s lone Nobel laureate, lawyer and 2003 Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, now lives abroad following years of persecution for her work on human rights cases.
In a 2009 contribution to The Guardian, Ebadi noted that “despite the cultural, social and historical heritage of Iranian women, the Islamic republic has imposed discriminatory regulations against them.”
She added, “The laws imposed on Iranian women are incompatible with their status and, consequently, the equality movement is very strong.”