Cyrus the (not so) Great
Did he start imposing the hijab?
March 5, 1998
From "The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation" by Sandra Mackey (Penguin Group, 1996).
The omnipotent authoritarianism that engulfs Iranians begins in the family. In the Iranian patriarchal society, the senior male rules over the family, the alpha and omega of every Iranian's universe. With his position and power rooted in common experience as ancient as Iran itself, he is the all-powerful king within a domain structured on the bonds of kinship.
Acutely aware that historically the family often provided the only available physical defense against marauding tribes and invading aliens, Iranians hold to an abiding fear that an individual can trust no one but his kin. And only within the family do Iranians escape the rivalry, conflict, manipulation, and oppression inherent in a political system that has never escaped absolutism in one form or another. Thus, in pursuit of group survival in an environment characterized by insecurity, the patriarch has always directed the family's defense, provided its material needs, defined its interests, managed its affairs, and demanded its obedience.
In crowning the father the head of the family, patriarchy also decreed males superior to females. This ordering of Iranian society into dominant men and subordinate women paralleled patriarchy itself. Long before Cyrus mounted the Achaemenian throne, nature had already defined the specific roles of male and female. Women bore and nursed the next generation. Men, unburdened by pregnancy and child care, physically larger and stronger, hunted the food and protected the family. Later, as settled agriculturalists, men not only plowed the land but allocated the crops. By the time Cyrus assembled his kingdom, man ruled women.
In the endless debate on the origin and practice of veiling in the Islamic world, which many see as symbolic of woman's inferior status to man, some historians argue that it was Cyrus the Great who, ten centuries before Islam, established the custom of covering women to protect their chastity. According to their theory, the veil passed from the Achaemenians to the Seleucids. They, in turn, handed it to the Byzantines, from whom the Arab conquerors inherited it, transmitting it over the vast reaches of the Arab world.
Whether or nor Persian tradition is responsible for the custom of veiling, the indisputable fact is that at Persepolis, where stone preserves the ideas and ideals of ancient Persia, women are absent. All the splendid reliefs and noble statues carved at the peak of empire represent bulls, maned lions, winged stallions, and warring men. Even the servants who walk behind the kings swinging fans or swatting flies are men. But it is not ancient ruins that attest to the power of Iranian patriarchy. It is society itself.
Family is the cornerstone of the social order. In the interest of preserving the basic building blocks of society, hallowed tradition requires that the family be led by an all-powerful leader commanding unquestioning obedience from every member of the kinship group. In effect, the patriarch, the senior male of the family, creates in miniature the Iranian hierarchical structure of ruler and subject. His silent power can be observed in the hovering wife serving her husband's dinner and in the sudden quiet that descends on children when their father enters the room.
Enthroned by age and dethroned only by death, the patriarch collects the blind obedience of the family that accepts both his right to rule and their duty to obey as part of the inviolable order sanctified by tradition. Iran has paid a high political price for the system of patriarchy. For the age-old order in which the father sat at the head of the family as a mysterious superhuman force created the model and environment for absolute monarchy.
About the author
Sandra Mackey has written on the culture and politics of the Middle East for such periodicals as the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chicago Tribune. Appearing as a guest expert on Nightline, ABC News with Peter Jennings, the National Public Radio, she also served as a commentator for CNN during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. She is the author of three previous books: The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, Lebanon: Death of a Nation, and Passion and Politics: The Turbulent World of the Arabs. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia. (Back to top)