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Equal? Please...
Zoroastrian women have not always been on equal footing with men

 

May 12, 2005
iranian.com

Mr. Bhujwala, thank you for your article and clarification of one aspect of Vida Kashizadheh's article, but it seems you have some misconceptions as well. For one thing, it is definitely wishful thinking to assume that all Iranians followed monotheistic faiths, particularly at the geographical crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The earliest Iranian religions (from which the divinities of the Zarthushti faith are thought to be derived) were polytheistic, and the African (Elamite), Greek, and Semitic populations and faiths being practiced and absorbed into Iranian culture all held sway in the religious consciousness of pre-Islamic Iran.

Mr. Bhujwala asserts that according to Zarthushti belief women are not the creation of Ahriman, and here he is correct. However, that does not mean that women have always been on equal footing with men within the faith. The unfortunate fact is that men and women were not equal in ancient Iran. For example, the arduous purification rituals that women had to undergo every month and after childbirth cannot compare to anything men dealt with. After giving birth, Zarthushti women lived in isolation for a period of forty days, and had to perform additional purification rituals before coming out of such isolation. Similar purification rites followed periods of menstruation, and these rites were attached as much to religious belief as to sanitation.

In fact, religious reasoning dominates in the justification of the tribulations of menstruating women: Jamsheed Choksy writes that "Monthly discharge of blood was attributed to lust produced in women by Jahika [an evil, feminine spirit]. The ritual pollution that apparently results from this discharge was deemed Nasush's [another feminine spirit] handiwork." (Choksy 62). These beliefs were not included in the Gathas, which are the words of Zarathustra, but they were sanctioned by the priesthood nevertheless. Of course, what a prophet preaches and what people practice often turn out differently.

A big misconception that many Zarthushtis and others hold today is that Zoroastrianism was a religion that championed gender equality. Although it is true that women may have had an equal or better standing in comparison with the Abrahamic religions, to say that genders were equal is not accurate, and there are various characteristics and institutions of the faith that can be pointed to in order to dispel this myth. First, in religious texts, women are portrayed as morally weaker than men and more susceptible to the influences of Ahriman and his cohorts; the female divinities (Anahita, Spenta Armaiti) also play less crucial a role than Mithra and other male divinities in combating evil spirits.

In Sasanian Iran, while some women with economic influence held high positions in society, it was the norm to buy and sell women (and men, although women brought less) as merchandise in Zarthushti households, he same as in nearly every other faith, culture, and country at the time. Women also received less in rations than men for equal amounts of work (Choksy 80). In everyday life, up until very recently, women would prepare food themselves but eat after their male counterparts during special occasions and religious holidays. Men may become priests, but women may not. The practice of polygamy, sanctioned by Zarathustra's own marriage life, only ceased in the past 150 years. It is correct to say that Zarthushtis were the among the first groups (before the Muslims, Hindus, Catholics) to embrace progressive ideas about women in the 20th century, but incorrect to say that this attitude is due to historical Mazdean social practices.

Finally, I do not seek to negate Mr. Bhujwala's reasoning as to why new converts are rejected by the orthodox community, but isn't it a little simplistic to assume that all those who want to convert to the faith are out to tailor it to their worldview or to take advantage of the Parsi social network? My own opinion as to why the orthodox Parsi community rejects the idea of outside conversion to the Zarthushti faith is due to considerable Indian cultural influence. A great many Hindus shared and share the same outlook of the Parsis: those not born into their faith, especially those of other cultures, may not convert to their faith.

Why should we not allow others to convert to a faith which has influenced all major faiths of the world to such an extent that anyone who learned about the teachings of Zarathustra could find peace of mind? I know I do not wish to see one of the world's greatest faiths die out because there is no longer a viable gene pool to support an ongoing community. People all over the world are converting anyway, even in Brasil (look up Comunidade Asha); you might as well make sure they are learning the faith properly.

About
Maziar Shirazi is a junior at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Features in iranian.com

Work cited
Choksy, Jamsheed K. Evil, Good, and Gender: Facets of the Feminine in Zoroastrian Religious History. Toronto Studies in Religion. Peter Lang: New York.

 

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