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Declining goddess
Alienation of women

By Fatima Farideh Nejat
September 1, 2003
The Iranian

It is important to examine the history of legal changes in different societies that have made an effort to correct the flaws of their legal system regarding the status of women. Iran has recently said that it will ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDWA) that is if its articles are not in conflict with Islam.

But Sharia precepts regarding the status of woman are in conflict with the convention's articles. Isn't it time that Muslim societies try to evaluate the flaws of their legal system? One good example is the history of women's suffrage in America, and the question "What if women's suffrage was never passed?"

The limit to which the society can achieve its gender boundary maintenance depends upon the extent of knowledge and behavioral training. People's understanding of individual rights within the social groups of family and society will determine their outlook on gender roles. The most important element of all intellectual traditions is a restrictive view of women, which pervades both religious writings and popular beliefs.

Images in the popular culture tend to focus on ideas such as the "self-sacrificing women," as chaste and pure, the Virgin Mary, the mother. The opposite of this is the woman who is the destroyer, the seductress, the bloody, destructive, malevolent power, the Eve. Neither the Madonna nor the whore image is far fetched.

The question of woman's status has attained great importance in communities throughout the entire world. For centuries it was accepted as "natural law" in many parts of the world that women were inferior to men and must submit to patriarchal authority, to allow for the smooth running of family life.

For thousands of years, women were kept in absolute subjugation in all patriarchal societies.A brief chronology of the three Ibrahimic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in regard to women's alienation in the formulation of religion, miracles, magic and race is notable to review. One needs to examine the popular points of view of different schools of thought, to illustrate the roots of female alienation as manifested in popular culture within patriarchal societies. This has influenced the status of women, politically, economically, and in terms of the framing of their individuality.

How did the strife between man and woman pervade antiquity? How were women viewed geo-politically in the Bronze Age (3000-1200 B.C. Greece) and in classical literature? There are apparent discrepancies between the women in society and the heroines in its literature. Several hypotheses have been formulated to explain the conflict between fact and fiction.

The powerful women who were mentioned in the work of tragedy eventually created a mythology about women by men who judged the play and selected what they thought best - this was the beginning of the ideological creation of popular culture. Misogyny was born from the fear of women. It led to social structures that were oppressive and demeaning. These structures did not correspond to the actual, vital roles women were performing at the time.

Aristophanes' writings showed successful women in opposition to men. On the contrary, in Sophocles, Creon, a domineering ruler, reveals hostility in his relations with the opposite sex and he refers to a wife as a "field to plow." Many tragedies showed women in rebellion against the established norms of society and the image of the heroine on the stage coincided with the reality of Athenian women. The proper behavior of women and men was explored in many tragedies. Womanly behavior was characterized then, as now in some cultures, by submissiveness and modesty (Pomeroy 93-9).

The cultural legacy eventually began to permeate further, controlling the female and the male roles, and circumscribing sexuality within the context of religion. The rigid role conditioned and limited the full range of human potential and produced a negative impact on both men and women. The "sex for reproduction" legacy began with the Judeo-Christian heritage and tradition. Childbearing was tremendously important to the ancient Hebrews, and their history of being subjected to slavery and persecution made them determined to preserve their people and replenish the earth.

A joyful appreciation of sexuality was part of the Judaic tradition as was the notion that sex was for procreation. By the first century B.C., many exotic cults such as the Bacchus, which provided sexual entertainment and involved forced intercourse with the members of the cult, were banned by the Roman Empire. Jesus' followers reacted against activities like the Bacchanalia by associating sex with sin (Crooks, Baur 4).

In 600 B.C., the rise of Islam and Mohammad's view of sexuality brought about a completely different set of customs. He told his male followers that polygyny was permitted and advocated. He gave two reasons: reducing female infanticide among Arabs, and providing homes for widows who were left homeless when their husbands were killed at war. Christians referred to sex as sin, and Islam promoted it through polygyny - one exaggeration led to another - contradicting social norms confusing the trend in which a customary tradition began its course by force.

As Islam began to expand, the phenomena of polygyny became a source of social prestige in Arabia and other regions. Unlike the European Jews, the Jews living within the orbit of Islam began having multiple wives as a status symbol. Later on, in the Tenth Century, Rabbi Gershom of Germany enacted a legal decree that raised the status of women in Jewish law and updated Jewish morality in other areas. The two most significant laws attributed to him were bans against polygyny and divorcing a woman against her will. Rabbi Gershom said that the most obvious evidence of the Torah's preference for monogamy is that the first human beings God created were Adam and Eve, not Adam, Eve, and Joan (Telushkin 178-9).

The misogyny of the later Middle Ages is well known. This was articulated in theological, philosophical and scientific theories that are centuries old. Males and females were contrasted and asymmetrically valued in terms of several dichotomies: intellect/body, active/passive, rational/irrational, reason/emotion, and self-control/lust.

When devotional writers mentioned marriage and motherhood, it was to warn against the horrors that accompanied them; when secular literature commented on women's roles, it was chiefly to romanticize adultery by aristocratic ladies or to mock the sexual appetites of peasant or middle-class wives. Much recent interpretation of religion has seen misogyny as a causal factor not only in the persecution of women as witches, but also as heretics or eccentric mystics. Such interpretation has argued that women are seen as lustful, emotional or disorderly (Bynum 11-30).

From the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century, in contrast, positive female figures and feminine metaphors took place in spirituality, coexisting alongside misogynist images of women (Bynum 150-2). The largest number of miracle stories is connected with the shrines of women saints. Events called "miracula" permeated life at every level, and were closely woven into the texture of Christian experience without any explanation of presuppositions that lay behind them.

Some female saints performed miracles predominantly for women. Events were told and believed by the people without question. The romance of magic in courtly culture came after the Middle Ages. Women were described as magical, enchanting, charming, fascinating, and even bewitching, which now describe experiences that are extraordinary, but attractive (Ward 1).

Male writers saw the genders in terms of dichotomy; they stressed males as powerful, judgmental, disciplined and reasonable; female were seen as weak, merciful, lustful and irrational. They applied female images to themselves only to express worldly denial. The male image of worldly renunciation involved the forsaking of wealth and power.

Women writers used imagery more fluidly - personal and social characteristics were shared by two genders. "She" was a less marked category and a symbol of a gender-less self. The idea of asymmetrical gender was physical and bodily to women. Women's spirituality had a significant emphasis on asceticism, which was prominent in women's religiosity in the form of food deprivation, and self-inflicted suffering.

Women of these societies, by accepting the weaker position, led themselves to neurosis by tolerating the abuse. Women became non-existent and non-human, except as consumers of physical and emotional exploitation. Their suppressed rage eventually changed to hate and revolt in the form of witchcraft. The limit to which the society can achieve its gender boundary maintenance depends upon the extent of knowledge and behavioral training.

People's understanding of individual rights within the social groups of family and society will determine their outlook on gender roles. The most important element of all intellectual traditions is a restrictive view of women, which pervades both religious writings and popular beliefs. Images in the popular culture tend to focus on ideas such as the "self-sacrificing women," as chaste and pure, the Virgin Mary, the mother.

The opposite of this is the woman who is the destroyer, the seductress, the bloody, destructive, malevolent power, the Eve. Neither the Madonna nor the whore image is far fetched. It is the pervasiveness of this traditional idea of womanhood that tells how popular culture circumscribes the range of identities from which women choose.

In the social structures, it is increasingly difficult to maintain the old attitudes toward women. It is important to note that even religious scriptures can not altogether escape from adopting new attitudes. Since the social attitudes are so pervasive, the scriptures are therefore being re-read and re-interpreted, at least among progressive sections of societies. Similarly, the question of women in societies is analogous to that of slavery. In feudal and pre-feudal societies, up to the 1800s, slavery was considered justifiable and the slaves themselves had accepted the social exploitation.

However, these attitudes toward slavery and serfdom had to change rapidly because of the emergence of capitalist societies. The theory of divine law is no longer applicable to the institution of exploitation. Human consciousness in modern societies is conditioned by the concept of human dignity. The laws regarding women were enacted or interpreted from scriptures during the dark ages of the medieval period by the jurists. They are no longer accepted by women today in western societies. They no longer accept their subordination to men and they demand equal rights to those of men (Engineer 1-5).

The feminist paradigm is now pointing in a different direction, stressing the relations of gender, meaning the oppression of women by men that Marxism tended to overlook. Scholars' interpretation of patriarchy varies: a conceptual problem in Marxist feminist analysis is the focus on labor/capital contradiction. To identify the operation of gender relation, Marx viewed it as the processes of production and reproduction as defined by materialism. Weber described patriarchy as a household that is dominated by the father, who controls the economy for the members of the household.

Millett confronts the thesis that in capitalist society the domination of women by men is mediated by class differences between women. McDonough and Harison regard patriarchy as the control of women's fertility and sexuality in monogamous marriage, and the economic subordination of women through the sexual division of labor and property. Harrison's mode of patriarchy, they argue, has been eliminated, but its relations assume a form dictated by capitalist relations of production (Barrett 8-17).

The most accepted theory argues that racism is functional and characteristic of the capitalist mode of production. When the Anglo Saxons and other European peoples penetrated into different parts of the world, their first step was the destruction of the culture they found upon arrival. This was the concept of superiority and inferiority in relation to race, elaborated in order to justify exploitation of people. Basically, racial hierarchy is an artificial way to stratify people according to such a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority.

With this historical background, we can interpret the U.S. legal system, as it existed before the mid-1960s, as a system that re-enforced racism. For example, the American legal system was the only system that prohibited inter-racial marriage by law. Obviously, inter-racial marriage would change the physical appearance of future generations, making it difficult to sustain the rigid racial hierarchy that currently exists. Inter-racial marriage, or miscegenation, is a practice that could eventually extinguish the difference between black and white in America.

Another facet of discrimination involves educational opportunity in this society. Why is equal education so important? Why some political priorities focus on slashing the grants for education? At the outset, illiteracy was linked to the institution of slavery, and education threatened to bring about emancipation. One who can read and write is potentially competitive in the labor market with whites.

Literacy also encourages possible movements for political and social achievements. From the beginning, it was against the law to teach slaves how to read and write. Later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, schools remained segregated, although equal education for all was the stated goal. In reality, even today, such equality has yet to arrive, and there is still discrimination in the educational system.

Of course, the Marxist approach argues that class-based discrimination in the school system would remain even at the end of racial segregation. There is also a structural functionalist approach which regards race as a natural way of distinguishing human beings according to their physical characteristics. This theory says that blacks are not necessarily inferior, but they are different from whites. Eventually, according to this theory, blacks will be integrated into the mainstream society by virtue of the capitalist mode of production. This is a jurisprudential interpretation of a democratic social model.

Another similar discrimination which society imposes, vital to this discussion, is gender discrimination. The conflict approach argues that females are biologically different than males at birth, and the main difference is that women bear children and men can not. The conflict approach is saying women are born female, but society makes sexual distinction. Since there is a biological sexual difference, society adds gender difference and imposes a "female" role on women.

The patriarchal system mainly sets forth the idea that women are weak, they need protection, and a safe place for them is the home. The violence such as rape is used as a socially justified weapon, to make the environment outside of home unsafe. This enforces the domesticity of women. All these differences are then reinforced by the legal system, which allows for discrimination in the work place, prison system and other institutions. For example, in Salem, Massachusetts, brave women who tried to defend their rights were burned on stakes, when the legal system prosecuted them as witches.

The key to understanding gender discrimination is the control that the state has over women's bodies, and their capacity to bear children. To analyze the criminalization of pregnancy, the mother goes to jail as a result of addiction; she is not permitted to have an abortion, and is blamed when she is raped. She can not have an abortion since the state is trying to control her reproduction, but at the same time the state does not provide protection in cases of family abuse, like spouse or child abuse.

Basically, the two issues of gender and race are related because the capitalist mode of production needs to combine an ideology where everyone is equal. The mainframe and the goal of the liberal state is that all men (humankind) are equal. But at the same time, the capitalist mode of production argues that labor and profit should reach equilibrium. The economist's theories, whether liberal or conservative, conclude that, regarding salary and the relationship between supply and demand, capitalism must strive to achieve equilibrium.

A capitalist society, in order to survive, especially to keep profit extremely high, needs to exploit certain strata of the population. At the same time, the ideology of democracy is attached to capitalism. Democracy, freedom, self reliance, equality of opportunity all encourages hard work in exchange for money. How can we combine these two contrasting needs - capitalism and democracy? The solution is to say that certain people are different and that is why they can never achieve the same degree of ownership of large industries such as Ford.

The structural functionalist approach argues that the conflict approach is wrong in emphasizing discrimination. This approach argues that they will be integrated into the system, over a period of time. This theory also argues that race is a natural way to distinguish humans according to their physical characteristics. Eventually they will be integrated into the mainstream of the society through inter-racial marriage, the final stage of integration. So the structural functionalist approach looks at the abolishment and end to illegal inter-racial marriage and civil rights movement as movements toward the end of discrimination in societies.

The feminist movement of the Twentieth Century has raised perplexing questions both in American society and around the globe. Often we hear men justifying the symbolic role of the "Goddess" in literature as a tangible and true value within society. "Myths of the great Goddess teach compassion for all living beings. There you come to appreciate the real sanctity of the earth, because it is the body of the Goddess" (Campbell 207).

Despite the most passionate and graceful lyrical expressions in every culture praising the Goddess - symbolizing the forms of sensibility of our literature - what most women wonder is that: What went wrong that caused the ritual to lose its force. The ritual, which once conveyed an inner reality, is now merely a form, and that is true in the ritual of society. What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology? The decline of the Goddess myth is exemplified by the demeaning economic position of women in contemporary society.

The traditional economic roles which women occupy in our society contain parallel responsibilities to those that women perform in the household. These economic roles prevent most women from engaging in business affairs, and also limit their role in politics. The change in the economic potential of woman will not be achieved by woman continuously proving herself.

Change will occur only when men's perception of women changes and when he no longer projects upon women his perception of what woman's roles should be.


Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology and Women's Studies; and a Masters of Arts degree in International Training and Education from the American University in Washington, DC. She served in diplomatic corps of Iran working at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, from 1970-80. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of the Army, Defense language Institute in Monterey, California.

Work Cited

-- Barrett, Michelle. Women's Oppression Today: The Marxist/Feminist Encounter. Verso. London, England. 1988.
-- Bynum, Walker Caroline. Fragmentation and Redemption. Zone Books, New York, NY 1991.
-- Campell, Joseph. The Power Of Myth. Anchor Books Doubleeday: New York, 1991.
-- Crooks, Robert and Baur, Karla. Our Sexuality. The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc. Redwood city, California. 1992.
-- Engineer, Asghar Ali. The Rights of Women In Islam. St. Marteen's Press. New York, NY 1992.
-- Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. 1993.
-- Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, And Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. -- Schocken Books, New York. 1975.
-- Ward, Benedicta. Miracles and the Medieval Mind. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 1987.
-- Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph, Jewish Literacy. William Morrow. New York, NY 1991.
-- Collins, Randall and Makowsky, Michael. The Discovery of Society. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York, 1993.
-- Kamenka, Eugene. The Portable Karl Marx. Viking Penguin Inc. New York, 1983.
-- Swingewood, Alan. A Short Story of Sociological Thought. St. Martin's Press. New York 1991.

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