Patriarchy and parental control in Iran
By: Massoume Price, March 2006
Traditionally Iranian culture has been patriarchal with the father or the husband at the head of the family and household. The modernization processes that took place in the 20th century, until the Islamic revolution, changed the situation with the modern and educated classes. However, the masses and the more traditional classes remained more or less the same. Since the revolution, patriarchy has been promoted and strengthened by reverting to ancient Islamic codes and with enforced patriarchal practices, such as controlling female appearance and mobility. Patriarchy has been a major institution in the area since ancient times and is deeply rooted in religious, legal and cultural practices. It is portrayed extensively in Persian literature and metaphors, cultural constructs, ethics, explanatory systems, both religious and secular. The patriarchal system involves the control of both wives and children by the husband or the father and in their absence by other male relatives.
Cultural practices associated with patriarchy have changed immensely during the last century and with the modern classes there is a balance in power that is observed by both males and females. However, such observances are voluntary and are not backed by legal codes that guarantee balance of power between the two and their children. The current legal system in Iran gives superior legal status to the male head of the family as opposed to his wife/wives and children, therefore strengthens the patriarchal system. Majority of the Iranians who have immigrated to North America constitute the more modern and educated classes, who are conscious of gender inequality, promote equal opportunities for both males and females, willingly share power in the household and have great respect for family, particularly children. However, it should be remembered that Iranian culture is class-based and is divided between traditional and modern classes as well as upper, middle and lower classes. Different classes have different attitudes, cultural practices and while modern classes are striving to overcome patriarchy and gender inequalities, the more traditional classes may be defending and practicing such cultural ideas.
For Iranians family is the most important social institution and children are the focal point of this institution; they are loved, adorned and sometimes spoiled. For many families, the relationship parents have with their children, is more important than the marital bound between the husband and wife. Many Iranian parents simply live for their children. Families stay together and are expected to be the priority for all members even long after they have left the nest. The roles are well-defined in terms of gender and expectations are clear. Overall, like most patriarchal cultures, earning a living is seen mostly appropriate for men, while child rearing belongs to the domain of women. Such notions have changed drastically in recent decades and the phenomenal number of highly educated women, both in Iran and outside, and the worsening economic situation since the revolution has forced many women from all classes to seek employment outside the house. Such changes are creating major problems for working mothers and challenging the status quo. So far the solution for most appears to be reliance on family members such as grandparents to look after the children. Daycare centers are not on the whole trusted and nannies are preferred if they can be afforded.
Families are normally extended families and grandparents, uncles and aunts are very involved with each other and the younger members of the family both emotionally and financially. Children are praised, looked after and are raised to be dependent on their families and follow family traditions and rules.
With poor families in Iran, children are expected to be involved with every aspect of family life, including working at paid jobs and taking care of the younger siblings. However, with the affluent, children do not get involved in such matters; they are paid for and looked after long past adolescence. It is a common practice for the rich to buy properties, expensive cars, designer clothes and expensive jewelry for their children. At the time of marriage, the groom's father or paternal close relatives normally pay the very high cost of the elaborate weddings. In return children are required to be obedient, polite, and respectful of parents and other older members of the family.
Iranian culture is adult-oriented with parents being involved in making major decisions for their children, such as whom they should marry and what profession they should have. Family members are expected to spend lots of time with each other and socializing with relatives is a very important part of Iranian life. Family traditionally comes before the individual and the young are brought up and expected to understand and respect such notions.
Traditionally, the male head of the family would make most major domestic and financial decisions and quite often with consultation with other male relatives, but not female members of the household. This has changed with modern Iranians. Now wives and grown-up children participate actively in such decision-making. However this might not be the case with traditional classes and even bank accounts and major assets still might be only accessible by the husband/father or other males.
Choosing a spouse may involve entire families other than the immediate families of the couple and could become very complicated if the parents do not approve of the future spouses. Arranging suitable marriages are one aspect of family relations that still involve parental supervision and involvement and have emerged as constant sources of tension in the Iranian community outside the country. The matter is further complicated by the high costs of elaborate weddings and dowry, which means the couple will have to rely on parental financial support in most cases. This in turn increases their dependency on parents and increases parental control. Despite the fact, that many modern and educated Iranians have stopped interfering in their children's affairs and their choice of spouse, many still follow the traditional patterns.
With most families, there are double standards with respect to daughters and sons and there are normally more restrictions and rules for the girls, especially with respect to dating. Modern Iranians are very liberal with respect to their daughter's fashion styles and are not concerned about body parts being exposed. However, traditional families will be very concerned about such issues and expect their daughters to dress and act modestly, even if they do not follow veiling practices. For such families, dating for their daughters might be out of question.
Virginity is still a major issue with many Iranian families where teenage and pre-marital sex is prohibited for most girls, while with many families there are no taboos with respect to dating and having sex. Drinking and smoking by the youth is not normally acceptable and if it is done, it is done behind parent's back. Many families have strict rules with respect to such matters and more traditional groups might have retribution in place as well. Family problems in general and children's problems in particular are kept inside the family. In such cases most people prefer to try and solve them on their own rather than seeking help from outside. Both parents and children are expected to be mutually available at times of financial hardship.
In the case of very religious families, dating is not acceptable for boys either; however, such families may choose the practice of temporary marriage and pay to have concubines in accordance to Shiite religious prescriptions. The practice of temporary marriage is only practiced by Shiite Muslims and was going out of fashion in the 20th century and since the revolution has made a comeback in Iran. It is known as sigheh and it implies that "a man agrees to give a single woman something for a specified period in return for her sexual favors, with the understanding that there would be no marriage in the beginning nor a divorce at the end". Any man single or married can have as many concubines as he wishes and the woman once the contract is terminated can not enter into another contract for three months to make sure she is not pregnant.
The contract can be verbal or written and the duration varies from a few hours to many years. For a long time, many including the Sunni Muslims, who do not practice it, have called it fornication and most Iranians reject the practice. There are known cases of it being practiced in North America, but they are not common and for most Iranians it is socially unacceptable. Couples especially women practicing it will not talk about it so it is hard to know the statistics. Modern Iranians mock such practices and regard it as ancient and out of date.
The education of children is a major issue for most Iranians and the affluent families spend a fortune to make sure their children will have the best possible education. Both daughters and sons are expected to have the best education available. Even in the Islamic republic itself the number of females attending universities is much higher than boys, close to 63 of students are girls. Most decisions, about what to study and what path to follow, will be taken by consulting with parents and other elders in the family. In many instances the young are advised on what to do and are expected to follow such recommendations, sometimes against their own will. Parents who can afford it are expected to pay for all educational and living expenses and sometimes in grand manners according to their wealth and status.
In short, although there is much parental control in Iranian families, the warmth, affection and immense love that most Iranians have for their children eases the tensions and most children willingly feel obliged to trust, obey the rules and comply with their parent's guidance and advice. However, if such affections and trust are missing and it does happen, conflict between generations or self-destructive behavior by children such as addictions and use of violence by parents, mainly fathers, could be expected.
Dysfunctional families have become a lot more common in Iran and amongst Iranians outside the country; however, it is still a taboo with many to discuss family matters openly or with qualified councilors. The educated and modern classes deplore parental and spousal violence but beating up children and wives is known to exist amongst the less educated and lower classes. In one anthropological study, 'Women of Deh Koh' published by Erika Friedl in 1991, researching in the village of Koh in Northern Iran, she observes that almost all wives where at some point beaten up by their husbands.
Such behaviour is not tolerated by modern generations of Iranians and a very important part of pre-marriage investigations carried out by the bride's family is to make sure that the future groom or his family do not have a history of spousal abuse. In the absence of a modern and balanced legal code, such measures protect daughters against possible future spousal abuses and are a common procedure with most marriages among Iranians.
Aschar Fathi. Women and the Family in Iran (Social, Economic, and Political Studies of the Middle East). Brill Academic Publishers, 1997.
Minoo Moallem, Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran. University of California Press, 2005.
*** Note: This article is the courtesy of Mrs. Massoume Price.