Gender Division Based on Mahram and Non-Mahram

In general, where religious values are dominant, gender discriminations remain influential at all levels in society. The monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – not differently from the primitive or undeveloped cultures, adamantly conserve their gender biases. In this article, I argue that gender inequalities in Islam go beyond the gender biases of other monotheistic religions.

The main reason for gender inequalities in Islam has roots in a traditional division of society into the two groups of “mahrams” and “non-mahrams.”: the mahram group contains the non-marriageable adult people who are close members of family, whereas the non-mahram group refers to the rest of people.

Asserting of non-mahram dogma in Islam is not initially unrelated to the Prophet’s concerns about his harem. As described by Ali Dashti, an Iranian scholar, in his book “Bisto-Seh Saal” (23 Years), “the Prophet Muhammad used Koranic verses of Surah Ahzaab to consolidate his authority against his much younger wives and to force them into absolute obedience and chastity.” However, the two sources of Islam, namely the Koran and “Hadith” (sayings of the Prophet) have not fixed a dress code decreeing an Islamic standard of clothing for women.

To the Islamic morality, touching, seeing, and being alone with a non-mahram woman may lead to uncontrollable or passing temptation and immorality for a man. Therefore, a Muslim woman should not show her beauty, adornment, and dress to a non-mahram man. As a solution, the form of head-to-foot hijab with a black cloth, which is not transparent, is today recommended by Mullahs in Iran.

Non-mahram is not limited to Islamic hilab; in addition a series of social norms and attitudes have emerged in relation to the dogma of non-mahram. Norms have been created which have no real equivalence in non-Muslim cultures. They go too far to implicitly define a man’s moral right and duty to defend the taboo red lines around the body of his mahram circle (mother, sister, wife…) when those are violated or even threatened by a non-mahram. This “moral right” may even lead to honour punishments or even crimes routinely committed in Islamic communities.

Non-mahram is therefore a very influential dogma in character formation at the level of a collective culture from which we can retrace the footsteps even in Islamic architecture – palaces, mosques, madreseh (traditional school), and today, the women-only parks which have been inaugurated in some Iranian cities. All of these misogynistic measures are based on a division of mahrams from non-mahrams. Everywhere, non-mahram’s taboo values are recognised, from Iranian post-Islamic art to literature and to any domain of public life, the red line of non-mahram dogma around the woman’s body remains the impenetrable line separating a Muslim woman from a non-mahram visual and acoustic field.

For example: a typical Muslim house is built around a central, mostly rectangular, courtyard. The interior space is important, not the outside. Part of the house is separated for females. The men’s reception room tends to be located next to the entrance lobby of the house so that non-mahram visitors do not meet the females. The windows face the inside not the outside of the house so that eye contact between non-mahrams does not happen. In the big house where several generations can dwell together measures are taken so that the contact between non-mahrams, like cousins or brother/sister-in-law of opposite sex dwellers, does not lead to temptation.

More strictly than in a traditional Islamic house, segregation was in the past in Islamic palaces where no access of non-mahram to the harem area was possible – except for castrated servants. Paintings, frescos, three-dimensional imaginary or real sculpture, any female figure or representational visual imaginary on display have been unacceptable. Also, in such places, there was no official role for a female as an artist, singer or musician.

When Shah Isma’il Safavid decided to impose the Shi’ite sect on the Iranian people at the beginning of 16th century, he had to import Shiite Mullahs from Arab countries to help the process of Shi’itisation. Facing his rival of the Sunnite Ottoman Empire, the process was for the Shah existentially important. As a state religion, Shi’ism was violently established with the guidance of the imported Mullahs, who allegedly were the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Because influential Mullahs enjoyed living among the urban population as an elite class under both the Safavid and Qajar dynasties, their Sharia-based teachings of Islam affected directly urban women rather than rural women. Therefore, rural and tribal life in Iran remained relatively intact from the invasion of non-mahram side-effects.

As Nikki R. Keddi described in Modern Iran, in Iran and the Middle East, nomadic tribeswomen do most of the tribe’s physical labour. They are unveiled and are less segregated than urban women. Rural women also do hard physical work and “reports from the nineteen century indicate that they were mostly unveiled. Veiling has been mainly an urban (and hence minority) phenomenon.” As mentioned, the separation of men and women is not a tradition of Iranian culture, but until today a product of Islamic-based ruling states.

Under the dynasties of Safavid and Qajar, Iran was as late introducing modern secular education as it was in introducing gender equality. The educational system was monopolised by clerical power. Teaching was Islamic, limited at lower levels to reading, writing, and learning the Koran and religion. At the end of the Qajar dynasty, the madreseh (a higher school to teach the basics for Arabic and theology) only received boys.

Nikki.R. Keddi writes “Many functions that in modern states are governmental were carried out in Qajar Iran, as in most traditional Muslim societies, by the ulama (Islamic scholars). These included all levels of education, most forms of judicial and legal activity, and social and charitable services.” A combination of social attitudes, values, and a cognitive behaviour system are made of this long period of religiosity which still influences the mind-set of most contemporary Iranians. Today, for the IRI, a return to this archaic system is vital to prevent any secular and democratic understanding of the world.

Based on the morality of non-mahram, premarital love between a man and a woman passes the level of decency. Despite many love stories and much romantic literature in Iranian history, love is considered as a feeling incompatible with Islamic culture. In this context, marriage is arranged by the families rather than being based on mutual love and harmony of the two partners. Love and harmony may appear after the marriage, or may not. Arranged marriage, with no premarital love and harmony, also favours “Sigheh” (temporary marriage). Sigheh flourishes in Shi’ite pilgrimage centres where Mullahs could be intermediaries; the affair is often regarded as legalised prostitution. It temporally removes the non-mahram barrier between the two non-mahrams.

The idea of love associated with sin is not completely different from the other established monotheist religions. The idea implies that women have by nature the desire to be looked at, adored and cherished, while men are disposed to non-mahram women.

Love is rather associated with sin and lust than wisdom and emotion; a pious follower of Jesus – a priest or bishop – would not share his life and emotion with a woman. Early Christianity invented the idea that not only Eve herself but also all daughters of Eve were full of sin, therefore man was better off not to marry. Since this would be the end of mankind the same people found apparently a compromise and virtually decided that only the impious men marry. Legitimate love seems the one for the Truth and Devotion with a spiritual path. This is the level of lifetime love to God. Such an ambiguous comprehension of love is allegedly guided by a force greater than a feeling of inter-human relation. Such a love, despite its level of illusion and even perversion, is presented in the Iranian post-Islamic mystics and lyrics and has considerably influenced Muslims’ mindset. Love for a non-mahram, especially from a woman to a non-mahram man, is regarded in Islam as similar to an act of indecency.

Although, woman’s rights in Islamic societies are more limited by restrictions of non-mahram, no other monotheist religion permits a woman to be ordained a religious higher rank as a “Mujthaid” (a qualified Shiite religious scholar to interpretation of scriptures), an “Alim” (an Islamic scholar, mainly in Sunnite Islam), a Rabin for Jews, or a bishop for Christians. These remain in the domain of men. The Catholic Church refuses to even talk about ordinary women as priests. Many Protestant traditions and denominations have done the same, says Jim Seers in his book, The Religion Book. However, no other religion except Islam considers women excluded from their “non-mahram” environment.

For many foreign observers, especially the Western analysts, who know little about the concept and influence of non-mahram dogma, a vision of an Islamic society has been, mechanically, amalgamated with the Islamic hijab. They do not understand the deeper phenomenon beyond hijab which is a tool separating non-mahrams. So, the division of society into mahram and non-mahram imposed gender-segregation whose Islamic hijab is simply a by-product.

In my opinion, non-mahram dogma is the morality-based philosophy of gender-inequalities in any Islamic societies. Although the Islamic hijab is a symbol and blockade to woman’s freedom and gender-equality, it is not more than a simple product of the dogma. As long as we cannot recognise its origin, we will not be in the right position to free women from this traditional yoke. If we tackle the problem correctly, then we will be able to influence the entire attitude structure of our society to remove all the inequalities from which our women suffer, including Islamic hijab.

Non-mahram dogma remains today the main barrier against woman’s rights for freedom and equality. An identifiable change in peoples’ values with the criteria of non-mahram must start with recognition of this dogma, which is so complex that it easily can go beyond any obvious understanding.

The long-term effects of reluctance and apathy of Iranian intelligentsia toward gender-related issues deprived our women of any serious support. So, today the ruling Mullahs can invade people’s minds with the norms, values, and criteria of their Gender-Apartheid. Gender-based segregation in public life was institutionalised after the inception of the Mullahs’ regime in Iran.

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