Curing the husband . "Due to the
harshness of family life, Mr. Rahim has been struck with a
nervous disease. His wife Qamar is pleased to hospitalize
him in a psychiatric ward. After 15 days, she returns to the
hospital and asks the head physician to discharge her husband.
The physician rejects her request, telling her that it will
take Mr. Rahim at least another fortnight to make a complete
recovery. Qamar answers: "I know that, Aqa-ye doktor - but if he is totally cured, he will not want to return home
[From the Jokes section, "Latifehha-ye zanashu'i" - "The pleasures of matrimony". Khanevadeh-ye sabz , N°88, Khordad 15 th 1382s (June 2003), 60]
My husband humiliates me . "I am a 21 year-old woman. I married at the age of 13. My husband was a friend of my brother. My father was opposed to the match, as was I, but after speaking with my mother, I finally agreed to the marriage. My husband was very kind during the first three months. Afterwards, his behaviour changed completely. To begin with, he beats me, and warns me against telling my father. I love my father, but my husband says that this is a woman's duty, and for that reason, he humiliates me more often than before. He also threatens to take my child away from me should I get a divorce. For the sake of my love for my child, I can't [divorce]. Please give me advice." F.Q., from Ardebil
"Dear sister. Your marriage, contracted at such a young age, was forced ., and although this problem stands at the root of . your disputes, you have to be aware that divorce is the last solution to family problems. It is unreasonable to directly resort to divorce at the sight of the smallest problem; rather, one must proceed in steps. For example, a husband has no right to hit and curse his wife, and if he acts in such a way, he must be brought to justice and punished. [But] it is not right to think of divorce merely because of a few instances of foul behaviour. . In the case of marital discord, the partners should resort [more] to psychologists and counsellors. . Try to identify the reasons for your husband's bad behaviour. Do your utmost to correct them with the advice of counsellors, so that your husband flourishes and calms down; by no means think of divorce."
[From the psychological counselling Q&A section "Moshaver-e khanevadeh" - "The family counsellor". Khanevadeh , N°236, Mordad 1 st 1381s (July 2002), 4]
Enjoying large circulation and avid interest on the part
of Iranian women, post-revolutionary conservative family magazines
have been in circulation for quite some time. While some,
such as Khanevadeh [ Family ] , were founded
soon after the Iranian Revolution, others, like Khanevadeh-ye
Sabz [ The Green Family ] or Khaneh
va Khanevadeh [ Home and Family ] , were launched
during the 1990s.
Today, they are making a joint effort to reinforce and preserve a coherent conservative image of the nature and function of gender relations in the family and society. Different articles, though expounding somewhat divergent opinions, are ultimately bound by a common denominator. On the whole, they emphasize that women are the more passive sex; that their primary life's task is to manage the household, educate the children, and love and understand their working husbands; and that marriage is the only appropriate social and psychological framework for both women and men. This perspective is indirectly supported through articles on cooking, sewing, house-holding, child education; and directly, through different kinds of texts that address personal and/or marital problems: short Q&As between the readers and counsellors, fictional stories, analyses.
When these texts are examined in conjuncture with the absence of articles concerning structural reasons for personal problems, it appears that these conservative magazines are offering purely individual solutions for difficulties which -- as Iranian feminists stress -- often result from social, cultural, political, legal, and psychological structures and norms of behaviour that are out of sync with today's changing realities and needs. Concerning women, individual solutions and general proper conduct are framed in terms of essentially 'passive' virtues like patience, sacrifice, understanding, tolerance, etc. In the case of men, they tend to revolve around more 'active' qualities such as the motivation and responsibility to work (for the sake of the family), self-control, and the authority to lead the family.
In emphasizing such distinctions, conservative family magazines appear to serve as a valuable soft tool -- alongside hard instruments like the legal system -- for the containment of disruptive ideological and cultural shifts. They are evolving alongside a reality in which increasing numbers of women are working outside the home, engaging in public socio-political activities, and insisting on equal legal rights.
These changes, and the accompanying ideological tensions, are also visible in jokes. These often illuminate social realities by switching actual roles or greatly exaggerating perceived character traits. In jokes about family life, such as the one quoted at the beginning of this text, men must constantly defend themselves against plotting women; husbands need to safeguard their hard-earned money from the spending frenzy of their wives. The advice to "F.Q." concerning marital abuse is the other side of the same coin. Rather than being the active party, the young woman is on the receiving end, but nevertheless, urged to stand fast, be patient, and assume responsibility for the improvement of her husband's behaviour.
Not all inquiries of this or similar nature receive the same clear-cut answer from counsellors. They do advise divorce in some cases. Moreover, marital life is not necessarily bleak under the Iranian sun. Family magazines make an effort to praise the blessings of marital love and publish fictional stories and interviews featuring happy marriages. Additionally, short analytical commentaries advise couples on building long-standing, stable, happy relationships. What unites all these different genres, texts, and approaches, though, is the ideological viewpoint that when push comes to shove, women are the passive partners who are obliged to run the household rather than get exposed to public life.
Some texts present very candid examples of this outlook. As a column in Khanevadeh-ye sabz holds,
"a woman takes pride in the social, economic, and political progress of her husband, and makes it the object of her own pride and glory. She is an exemplary housewife, but understands herself to be attached to her husband's status. . The woman knows that she is relying on [his] support. For this reason, she wishes him to be known as a capable and leading figure. [Sometimes], a woman has a higher professional or educational status than her husband. Nonetheless, she is not prepared to look down on her husband. . Social realities [thus] will not change. The reality is that women love that their lives are seen to be moving [and progressing] by pointing to their husbands' success." Moreover, "patience and obedience are two central components of a woman's marital duties. . The wife must always support [her husband] and prepare the ground for his mental peace and strength." [ Khanevadeh-ye sabz , N°82, Esfand 1 st 1381s (February 2002), 12; and N°88, Khordad 15 th 1382s (June 2003), 12]
Even more telling are interviews with female celebrities and ordinary working women, including "model mothers." In an interview with the TV and cinema star Ladan Tabatabai, the interviewer asks a series of questions about her professional life, work, and marriage. At some point, she tells the reader, "It is not bad to ask Tabatabai about the role of the housewife." To this, the actress answers,
"I am a homemaker, and have more responsibilities for precisely that reason. . My time is organized so that I have time for my life and husband too. . Because my husband himself is involved, he helps me a lot, really understands me, and cooperates in a very sincere way. However, I try my best to have time for both matters [our marital life and the household], and we get through life with a precise plan." [ Khanevadeh-ye sabz , N°81, Bahman 15 th 1381s (February 2003), 11]
Interestingly, Tabatabai feels she must give the interviewer a somewhat apologetic answer. It comes right on the heels of a long paragraph in which the actress raves about female actors' participation in action movies, stating how it allows them to visualize women's positive and active roles in society and in their own lives.
At first sight, the "model mothers" interviewed in Khanevadeh have nothing in common with a celebrity such as Tabatabai. They are mostly very poor, have either lost their husbands or must care for them, and are forced to work endless hours while raising their children. It is through such stories of exemplary and strong personalities that self-sacrifice and modesty are consistently framed as a woman's most noble qualities. In fact, it is these individual attributes that enable her to survive even the worst calamities. Moreover, although these women's breathtaking economic distress is alien to their richer counterparts, Tabatabai's case underlines that lofty social and economic status does not exempt a woman from having to prove that one can work and simultaneously care for one's family and husband. In other words, whether rich or poor, Tehrani or from the provinces: in conservative family magazines, ultimately, one yardstick is used to judge, and one model applies to all women.
It should be noted that the use of a single model to describe gender roles and differences is not unique to Iran. In post-colonial and Western countries, too, various groups have sought to impose unified models. Interestingly, efforts to inscribe them onto the minds and hearts of the public have peaked during periods of dramatic shifts in economic markets, cultural production, or patterns of social interactions. For instance, in Europe, during the late 19 th century -- i.e. at a time of women's rising integration into industrial labour (and, hesitantly, other professions) and of falling birth rates -- many men, as well as women, felt the need to assert that ultimately, the function of a woman in society is at home, behind the hearth and beside the cradle. Iran in the early 21 st century obviously does not closely resemble Europe in the late 19 th century. However, contemporary Iranian feminists' insistence that dominant gender paradigms stand at odds with Iran's changing socio-economic realities, does suggest that conservative efforts to uphold a certain model of gender roles aim to contain the potentially transformative effects of such changes on gender and social relations.
Cyrus Schayegh is a historian and free-lance
journalist currently based in Tehran.