Neguin Yavari

The Shah’s Empress and the Ayatollah’s Qods-e Iran: Public Lives, Private Letters in 20th Century Iran

In a 2009 article on second wave feminism written in the aftermath of the financial crisis of the previous year, Nancy Fraser argues that although feminism has been overtaken by neoliberalism, it still holds an emancipatory promise that may be reactivated to remedy, at least in part, the twin crises of finance capital and US hegemony. Fraser’s panacea is “to integrate the best of recent feminist theorizing with the best of recent critical theory about capitalism,”[1] to recover “feminism’s emancipatory promise in the present moment of economic crisis and political opening,”[2] in the hope that “we might just bend the arc of the impending transformation in the direction of justice—and not only with respect to gender.”[3]

While feminist ideals of gender equality have become normative, they have had little success in transforming institutions and practice. It has “wrought an epochal cultural revolution, but the vast change in mentalités has not (yet) translated into structural, institutional change.”[4] That failure is, according to Fraser, due to a subterranean elective effective affinity between feminism and neoliberalism, found in the latter’s critique of traditional authority.[5] Subsequently, part of Fraser’s prescription for the uncoupling of second-wave feminism from neoliberalism is the revalorization of uncommodified activities, including care-work, performed largely by women, and a valued component of a good life for everyone, and for “reconnecting struggles against personalized subjection to the critique of a capitalist system which, while promising liberation, actually replaces one mode of domination by another.”[6] The call is for renewing second-wave feminism’s gaze on social justice.

Fraser is not alone in faulting feminism for service to capitalism and empire.[7] And the literature that links feminism’s begetter—liberalism, that is—to colonialism and empire is vast as well.[8] And Joan Scott has drawn attention to “the presumption of gender equality” which has marked the history of secularism, whereas in fact, gender inequality is at the very heart of the political order that prevails in modern Western states. Secularism was used in nineteenth century Europe, Scott writes, to oppose the threat of institutionalized Christianity and at the same time, promote colonial interests in the rest of the world.[9] Although Scott’ study is focused on Western Europe (France in particular), and Fraser limits her purview to “the OECD welfare states and the ex-colonial developmental states of the postwar period,” where, after all, “second-wave feminism first erupted,” resonances may be audible in other countries as well.

In academic discourse on Middle Eastern/Islamic societies, the critique of faux feminism at the service of colonial interests stretches back to the early 1990s. Among the dissenters—those who separated feminist values and objectives from lip service to those values by those vested in imperialist interests—the views of Leila Ahmed were particularly influential. To Ahmed, the “Victorian colonial paternalistic establishment appropriated the language of feminism in the service of its assault on the religions and cultures of Other men, and in particular on Islam, in order to give an aura of moral justification to that assault at the very same time as it combated feminism within its own society.”[10] Nowhere are those pernicious ambitions more explicit than in the writings of Lord Cromer, British consul-general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, whose career in Egypt Ahmed explores. A fierce opponent of the burgeoning women’s rights movement in England, Cromer did not hesitate to decry the shameful status of women in Islamic societies. According to Cromer, the practices of veiling and seclusion not only downgraded women, but were also responsible for Egypt’s “mental and moral” backwardness, both of which could only be reversed if Egyptians were allowed to emulate the values of Western civilization.

Within Islamic societies, however, resistance to colonial projects of modernization is at least a half-decade older.[11] Writing in the 1940s Ayatollah Khomeini, who would come to lead the Iranian revolution of 1979, pointed to the oppressive essence of reform projects that originated in the West, including efforts to challenge prevailing norms on the status of women. At any level of Iranian society, Khomeini wrote, there is nothing but “disordered thoughts, confused ideas, contradictory opinions, self-interest, lechery, immodesty, criminality, treachery and thousands of associate vices.[12] Urging resistance, Khomeini promised that the deplorable conditions would be reversed “through the joint efforts of all the people, the educated and the masses alike” and that Iran would attain a sate unparalleled in the world. There were those would object, he conceded, those “who have grown up with lechery, treachery, music and dancing, and a thousand other varieties of corruption.”[13] These objectors, regard the civilization and advancements of the country as dependent upon women’s going naked in the streets, or to quote their own idiotic words, turning half the population into workers by unveiling them (we know only too well what kind of work is involved here.”[14]

While Khomeini’s dismissively bleak portrayal of “liberated” women is unfortunate, when considered in its context, a call for resistance to the colonial project, its impact surfeit may account for the intemperate and derisive tone. The “woman question” has been part and parcel of the colonialist arsenal since the late nineteenth century, and therefore, at the forefront of the anticolonial struggle as well. The many outreach programs sponsored by the US government in the aftermath of the Second World War, in the case of Iran, the Point IV program,[15] further consolidated the political lineup: modernization equaled westernization, which included secularization and the liberation of women as the sine qua non of modern, civilized societies.

The literature on the divisive strategies of the colonialist powers, as well as the limitations that were part and parcel of state sponsored feminist projects is aplenty.[16] Moreover, critiques of liberal aspirations for Other women and Other oppressed minorities are also becoming increasingly prevalent.[17] But while the hypocritical views of diehard colonialists such as Lord Cromer have been scrutinized and their blatant contradictions exposed, political considerations have suppressed a close examination of the personal views of Third World leaders on the question of women. For more often than not, policy and personal conviction were at loggerheads. The rather systemic incoherence that reflects the bifurcation at the heart of the feminist predicament has been long recognized. It collapses the boundaries separating public from private at every turn. If women’s rights are Western values, and those very same Western values are an important component of the colonialist agenda, whence the way forward?

The inescapable dead end brought about by the present political context within which feminist movements and discourse are forced to operate is highlighted, to bring one example, in Bruce Lawrence’s 2017 review essay, “Islam Resighted: A Review Essay of Shah Ahmed’s What is Islam? and Joseph Massad’s Islam in Liberalism.”[18] Lawrence bemoans the “quagmire of interlocking pairs” that abound in Islam in Liberalism: “The distinction are important, and Massad is eager to level the playing field, yet when he claims that “the Jewish and the Palestinian Questions have never been other than the Aryan and the Semitic Questions” (341), he portrays a ricocheting series of ideologies, aporia, and agendas that seem to offer no practical remedy.”[19] Similarly, the predicament of women in Islamic countries exhibits the fraught ideological terrain that inhibits clear-cut, practicable solutions to everyday problems. Some of those impediments have also undermined the emancipatory promise of second wave feminism, as discussed in Nancy Fraser’s article referenced above.

The case of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1941-79) illustrates the point. While true to his “Westernization” agenda, the monarch initiated a series of reforms—some cosmetic and some structural, such as the Family Protection Law of 1967 which granted divorce rights to Iranian women[20]—his personal views on the role of women in society have raised some eyebrows. In an infamous interview with Barbara Walters in 1977, the Shah insisted that women were not up to a par with their male counterparts, or that effectively, “they were quite not yet ready” for important leadership roles. The skilled interviewer was quick to point out that the Shah had just finished appointing his wife Farah Pahlavi as regent, in the event he died before the crown prince turned 20. “Do you feel like your wife can govern as good as a man?” she asks. When pressed, the Shah said he preferred not to answer. And the Empress’ response was submissively opaque: “I don’t know what to say.”[21] The thrice married Shah was also a womanizer. His many liaisons with glamorous women were captured vividly in international glossies in the 1970s, and the hunting expeditions for suitable game chronicled gleefully as a favorite convivial pastime in the memoirs of his confidant and Minister of Court Asadollah Alam.[22]

The eclectic and muddled views of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi on the role of women in public life could not be any further different from those held by Ayatollah Khomeini. Resolute in his support for the hijab, Khomeini nevertheless urged Iranian women, with apparently equal conviction, to pursue an active life. In an address to a group of women in Qom in March 1979, he reiterated his commitment: “The laws of Islam are for the benefit of both man and woman, and woman [sic] must have a say in the fundamental destiny of the country. Just as you have participated in our revolutionary movement, indeed played a basic role in it, now you must also participate in its triumph, and must not fail to rise up again whenever it is necessary. The country belongs to you and, God willing, you will rebuild it.”[23] Unfortunately, the two conflicting positions were never quite squared in the Iranian public square. Thus, while literacy rates for women have soared, and as new opportunities as well as economic hardship have driven them to the labor market in great numbers, women in Iran can do many things, but they cannot obtain a passport without their husband’s consent.

Ziba Mirhosseini’s study on divorce laws is instructive in this regard, as it highlights the quandary confronted by Iran’s legislators on the question of women’s rights in Islam. The Islamic Republic was quick to dismantle the Family Protection Law of 1967, and embark on a project of Islamization of the country’s legal framework, announcing a “return to the ‘Shari‘a’ provisions of marriage and divorce as reflected in the Civil code articles.” Litigating divorce was relegated to special courts, presided over by clerical judges. Effectively, Mirhosseini writes, and “as far as family law is concerned, this Islamisation has meant two parallel and opposing developments: the validation of the patriarchal mandates of fiqh, and attempts to protect and compensate women in the face of them.”[24] The chaos that followed the reversal of the Family Protection Law as the clerical judges refused to grant a divorce in proceedings initiated by women, led to the adoption of several measures intended to temper the drastic one-sidedness of the sharia regulations. One such legal instrument was found in the concept of “usr wa haraj,” or hardship and suffering as a proper ground for initiating divorce. As the measure was debated in the Iranian parliament in 1982, Khomeini intervened in support of the bill’s proponents: “Caution demands that first, the husband be persuaded, even compelled to divorce; if this is not possible, [then] with the permission of the religious judge, divorce is effected; there is a simpler way if there was courage [i.e. if I had the courage I would have said it].”[25] But even Khomeini’s personal intervention failed to consolidate the invocation of “usr wa haraj” in divorce proceedings, Mirhosseini notes, and “the struggle for legislative change and an equal family law in Iran is still unfolding.”[26]

Some of the valences of that lingering contradiction are reflected in Khomeini’s private life, which presents an even starker contrast to the Shah’s. Khomeini’s only wife, Khadijah Thaqafi, known as Qods-e Iran, died in Tehran in March 2009. The Ayatollah’s letters to his wife have been published in a volume commemorating her life.[27] The oldest letter in the collection was sent from Beirut, where Khomeini was stranded awaiting passage to Mecca to perform the Hajj, and dates to March 1933. The tone of the letter is amorous and sensuous; Khomeini describes his wife’s “beautiful countenance,” that is “etched on my heart’s mirror,” and signs it affectionately with Ruhollah (312). Forty years later, and in exile in Iraq, Khomeini writes with wit and warmth to tell his wife, who is in Iran, how much he misses her, using Iqlima, their housekeeper in Najaf as his mouthpiece: “Iqlima sends her regards and asks that you return quickly. Your absence affects us deeply she says. She also asks that you give 100 toman to her daughter. Take both Iqlima’s demands to heart and act upon them.” (315)

In a letter dated August 1972, Khomeini asks that his wife remember him in her prayers. A few weeks later, he writes to gently chide her for not writing as often as he does. “I have sent several letters, although I do not know if you have received them. The letter you have sent from Mashhad has arrived. I hope that you are enjoying your visits with the family, even if you have forgotten us. Your return is only a few weeks away, and your presence is sorely missed.” (318) Again, in November he writes to remind his wife how much he misses her, and asks her to take a flight to Baghdad via Kuwait, one without a long stopover. Khomeini has signed all these letters as “the father of your children.” The last two letters date to July 1974. In the first, Khomeini again complains of his wife’s slack correspondence: “it seems that you forget us as soon as you leave Najaf.” The second letter coincides with the death of his brother. Khomeini writes touchingly of the sad state of his life, forced to endure the passing of loved ones from a distance. Both he signs as “Myself.” (319-21)

Apart from affection, the letters are striking in what they reveal of Khomeini’s high regard for his wife. He asks on numerous occasions that she attend to affairs on his behalf, in both private and public matters. She distributes funds in his name, delivers secret messages, reports on the political situation, and manages the household. That she enjoys his confidence in every respect is also paraded in Khomeini’s earliest testament, drafted on 9 February 1953, before his public career took off. The testament appoints his oldest son Mustafa (d. 1977) as executor, and grants him custody of his younger son Ahmad (d. 1995). His principal property is the family home, which he divides equally between his wife and two sons. “As I have already given 1/6 of the house to my daughter-in-law, Mustafa’s wife, he shall inherit only 1/6 of the property, and the rest is to be divided equally between my wife and younger son.” (323) This is remarkable, as Khomeini has envisioned for his wife a share more substantial than that stipulated under the sharia.

That project, of exceeding the sharia, continues unabated in contemporary Iran. A miniseries aired in 2010 on the state-owned TV 3 that gripped the Iranian public, “Setayesh,” featured a young morally upright widowed mother engaged in a decade-long struggle to keep her children from the clutches of their corrupt paternal grandfather.[28] It could not have been lost on its loyal audience that at the heart of Setayesh’s travails was the sharia-sanctioned privilege that grants custody of minors to the paternal grandfather. Over two protracted seasons, viewers cheered as Setayesh and her friends and family pulled every trick in the book to circumvent the application of the sharia’s writ. A conservative website, Mashregh News, actually called out the government for producing shows in opposition to itself.[29] And television shows starring young women protagonists who defy conventions and break taboos have mushroomed ever since.[30]

This short study harbors no pretense to a comprehensive treatment of the status of women in Islamic societies, or the policies adopted in that regard by the Iranian government, before or after the Revolution of 1979. Nor does it aim to suggest that Khomeini and the Shah were the only leaders whose private and public lives cannot be happily reconciled. Rather, it has argued, departing from the old feminist adage that the personal is political,[31] that perhaps some of the complexities of the question of women in Islam, or in any given society for that matter, are better understood when contextualized as well in the private realm. In that spirit, it is dedicated to Holly Davidson, who, as I understand it, has shed new light on old problems and ruffled feathers in both realms.

– January 2018


[1] Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History,” New Left Review 56 (2009), pp. 97-117, reference is at p. 98.

[2] Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History,” p. 100.

[3] Ibid., p. 117.

[4] Ibid., p. 99.

[5] Ibid., pp. 114-15.

[6] Ibid., p. 115; on the problematic relationship of individual liberty and equality in liberal discourse, see as well, Joan Scott, “The Vexed Relationship of Emancipation and Equality,” History of the Present 2: 2 (2012), pp. 148-68.

[7] One example is Hester Eisenstein, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World (New York: Paradigm, 2009).

[8] Non-Leftist critiques of liberalism are gathering steam, see Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth Century Political Thought (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999); and Karuna Mantena, “The Crisis of Liberal Imperialism,” Histoire@Politique. Politique, culture, société 11: 2 (2012),

[9] Joan Wallach Scott, Sex and Secularism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), esp. pp. 30-59.

[10] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 152.

[11] On colonial modernity see Reinhard Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World, transl. Azizeh Azodi (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002), pp. 14-58; and for Iranian responses, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010).

[12] Imam Khomeini, “A Warning to the Nation,” in Islam and Revolution I: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (1941-80), transl. and ann. Hamed Algar (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981), p. 171.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., pp. 171-2.

[15] The Khuzestan project pursued in the late 1950s by the Development and Resources Corporation, owned by David Eli Lilienthal, New Deal icon and development entrepreneur, is a perfect case in point, see Christopher T. Fisher, “‘Moral Purpose is the Important Thing’: David Lilienthal, Iran, and the Meaning of Development in the US, 1956-63,” The International History Review 33: 3 (2011), pp. 431-51.

[16] A particularly thoughtful account is found in Parvin Paidar, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth Century Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); also in Azadeh Kian, “Gendered Khomeini,” in A Critical Introduction to Khomeini, ed. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 170-92.

[17] See Saadia Toor, “Imperialist Feminism Redux,” Dialectical Anthropology 36 (2012), p. 147-60; and Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 110-212.

[18] Bruce B. Lawrence, “Islam Resighted: A Review Essay of Shah Ahmed’s What is Islam? and Joseph Massad’s Islam in Liberalism,” SCTIW Review, 17 January 2017;

[19] Lawrence, “Islam Resighted,” p. 2.

[20] For an in-depth historical review of divorce laws in modern Iran, which is also mindful of the gap between conviction and policy in the Islamic Republic, see Ziba Mirhosseini, “The Politics of Divorce Laws in Iran: Ideology versus Practice,” in Interpreting Divorce Laws in Islam (Copenhagen: DJOF Publishing, 2012), pp. 65-83.

[21] Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, “Interview with Barbara Walters,” 1977,; and Katherine Fung, “7 Interviews That Helped Make Barbara Walters a Legend,” HuffPost, Online, 17 May 2014,

[22] Amir Asad Allah ‘Alam, Yaddashthay-e ‘Alam, 1355-1356, ed. Alinaqi Alikhani, 6 vols (Tehran: Kitabsara, 1993-2003); partially translated as Asadollah Alam, The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran’s Royal Court, 1968-77, transl. and ed. Alinaghi Alikhani (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008); and for one example, an affair with Grace Kelly, see Wendy Leigh, True Grace: The Life and Times of an American Princess (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), and

[23] Imam Khomeini, “Address to a Group of Women in Qum,” in Islam and Revolution I: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (1941-80), pp. 263-4.

[24] Mirhosseini, “The Politics of Divorce Laws in Iran,” pp. 68-9.

[25] Ibid., p. 72.

[26] Ibid., p. 79.

[27] The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, Qods-e Iran: yademan-e zendegi va khadamat-e hamsar-e Imam Khomeini (Tehran: Nashr ‘Uruj, 2009); for more on the Institute, see

[28] Setayesh was produced by Sa‘id Soltani, and eventually dropped by TV 3, allegedly for a drop in its quality, see “Sestayesh (miniseries),” Wikipedia Farsi,; clips of “Setayesh” are available at,

[29] Mashregh Cultural Group, “Chand pardeh az serial-e Setayesh: vaqti nezam ‘alayh-e khodash serial misazad,” Mashregh News, 12 October 2011,

[30] One such miniseries, “Tanhayi-e Leila,” aired on TV 3 in 2015, is analyzed in my “Qur‘anic Sanction and the Semiotics of Sovereignty in Contemporary Iran,” in Approaches to the Qur‘an in Contemporary Iran, ed. Alessandro Cancian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming ); the miniseries can be watched on the TV 3 website;

[31] The phrase was coined by Carol Hanisch in an essay penned in 1969, “The Personal is Political,” in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, ed. Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt (New York: Radical Feminism, 1970); also available at