Religious Evolution

08.22.1411:25 AM ET

Can Women in Iran be Equal?

Modern theologians are offering new interpretations of the Koran, hoping to win equal rights for Iranian women.

Can religion evolve? To some, this question is blasphemous. But its answer is crucial to addressing another question: Can women in Iran be equal?  

Two recent statements by Iranian leaders show the constant tension defining life in Iran. Elected in 2013, President Hassan Rouhani made campaign pledges of increased social freedoms. Not long ago he said, “Women should enjoy equal opportunities, security, and social rights.” Yet, after one year in office, there has been zero movement for the women of Iran, because pulling in the opposite direction is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has claimed that gender equality is “one of the biggest mistakes of Western thought.”  

Iran’s patriarchal society embraces a traditional interpretation of the Koran, which can be read as having a male-centric God who endorses the subjugation of women. Yet some feminist activists are seeking new interpretations of the holy texts, embracing a more progressive Allah and a living Koran – and they’re finding the means for liberation. Hoping to reinvent the system from within, they are looking at the passages used to oppress women in a new light. They believe that the only way Islamic women will achieve true reform is through an ideological leap of faith, an evolution of religious scripture. These acts of reinterpretation are nothing short of courageous.  

One person leading the way happens to be a man, Abdolkarim Soroush, a force behind Iran’s pro-democracy movement. Referred to as the modern-day Martin Luther of Islam, Souroush’s reinterpretation of Islamic theology makes room for feminist ideals in religious tenets. According to Soroush, “God manifests himself in each historical period according to the understanding of the people of the era.” Soroush believes the Koran is a human phenomenon, which opens the text for interpretation.

Once the Koran is liberated from the chains of dogma, women’s freedom can follow. This evolved attitude allows God to be integral to the liberation of women rather than partner to their oppression.  

This isn’t the first time such a radical redefinition of the Koran has been proposed; more than a century ago, Bibi Khanum Astarbabdi (1858–1921), one of the earliest pioneers of the women's movement in Iran, questioned the lesser status of Iran’s women, asking, “Is this God’s compassionate decree?”  

But what will it take to make today’s religious leaders embrace spiritual evolution and gender equality? Is it just a matter of time, of the world evolving toward equality to the point where they’ll just have to relent? This I know: Against all expectations, there’s been an unprecedented surge in literacy and a rapidly flourishing feminist movement during the current patriarchal regime, fueled by women of all social and religious backgrounds, with a common cause, and they will not rest until they’re granted the divine compassion they deserve.   

Nina Ansary, Ph.D., is a historian and expert in the women’s movement in Iran and one of the top influencers on Iran on Twitter. She is the author of the upcoming book The Jewels of Allah (Revela Press/July 2015), which shatters stereotypical assumptions about women in Iran and highlights the accomplishments and the powerful female voices in Iran’s past and present. For more informationvisit: Join Dr. Ansary @drninaansary or on