As Iranians rise up, it's time we also challenged the stereotype of the misogynist Iranian man

The assumption that Iranian men are exceptionally sexist, especially compared to American men, is not my experience

Published December 10, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

A view after shopkeepers went on a three-day shutter down strike as part of Mahsa Amini protests in Tehran, Iran on December 6, 2022. (Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A view after shopkeepers went on a three-day shutter down strike as part of Mahsa Amini protests in Tehran, Iran on December 6, 2022. (Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As the American-born daughter of an Iranian father and English mother who left Iran during the revolution, I am entranced by the events unfolding in Iran right now. Although reports of the disbandment of the "morality police" were later challenged, this week's three-day general strike fills me with hope that my father's homeland, with its brilliant culture of art, music, food and literature, can abolish this regime and thrive again. But for all the breathless articles praising Iranian women for throwing off the shackles of oppression, few challenge what I consider a cornerstone of anti-Iranian propaganda: the depiction of Iranian men as misogynist.

My mother tells a story that when I was very little, she would sometimes give me a little ball of dough to play with while she was cooking. I did with it what kids will do: licked it, squished it in my dirty hands, and rolled it around on the floor, and when I tired of all that I would ask my mom to bake it. When my dad came home from work I would give him this biscuit. And although my mom warned him of how disgusting it had been, my dad would accept it gratefully and eat it. I believe he did this because he valued me and wanted me to know I was valued, that my love and generosity had been seen. He couldn't have been that hungry.

This image is not compatible with the Western stereotype of an Iranian man (and if we're honest, almost any non-Western man, particularly those racialized as Muslim). In the Western imagination, Persian men are dark and furrow-browed, controlling of women and physically aggressive. This couldn't be farther from who my father was. Like many dads, mine was sometimes moody and short-tempered. He was also tender, silly, playful, avuncular. My memories of him are suffused with a feeling of love and being loved.

When my dad proposed marriage to my mother they were in their early twenties, living together in Wales where my dad went to university. They had bonded, among other things, over their socialist political views and resistance to national religion. (It is not well known in the West that Marxists were instrumental to the Iranian revolution, only to be thrown under the bus when the Ayatollah took power.) My mother told him up front: "I'm not going to wake up and make you breakfast every morning." My dad laughed, "I can make my own breakfast." But this was the example she had — my grandmother made every meal, kept the house, cared for the children, laundered and ironed my grandfather's shirts, all while working a full-time job. And they were not Iranian; they were English.

In some ways, my parents fell into traditional gender roles. My dad went to work while my mom was home with me. He did the driving and directed most major financial decisions like buying a house or a car, although this had as much to do with their personalities as their gender. But when my mom tired of being home all the time and craved a life outside the house, he helped her buy a hair salon to manage. Although I was too young to remember how long my mom ran the shop, my memories of Saturdays with my dad while my mom went to work, and of him painstakingly combing my waist-length hair, are warm and vivid.

My father wasn't alone. For every Iranian man I've known who was domineering or aggressive, there has been another who was quiet or jovial, men who doted on their wives and spoiled their daughters. Likewise, the fathers of my American friends growing up also went to work and made the financial decisions while their wives kept the home. They screamed at their wives in a way I'd never seen (when I was there — who knows what it was like when I wasn't) or had affairs so blatant I was aware of them when I was eight years old. The American fathers who were friendly, thoughtful and helpful to their wives were staggeringly rare.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's International Homicide Statistics database, 0.6 of every 100,000 homicide victims in Iran were female; in America it's 2.6. With the vast majority of women's killings being gender-related, these numbers should make us question our assumptions. (In searching for this information I came up against my own internalized Western exceptionalism, doubting that the Iranian statistics would be accurate when I have no concrete reason to believe this. Which is to say, we all do it, which is why we all have a responsibility to fight it.)

Nothing I've ever witnessed makes me believe that the Iranian regime represents the majority of Iranians any more than Donald Trump represented the majority of Americans.

When I mentioned to my husband, a British theologian, my idea for this article, he shrugged, "Well sure, America's just having their theocratic revolution a few decades later than Iran." One only has to look at current debates about women's right to bodily autonomy to confirm this. The overturning of Roe v Wade is an obvious one, with many women now unable to access abortions or life-saving treatment for conditions like ectopic pregnancy. But this is only the latest — male supremacism being codified into law. For years I've also heard anecdotes from American women whose male doctors have denied them treatments like birth control, tubal ligation and hysterectomies, sometimes for excruciatingly painful conditions, because a hypothetical man may one day want to use her body as an incubator.

Of course, there's no question that the regime in Iran is also oppressive toward women. But nothing I've ever witnessed makes me believe that the Iranian regime represents the majority of Iranians any more than Donald Trump represented the majority of Americans.

The best example of men's support for women in Iran can be seen during times of national protest. Negar Mottahedeh's "Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran" documents the women's rights protests that took place in the days after the Iranian Revolution. At first, Millett seems irritated; she doesn't understand why men have joined their protests. But later at a press conference, she describes the men marching with the women and acting as a physical buffer between the women and police forces: "When we marched, men volunteers—friends, brothers, husbands, lovers—made a circle around us to protect us. These men understood that women's rights were democratic rights." Even if their actions were somewhat paternalistic, they're also a powerful message of solidarity and a remarkable personal sacrifice on behalf of their fellow citizens.

In today's protests, too, men are marching side-by-side with their female compatriots. In an October 5 list of people who have died in the protests, compiled by IranWire from multiple human rights and news agency reports, the vast majority were male. For every woman protesting, there is a father, brother, uncle or husband who is clearly not stopping her. And these women are fierce and intelligent, confident of their human rights and sure of their worth. Certainly not the oppressed, deferential creatures Western media has previously made them out to be. It seems unlikely that these women would display such ardent citizenly autonomy if they didn't enjoy similar autonomy in the home.

We're unlikely to question the state's persecution and surveillance of men racialized as Muslim if we don't see them as people in the first place.

I think of this in the group chat with my uncle, brother and cousin, in which my brother frets over the Iranian girls who are protesting. He worries about how to raise his own daughter in this world. "Because Iran is an extreme case of a common reality for women. What do I teach her? At what age? I don't know." My uncle reassures him that with enough love and attention, she'll figure it out for herself. I think of the kindness and respect I felt from my own father and hope that he is right.

I'm sure Iranian culture has its fair share of male supremacy. But it's important to recognize that sexism is a worldwide phenomenon, and the picture is more nuanced and layered than stereotypes will allow. The conventions themselves are alienating and dehumanizing to both the men they target and the women who are characterized as faceless sufferers. We should question what these stereotypes serve, and the degree to which they anesthetize us to the mistreatment of others. We're unlikely to question the state's persecution and surveillance of men racialized as Muslim if we don't see them as people in the first place.

In her book "Going to Iran," Millet reflected, "It is an odd feeling, a happy one, to be on a women's march with men…. Men who are endangering themselves, subject to merciless insult for being with us; men who have risked their safety—for they will be the first attacked when it comes…. No man in America has ever risked life or limb to affirm his belief in women's freedom, no man in the West, no man in my world before. And seeing them, one has to love them…."

It's time we stop lazily accepting the convention that Iranian men are chest-beating, overbearing chauvinists. Some probably are. While others are kind, generous, funny, shy, curious, playful and all the other things a person can be. Like American men, like anyone else. Now is the time to encourage those who stand with women; it is only with their support that real change will happen and Iranian girls and boys alike will be able to look forward to a life of hope and economic prosperity. And if it's misogyny you're looking for, wherever you are, look no further than your own backyard.

By Roya Khatiblou

Roya Khatiblou is an Iranian-American and British author living in Birmingham, UK, and the recent recipient of a grant from Arts Council England towards her debut novel in progress.

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Essay Iran Islamophobia Misogyny