NSPR: Religion and Politics of the Body

Reykjavík, 26-28 June 2009

“It’s Not Sex; It’s Rape” – Iceland,

Iran, and the Mans Right to Sex

I assume many of you might become a bit surprised seeing the words rape, sex, Iran and Iceland – all in the same title. What do Iran and Iceland generally have in common? And how can such comparisons work, when it comes to such transculturally sensitive subjects as sex and rape?

Before I get into this minefield, let me start with a broad civilizational stroke and a basic lesson in comparative history. Having been settled in the ninth century, Iceland is a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, with a population of only 300 thousand. As a Nordic country, it has – and identifies with – a strong welfare system and a long tradition of practicing democracy. Being part of the Middle-East, Iran, on the other hand, is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with a history dating back thousands of years. With a population of more than 60 million, Iranians are certainly not used to a functioning democracy, as recent political events have illustrated. Their democratic aspirations have been suppressed in the past decades, a practice that represents a broader historical tradition of political repression.

If I had written this lecture a year ago, I would have added, with more confidence, that Iceland had the additional advantage over Iran to be one of the world’s richest countries. Having experienced a financial collapse, Icelanders already feel that they live in a post-affluent age. Nonetheless, in 2008, Iceland’s GDP was still three times that of Iran.

Despite stark differences, there are a few historical similarities between the two countries. Around the year 1000, Iranians and Icelanders wrote poems that people of two nationalities still rehearse. The difference could be that the most famous Iranian poets wrote passionate poems about pleasures in life, such as wine, food, sun, and love, while Icelanders mostly wrote long stories, filled with genealogies and descriptions of who killed whom and why.

Another historical similarity can be detected at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. At this time, Icelandic women became active politically, demanding equal civil rights to men. The very same thing happened in Iran.  However, the discourses and political trajectories were quite different in the two countries. The public debate in Iran was marked by the struggle and interplay between the traditional and regional, on the one hand, and foreign influence and modern thinking, on the other. The focus on the European model led to increasing worries about the status of Iranian culture and religion and about perceived threats posed to Islam. As a result, religion became identified with tradition and juxtaposed against modernist and external influences.[1] Thus, liberalized gender relations and women’s rights were seen as “foreign ideas,” constituting one of the distinctive factors between Iran and Europe. Traditional gender roles, thus, became a central theme in public debates over the social – a practice that has persisted to this day.[2]

In Iceland, the main focus was on the social and economic effects of improved women’s rights. Some saw the development in a positive light, while others concluded it would lead to the disintegration of society. Like in Iran, the debate over women’s rights in Iceland was marked by the idea of nature, rather than nurture, as the underlying factor in the socio-economic structure. Traditional gender roles were meant to be based on the different nature of men and women. Women’s roles were, in short, to be confined to the home – as mothers and housekeepers.[3]

Yet, Icelandic women made more progress than Iranian women in their struggle for equality. Icelandic women gained the right to vote in 1920, while Iranian women had to wait until 1963. In Iceland women’s grassroots movements were active throughout the 20th century, whereas in Iran, the Shah and his son and successor took control over the women’s movement and misused it in the name of state interests.[4] The story has repeated itself under the current clerical regime, and there is no such thing as a free women’s movement in Iran today.

Statistically Icelandic women are also in a much better situation than Iranian women. Iceland is for an example ranked fourth on the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, while Iran occupies the 118th place on the list.[5] Yet, such differences based on social indicators are deceptive. Without minimizing the differences between Iceland and Iran, the gender/sexual societal domains share common features that need to be taken seriously – which brings me to the very title of this talk.

In 2007, I interviewed thirteen Iranian women as part of my Master thesis in International Relations at the University of Iceland, which was later transformed into a book. It is, of course, nothing new that the reality facing Iranian women is quite different depending on their background. Before the revolution in 1979, the secular middle and high classes were in power and, accordingly, women from these social structures enjoyed political privileges. Women from religious and tradition-bound families were, on the other hand, inactive members of society.

The revolution reverted this class relationship through its elevation of religion at the expense of secularism. Thus, in contemporary Iranian society, religion and traditions are a major obstacle for Iranian women, reflecting the centrality – bordering on obsession – with gender and gender control. Accordingly, women suffer from widespread economic, political, and cultural discrimination. It is not only that both sexes have been assigned fixed essentialized roles in society’s foundational unit: the family. Marriage as an institution is also revered and reified to such an extent that women have little chance of breaking out of it.[6]

This makes women very vulnerable to violence – whether physical, mental or sexual – not least from their spouses. According to a research study on 650 Iranian women, 59% had been sexually assaulted and 49% been subjected to such violence in the past six months. Almost one-half of the victims experienced enforced sex repeatedly in the past six months. 17% complained that their husbands forced them to perform certain sexual acts against their own will.[7]

Rape inside a marriage is not punishable in Iran, since women are meant to fulfill their husband’s sexual wishes. The Iranian justice system is based on the Islamic Sharia law, which is heavily gendered, not least when it comes to personal relationships. A marriage is not a sacrament or a reaction to “love at first sight.” It is a civil contract, whose parties are the bridegroom and the bride’s guardian, who is normally her closest male relative. Sometimes, the bride herself has no access to the negotiations, but this varies from one family to another.[8]

Husbands are responsible for supporting their families financially and have instead the right to sex whenever they feel like it. The products of the marriage – the children – belong to the man.[9] In short, marriage is a contract made by two parties but only one of them, the man, has a unilateral right to invalidate it. A woman, who wants a divorce, is totally dependent on her husbands’ approval.

If we move to more personal stories, three out of thirteen women I interviewed reported that they had been subjected to domestic violence. None of them used the phrase sexual violence, but two spoke about “enforced sex.” It has to be taken into account that the interviews were not long enough to ensure complete trust.  Sometimes, there was a lack of privacy – with other people present – even though it had been emphasized that complete privacy was needed. Only one of the women spoke English; so I was dependent on translators for the other interviews. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that the women spoke about everything they had experienced. The two women who openly expressed themselves about sex-related issues had very different backgrounds. The one, which I will refer to here as Fahimeh, is a high class, secular woman from Teheran. The other lives in a small village in the Northern part of Iran and has a religious background. I call her The Fortune teller, referring to her job title.

Fahimeh and the Fortune teller have experienced violent husbands and both of them have sought divorce. Fahimeh succeeded, but the Fortune teller did not.  Fahimeh, who lives in a city, had married a man against her parents will. He was a drug addict and abusive, and, on top of that, he did not fulfill his duties regarding financial income. Fahimeh ended up supporting him financially and decided that she wanted to divorce him.

During the Shah’s period in Iran, from 1925 to 1979, the justice system was partly secularized. However, so-called personal matters, such as marriage, divorce and custody conflicts, were still managed by religious courts. As a result of women’s struggle for human rights, a special Family Law was approved in 1967, which improved women’s possibilities to get a fair treatment in the legal system.

Fahimeh was lucky enough to get divorce before the Revolution in 1979 – and, therefore, before the abolition of the Family Law. However, Fahimeh had do give up her dowry and pay her former husband a certain amount of money to get divorce and the custody over their daughter, which the man normally has the right to. Due to pressure from her father, Fahimeh got married again. She claims it was only for tradition’s sake, not out of love, and she is very dissatisfied with living a loveless life.

The Fortune teller was married at the age of 14. Her husband also turned out to be a drug addict and violent. He did not support the family, but used his money on drugs and gambling. The Fortune teller complained to the courts about her husband’s extensive violent behavior, but she was never listened to. Repeatedly she tried to seek divorce, with no success. She moved to another house, found ways to support herself financially, and claimed that she was willing to give up the custody over her two sons. Her husband never approved of such an arrangement. At the end, the Fortune teller gave up and moved, again, back home to her husband and their sons, whom she had not seen for six months. However, her independence, especially her economic independence, brought an end to her husband’s abusive behavior.

It is interesting to compare Fahimeh’s and the Fortune teller’s descriptions of sex.  Fahimeh put it this way:

If you marry for tradition, sex doesn’t exist. Men abuse women and believe it is part of their needs and that women are obliged to fulfill them. In 99% of cases, sex is only about the man’s needs and the woman does not enjoy it. She thinks it’s part of her duty to satisfy the man, but doesn’t get anything out of it herself. It’s not sex; it’s rape.

The Fortune teller described sex in the following words:

Every time we have sex I feel like I am being abused or raped. I talk to many women in my job and I know it’s the same way in most of relationships. Women put up with it.

As I mentioned earlier in this talk, these two women have extremely different backgrounds. Even though Fahimeh does not say so directly, she is most likely referring to her own situation. The line between sex and violence is blurred.  Women cannot report sexual violence committed by their husbands, since it does not exist legally.

The duplicity is obvious: If the abuser is not married to the woman he rapes, the violence is seen from a totally different perspective. Then it becomes a crime and is considered very serious. In other words, the legal system does not protect women’s right to control their own bodies and the seriousness of rape depends on the social role of the abuser. At the same time, it does not come as a surprise that in Iran, as elsewhere in the world, very few rape cases are reported and even fewer lead to conviction.

When listening to dramatic stories from Iran many Icelanders, and probably Westerners in general, feel tempted to see Iranian women’s situations as an isolated reality. The suppression of Iranian women is linked to the political situation in the country and not least – the religion of Islam. In fact, this has been the norm since the 18th and the 19th centuries, when Europeans traveled to Iran. Most of them were men from state or religion institutions, looking for adventure or romance. They returned with a familiar image of Iran as a country of women’s suppression, which again was linked to Islam. However, these men did not have any interest in women’s rights, in general, and were definitely not seen taking part in street protests against women’s suppression in their own countries. The situation of Iranian women was dramatized to serve political interests of other states, for example, to justify imperialism.[10]

Historically, it becomes clear that the difference between Iranian and Icelandic women’s status is not a fundamental one but more of a difference in degree.

Þorbjörg S. Gunnlaugsdóttir, a lawyer, has studied the concept of rape in Icelandic law. She points out that until 1869 rape was not considered violence against the victim but rather against her family. The idea behind it was to protect women’s virginity until they got married because rape limited their marriage chances. The law was changed in 1869 and rape was interpreted as a crime against the woman. However, punishment should be less severe if the woman had a “bad reputation.” Again, the woman’s control of her body was not the object of the law, but rather male hegemony.  Rape was seen as a violation of either a father’s or a husband’s “property right.”[11]

Furthermore, the punishment for rape was reduced in Icelandic law both in 1940 and 1992. In the more recent case, a difference was made between rape and abuse. Rape had to be performed with violence or enforcement and could be punished with up to 16 years of imprisonment. If the person could not, for any reason, express her own will it was called abuse, with a maximum punishment of a six-year prison term. Thus, if a woman was too drunk to respond to the violence, the crime was not considered as grave as if the woman was sober. In other words, the identification of the crime was based on the abuser’s wrongdoing rather than on the woman’s behaviour.[12] Guðrún Margrét Guðmundsdóttir, an anthropologist, has shown that this duplicity can be traced to the old law which referred to women who had a “bad reputation.”[13]

The legal ratification of this duplicity was strongly challenged by lawyers, academics and women’s grassroots movements. Yet, the law, and this has to be emphasized, was not changed until 2007. In addition, until that year, the punishment for sexual violence committed by a woman’s husband or a partner could be disallowed if the couple kept on living together, or if the abuser and the victim continued their relationship.

The Icelandic justice system was, therefore, based on the same ideas as the Islamic Sharia law. A husband’s violence against his wife was not considered as serious as if the abuser was a stranger.

It is, of course, difficult to compare violence against women in Iceland and Iran statistically, since no comparative studies have been made on the topic. But one thing is clear: violence against women is a severe problem both in Iceland and Iran.

As noted, Iranian women find it very difficult to get out of marriages with abusive men, both legally and sociologically. Getting a divorce is almost impossible and divorced women are side-stepped in society.  In this regard, the situation of Icelandic women is much better. Men and women are equal by law; women can seek divorce, and they are usually in a better situation than men when it comes to custody conflicts.

However, the Icelandic court system is deeply flawed when it comes to the most common violence against women: sexual and domestic violence. Only around 14% of victims who sought help in Stígamót – the Icelandic Counselling and Information Center for Survivors of Sexual Violence – in 2008 reported the crime to the police. In 2007, 71 cases of sexual violence were reported to the police. 69% of the cases were dismissed and only 19 led to a charge against the abuser. This means that most rapists and sexual abusers never have to answer for their ill-treatment of other people, and if they do, it is highly unlikely that they will be convicted.

Taking into account these statistics from Iceland – were men and women are equal by law – it is not hard to imagine that in Iran much violence against women goes unreported. In Iran, women do not enjoy the protection of the legal system. It is also very questionable weather Icelandic women do so in general. I once spoke to an Icelandic attorney who specializes in victims of sexual violence. According to her, in legal cases, it is better for the victim to get a testimony from a male physician than a female one in cases of sexual violence against women. Even though this is not scientifically proven, it gives an important clue about the persistent shortcomings in the struggle for women’s rights in Iceland.  And sadly enough, Iranian women have a further way to go.


Afkhami, Mahnaz. 2004. Women’s Organization of Iran: Evolutionary Politics and Revolutionary Change. In Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic, ed. Lois Beck og Guity Nashat, 107-135. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Ettehadieh, Mansoureh. 2004. The Origins and the Development of the Women’s Movement in Iran, 1906-1941. In Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic, ed. Lois Beck og Guity Nashat, 85-06. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Groot, Joanna de. 1998. Coexisting and Conflicting Identities: Women and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Iran. In Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race, ed. Ruth Roach Pierson og Nupur Chaudhuri, 139-165. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Guðmundsdóttir, Guðrun M. 2004. Af hverju nauðga karlar? Kistan, http://kistan.is/Default.asp?Sid_Id=28001&tre_rod=004|&tId=2&FRE_ID=39780&Meira=1. (Accessed June 1, 2009)

Gunnlaugsdóttir, Þorbjörg Sigríður. 2005. Nauðgun frá sjónarhorni kvennaréttar. Cand. jur. thesis. Reykjavik: University of Iceland.

Halla Gunnarsdóttir. 2008a. Kynfast kerfi: Rými kvenna í írönsku samfélagi. MA thesis. Reykjavik: University of Iceland.

Halla Gunnarsdóttir. 2008b. Slæðusviptingar: Raddir íranskra kvenna. Reykjavík: Salka.

Keddie, Nikki R. 2007. Women in the Middle East: Past and Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mahdi, Ali Akbar. 2004. The Iranian Women’s Movement: A Century Long Struggle. The Muslim World 94:427-448.

Nashat, Guity. 2004. Introduction. In Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic, ed. Lois Beck og Guity Nashat, 1-36. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2007. 2007. http://www.weforum.org/pdf/gendergap/report2007.pdf. Switzerland: World Economic Forum. (Accessed June 1. 2009).

Zand, Ramin. 2007. Frequency and Correlates of Spouse Abuse by Type: Physical, Sexual and Psychological Battering Among a Sample of Iranian Women. Springer Science+Business Media.

Þorgrímsdóttir, Sigríður K. 2002. “Hinn þröngi hringur”. Umræðan um hlutverk og eðli kynjanna um aldamótin 1900. In 2. íslenska söguþingið. Ráðstefnurit I, ed. Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, 54-63. Reykjavík: Sagnfræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands, Sagnfræðingafélag Íslands, Sögufélag.

[1] Groot 1998, 141

[2] Groot 1998, 141-3

[3] Þorgrímsdóttir 2002

[4] Ettehadieh 2004, 101; Afkhami 2004, 109; and Mahdi 2004, 429-432.

[5] The Global Gender Gap Report 2007

[6] Halla Gunnarsdóttir 2008a

[7] Zand 2007

[8] Halla Gunnarsdóttir 2008b,  77-78, 108-109 and Keddie 2007,36-37.

[9] Halla Gunnarsdóttir 2008b, 108-109 and Keddie 2007,36-37

[10] Nashat 2004a, 4-9

[11] Gunnlaugsdóttir 2005, 13, 31-38 and Guðmundsdóttir 2004

[12] Ibid

[13] Guðmundsdóttir 2004