Iranian Women’s Gendered Experiences: Structural discourse or individual agency?

Iranian Women’s Gendered Experiences: Structural discourse or individual agency?

Elham Amini

Much past western feminist research emphasises the different structural discourses for constructing women’s sexuality and gender, particularly in relation to cultural norms when discussing women from the Global South. In this article, I underline the importance of subjectivity and agency for Iranian Muslim menopausal women who live in highly constrained social milieux which structure their gendered and sexual practices.

Drawing on fieldwork, I discuss how these women discover their gender in childhood and which events and experiences have been most significant for them.  By analysing their gendered biographies, I seek to explore the extent to which embodied critical agency is possible where a socio-culturally specific hegemonic masculinity structures the power-relations of the gender order. Agency does emerge, but requires a careful analysis of “reflexive body techniques” to understand how it is enacted in practice.

To conduct 30 in-depth life history interviews, I attended religious classes in Tehran and Karaj for three months to recruit women who practice Islam and arrange their lives according to Islamic principles. The study is framed by Connell’s (1987, 1995) configuration of a “gender order”, a chief characteristic of which is “hegemonic masculinity”, and Crossley’s (2005) “reflexive body techniques” and life course approach which allows me to present the data according to three different stages of the women’s lives as they defined them in their narratives: “Childhood”, “Womanhood”, and “Menopause”.

Gender discovery, emerged as one of the main narrative themes of “Childhood”, explaining how women recognised themselves as ‘a girl’, ie as different from being ‘a boy’. Answers to this question brought the most emotional responses from the women, who often cried powerfully or became tearful as they remembered the impact of the gender discrimination they experience. Due to the existing gender order in Iranian society, most of the women answered by emphasising normative “gender roles” and their experiences of learning to conform to social expectations. Gender discovery has 3 subthemes that emerged in the women’s narratives: gender discovery through i) gender discrimination; ii) sexual awareness; iii) physical differences.

Gender discovery occurred through gender-based segregation and relationship inequalities. While some of the women justified their experiences by stating that they were “more taken care of”, and seemed to accept the normative gender roles, others expressed their disappointment with these gender expectations. For example, Reihaneh (pseudonym), 59 years old, understood her gender identity through her parents’ behaviour. She explained that the boys could go out by themselves but her father accompanied the girls whenever they went outside their home. This was, she said, because her father used to “take care of” and “pay attention to” his daughters more.

There were multiple examples where girls were not afforded the same social freedoms as boys.  Tahereh, 48 years old, distinguished her difference from her brother when she was seven and her parents did not let her cycle in the street as “it was not suitable for a girl”:

‘‘That summer was the worst summer holiday of my life. Whenever my brother got ready to go out to play and cycle, I cried. Then little by little crying changed to becoming furious’’.

The meanings that Tahereh perceived from a sociocultural creation (gender discrimination) interacted with her body and mind through a reflexive action (Crossley, 2005). She consciously changed one status of her feeling (sadness) to the other (anger). Tahereh added that when she was pregnant she “prayed to have a boy since being a girl means confronting lots of limitations”. Yet, when her daughter was born, she “did her best for her education and let her flourish”. She emphasised that although “new generations have much fewer limitations, her daughter wishes she were a boy”.

Tahereh identified her gender through sadness and then anger and transferred her feelings to her daughter. This affected how she raised her daughter, potentially challenging the social structure.  By ensuring her daughter had more education, Tahereh and her peers actively challenged their own experiences to try to improve gender equality for their children’s generation.

Thus, Tahereh’s body and mind are both objects of social practice and agents in social practice, so that new practices are constructed in which her daughter’s body and mind are involved, and change can be effected in the sociocultural structure itself. This addresses Tahereh’s body as a site through which the interrelation of her gender identity, agency (contesting existing power relations) and the sociocultural structure (gender order) takes place.

Only two of the participants identified their gender through sexual awareness. All the women in this research project believed that having sexual thoughts during childhood can abolish children’s “purity” and is more “risky” for the girls. As Zeinab explained:

It is awakening their sexual feelings, darkening their white nature and putting them at risk of premarital sexual activity, especially the girls”.

Women’s understanding of sexual desire (as “pollution” which can destroy the “purity” of a girl’s childhood) has been shaped by the meanings derived from the Iranian sociocultural structure (Douglas, 1966). Zeinab highlighted the “risk” of premarital sexual activity as it transgresses the boundaries of the cultural structure, which defines children’s sexual desire as pollution as part of establishing the dominant gender order.

In this case, women’s agency can be illustrated in two ways. Firstly, women as active learners pick up gendered meanings from the cultural symbolism of the gender order; secondly, although they believed that having sexual thoughts in a girl’s childhood is “risky”, they had ambivalent feelings towards it. For instance, Eftekhar, 54 years old, said that she understood her gender through her sexual feelings and thoughts about her brothers’ friends, when she was 6 or 7 years old:

But, it was a very strange and dual feeling. It was a kind of joy which was mixed with shame, blame, and sin. Yes, mostly sin.  I even thought I would go to hell because of having this feeling, until recently.”

Although her first experience of sexual awakening is associated with shame, blame and feelings of sin which mean she cannot value sexual pleasure, complexity is signalled through her reference to “joy”. By applying religious words (sin and hell), she underlines the significant role of cultural structure (religion) in the shaping of her emotions and sexuality. Eftekhar’s body and mind reflexively and purposively replied to the meaning that she understood from cultural symbolism. She consciously picked up the meaning of ‘shame’ attached to sexuality based on the hierarchical gender order, but simultaneously, her agency reveals itself through expressing her ‘joy’. This is reflexive embodiment: the process of perceiving meaning and acting on it. On the other hand, it might be that she felt joy but as she did not want to be stigmatised, she consciously decided to disclose her ambivalence. In this way, her body acted and replied purposively, and meaningfully, to suppress her sexual desire so as not to be stigmatized. This can indicate her reflexive body technique.

Approximately one-fifth of the participants refer to their physical differences as a way of discovering their gender, but most of them mentioned their non-sexual organs (e.g. having long hair). For example, while narrating her gender discovery story, Anis expressed her surprise that she did not notice differences between her sexual organ and her brother’s, although they “played together in a small pool”. It might be that Anis had recognised the differences of sexual organs, but she had suppressed her knowledge because it was taboo in Iran.

During the interviews, women refused to name their sexual organs or, if they did,  they immediately apologised. Similarly, throughout my six-year experience as a midwife in Iran, I found that Iranian women think that naming their sexual organs is ‘rude’. Interviews confirmed my experience that the ‘polite’ name for breast (Pestan) is ‘chest’ (Sineh) or it is very common for a woman to talk about problems related to the genitalia, by using pronouns, such as “here”, “down there” or “inside.

Furthermore, when medical personnel talk about sexual organs with their colleagues, they prefer to use English words instead of Farsi. It seems that using another language can disguise or diminish their erotic connotations. So, although the physical reality of the body is exposed in activity, very few women mentioned differences in sexual organs as part of their gender discovery, because recognition and naming of them was against the values which they upheld. The participants understood their sexual organs as ‘shameful’ parts of their bodies through sociocultural structures, so they purposely ignored their sexual organs as a site or sign of their gender discovery to avoid being stigmatised. Language can be seen here as a symbolic site that can reveal the social gender order in multiple ways.

To summarise, the Iranian Muslim menopausal women who participated in this research identified their gender both in their bodily practices and through negotiating and mediating the power relations in the gendered social structure. The women’s agency is revealed in the ways they perceived meanings and acted on them, ie their reflexive embodiment, contesting power and complicating their cultural consent.


Connell, R. (1987). Gender and power. Polity Press.
Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. Polity Press.
Crossley, Nick (2005) ‘Mapping Reflexive Body Techniques: On Body Modification and Maintenance’, Body & Society, 11 (1), pp. 1-35.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.

Elham Amini is a PhD candidate in Sociology of health and gender at Durham University. She has BSc degree in Midwifery from Tehran Medical University, Tehran, Iran, and two Master degrees one in Womens Studies from Alzahra University, Tehran, Iran and the other Sociology and Social Research Methods from Durham University. Her work focuses on the gendered and sexual experiences of Iranian Muslim menopausal women through a life history biographical narrative approach and by highlighting menopause, ageing, notions of the body, and medicalisation in relation to sexuality and gender, articulates women’s understanding of and from their menopausal bodies. Thanks to Dr Mark McCormack for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.