Gender and Religion: Gender and Zoroastrianism

views updated


The extant documents produced by members of the faith and the nontextual materials influenced by Zoroastrian beliefs substantially represent religious manifestations of male discourses. Those writings and items helped contour feminine parameters within a society that was largely patriarchal. Yet, if the present is any guide to the past, religious issues must have been viewed and interpreted differently by members of each gender. Likewise, ritual acts must also have been practiced differentially by members of each gender because some female-specific rites still persist despite lack of sanction by the magi or male clergy who oversee most canonical ceremonies.

History of the Study

When gender issues were initially addressed in scholarly studies of Zoroastrianism, a picture quite different to societal realities was generated. Zoroastrianism was depicted as a faith embodying many Enlightenment and Protestant values, whose male and female followers had long been equal. The female gender was routinely held in a most dignified position, and any negative statements or imagery were deviations from orthodox tradition. So when women were discussed, directly or inter alia, the tone reflected laudation for gender equality. That conclusion became well entrenched in scholarship and continues in more recent studies. When it has come under question, there have been staunch defenses tinged with apologia. There are more traditional discussions of gender-related questions, as well. Some such works are broadly based. Others focus on narrower themes such as the Achaemenid period, the Sassanid dynasty, and modern times or on such issues as religious archetypes, rituals, iconography, incest, law, clothing, and art.

On the other hand, certain recent expansive examinationson trends in Zoroastrianism, contemporary Parsis communities in India, and doctrines of purity and rites of purificationare informed by gender theory and methodology. Furthermore, studies on misogyny within scripture and theology, differential ritual requirements and actions, access and goals of education, and present-day demographic patterns are gradually reshaping the parameters for research on Zoroastrianism. So too are studies on classical stereotypes influencing views of ancient Iranian society.

Influence of Doctrine

Gender-based aspects in Zoroastrian doctrine are multifaceted, complex, and at times contradictory. Study of the religion's ancient history through its earliest texts is complicated by the Avestan language's root nouns being grammatically feminine. But the religion's earliest practitioners began anthropomorphizing abstract concepts and attributing biological or natural genders to those concepts. As a result, the divine and demonic spirits of Zoroastrianism display gender-specific characteristics that shaped how devotees viewed their societies and the roles of men and women.

The basic doctrinal dichotomy within Zoroastrianism is between asha (arta, ardā ) or "order" equated to "righteousness," opposing druj or drug (druz ) "confusion," equated to "evil" (Gāthās 30.36, 45.2). Asha is grammatically neuter, whereas druj is feminine. Two primordial eternal entities are believed to have chosen between order and confusion: Spenta Mainyu (Spēnāg Mēnōg) or the holy spirit, equated with Ahura Mazdā (Ōhrmazd), "the wise lord," or creatornow regarded as Godfor making the religiously appropriate choice, and Angra Mainyu (Ahreman, Ahriman, Ganāg Mēnōg), "the angry spirit," or destroyernow regarded as the devilfor not deciding rightly. The grammatical gender of Ahura Mazdā/Spenta Mainyu, and Angra Mainyu/Ganāg Mēnōg were transformed into biological gender as male during personification of the concepts that each representedand depicted as such on rock reliefs commissioned by Sassanid monarchs.

Druj also became a designation for demonic creatures in generalthat is, those spirits who had chosen to do harmand for specific manifestations of evil. In its broadest sense, that word was utilized both in masculine and feminine grammatical gender; yet many of the druj were regarded as female. One specific materialization was supposed to be Drukhsh Nasush (Druz ī Nasush), or the ghoul of corpses and carrion. Zoroastrians in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and premodern times clearly viewed her as a demoness who preyed upon humans, polluted their bodies after death, and spread that pollution to the living. Grammatically feminine, Drukhsh Nasush would still be denounced in the late seventeenth century as "the most impudent, constantly polluting, and deceptive of all the demonic spirits" (New Persian Farziyāt nāme, Book of Obligatory Duties, p. 10). By the eighteenth century, the hold that druj had on Zoroastrian diabology had begun to decline in the wake of science. Yet even today, the notion of druj persists as a symbol of evil among Zoroastrian generally, while Drukhsh Nasush is still regarded as a potential source of impurity that vitiates rituals.

Another fundamental aspect of doctrine where gender dichotomies emerged was the heptad known as the amesha spentas, or holy immortal spirits linked to Ahura Mazdā. Among them, Haurvatāt (Hordād, Khordād), "integrity, wholeness," and Ameretāt (Amurdād, Awerdād), "immortality, rejuvenation," were the female spirits thought to counter thirst and hunger plus heal and restore all good creatures to order, through their personification of liquids and vegetation respectively (Tishtar Yasht 8.47, Zamyād Yasht 19.96). By medieval times their gender affiliation began shifting toward neuter entities whose function was society's "protection through wholeness and immortality" (Dēnkard, "Acts of the Religion," ninth century, pp. 415, 416). Spenta Ārmaiti (Spandarmad, Aspandarmad), who personified "holy devotion," serves as the spiritual mother of life and an ensurer of fertility. Veneration of all threeHaurvatāt, Ameretāt, and Spenta Ārmaitistill remains central to both male and female Zoroastrians.

Opposing the yazatas, spirits worthy of worship in Zoroastrian belief, stand daēvas (dēws ) or demonic spirits allied with Angra Mainyu. Prominent among those evil entities is thought to be Āzi (Āz), "concupiscence, lust." Although bearing a grammatically masculine epithet, "demon-spawned," in the Avesta, by medieval times Āzi had come to be regarded as the mistress of demonic hordes that ravage humanity. By then, she was firmly associated in Zoroastrian cosmogony with the downfall and demise of the primeval androgyne named Gayō Maretan (Gayōmard). She was denounced by medieval Zoroastrian writers as the "most malcontent and rapacious" and "most oppressive of demonic spirits" whose "covetous eye is limitless." Only with the advent of modern science has the Āzi's hold on Zoroastrian piety declined to simply a word for greed, paralleling use of the term āz in New Persian. Perceived as even more dangerous an embodiment of lust was a daēva known as Jahikā (Jēh). Mentioned only briefly in the Avesta, during the Sassanid period (third to seventh centuries) she was transformed by the magi into the mistress and assistant of Angra Mainyu. It was the Jēh who supposedly reinvigorated Angra Mainyu after the initial battle with Ahura Mazdā, then introduced lust to humanity. Therefore, this demoness came to be viewed as the primordial jēh, "whore."

Impact of Mythology

The dualism between order and confusion that shaped both doctrines and gender perceptions left its imprint on cosmogony, apocalyptic, and eschatology as well. The first human couple, Mashya, or man, and Mashyāna, or woman, who were born from Gayō Maretan's semen, are believed to have succumbed to lying and worshiping daēvas, resulting in their damnation. Mashyāna, in particular, was blamed for the act of demon worship. This tale, influenced in part by the biblical story of Adam and Eve, resulted in words of admonishment directed at all womenpast, present, and futureattributed to Ahura Mazdā: "If I had found another vessel from which to produce man, I would never have created you." That rebuke also urged women to be wary of Jahikā because "sexual intercourse is for you [women] like the taste of the sweetest food." Jahikā was said to have mated with Angra Mainyu to "defile women so that they in turn could corrupt men and cause abandonment of appropriate duties."

Such ideas justified a medieval misogyny. Therefore, although men were enjoined that the ideal women were physically persons whose "head, buttocks, and neck are shapely, feet are small, waist is slender, breasts are like quinces, eyes are like almonds, and hair is black, shiny, and long," they were also urged to ensure that wives were "chaste, of solid faith, and modest" (Pahlavi Texts 117).

Negative attitudes toward women based on glorification of female physicality and denunciation of female sexuality shaped Zoroastrian ideas on the afterlife. According to one late Young Avestan text, the soul of a righteous Zoroastrian will be greeted by his religious daēnā (dēn ), "conscience," in the form of "a beautiful girl, glorious, well-shaped, statuesque, with prominent breasts" who would lead him to paradise or heaven (Hadōkht Nask 2.9), a theme echoed in Middle Persian exegesis. The soul of an unrighteous Zoroastrian would encounter his daēnā "in the form of the naked Jahikā" who was described as a noxious creature. Beauty and sensuality became rewards, together with palaces, gardens, and fountains, for those men who upheld asha while alive. No premodern scriptural or exegetical passages refer directly to women encountering their daēnās after death. Only in modern Zoroastrian thought, with the breakdown of gender-particular ideas about the afterlife to more abstract notions, has it become acceptable to assume that women too encounter their consciences as manifestations of good or bad deeds.

Ancient Zoroastrian writings about the afterlife also included the idea of judgment after death preceding consignment to heaven, limbo, or hell. During medieval and premodern times, Middle Persian commentaries and miniature paintings on the inhabitants of heaven and hell presented a disproportionate number of women condemned to suffer at the hands of demons in hell until the final resurrection. Those images reinforced the notion that women were more prone to evil behaviors, including sexual profligacy, adultery, impurity, idolatry, sorcery, and strife. The popularity of such ideas began to attenuate only in the twentieth century, as part of a larger decline in diabology and religious-based misogyny among economically, educationally, and socially upward-mobile Parsis and Irani (or Iranian) Zoroastrians.

Consequential Regulations and Rituals

Owing to the impurity associated with corpses through the demoness Nasush, and because Zoroastrians regard earth, fire, water, and earth as holy creations by Ahura Mazdā, bodies would not be buried at land or sea nor cremated. So, the magi developed a disposal system in which human corpses would be given final rites, including purification, then exposedinitially in remote areas, subsequently in funerary towers open to the skyuntil the flesh had been desiccated or consumed by wild animals (as first noted by Herodotos, the fifth-century bce Greek historian). These practices continued among many Zoroastrian communities until the eighteenth century but have declinedexcept in large Indian cities like Mumbai and in the Pakistani city of Karāchiin favor of inhumation because of an attenuation in diabology and an inability to practice exposure of corpses in Iran and Western countries.

The origin of a female biological process, menstruation, came to be explained by medieval diabology rather than physiology. Menstruation was said to have begun when Jahikā revived Angra Mainyu in hell after the devil had been initially defeated by Ahura Mazdā. Upon being comforted by Jahikā, the devil "arose from his stupor, kissed her face, and the pollution called menstruation appeared on her" (Bundahishn 4.5). Using lust as a tool, Jahikā supposedly transferred menstruation to Mashyāna and all subsequent generations of women. Consequently, menses became in religious terms a periodic sign of women's affliction by evil. Likewise, because blood and afterbirth tissue were also feared as falling under Drukhsh Nasush's control and becoming pollutants, procreationwhich was otherwise regarded as a religiously meritorious function for bringing new devotees to lifetook on negative aspects. To prevent women from ritually polluting men and precincts during menstruation and after childbirth, they were isolated, then underwent purificatory ablutions. These customs have largely fallen into disuse in modern times.

The most dramatic consequence of associating female physiology with demonology was the exclusion of women from all ranks of the magi or hereditary male clerical class. The barrier against ordination into the priesthood still remains firm worldwide. Texts have even suggested that married women fulfill obligatory prayers through daily service to their families. As a result, women's religiosity has been channeled into female-specific rites such as the ever-popular visiting of pirs, or shrines, and making of sofres, or votive offerings in Iran. Among the Parsis of modern India, women religious leaders have emerged within the Ilm-e Khshnum mystical movement and, further from the mainstream, in a Nag Rāni, or cobra queen, cult.

Changing Gender Relations within Society

In ancient times, authority within the home lay with the elder male of each household. It was prayed that a wife would give birth to illustrious sons, a practice continued by traditionalist Parsis and Irani women today through recitation of the Hōm Yasht, "Devotional Poem to Haoma." By the age of fifteen, all boys and girls would be initiated into the religion and regarded as adults for religious and legal purposesstill standard among all Zoroastrian communities worldwide. At that age, girls were also regarded as marriageable. Marriage involved obtaining the consent of a woman's parents. During the Achaemenid period (seventh to fourth centuries bce), the taumā, or family, continued as the central focus of domestic life. Women's participation in Zoroastrian religious rites before fire altars is attested by very occasional images on seals. Yet women were not always required to follow the faith of their husbands. So non-Zoroastrian women married to Zoroastrian noblemen seem to have continued their own devotions. Private intergender relations in Parthian (third century bce to third century ce) and Sassanid (third to seventh centuries) times seem to have conformed largely to previously established tenets. Women were expected to have remained virginal until marriage. Induced abortions were forbidden because children were regarded as new devotees. Sexual intercourse with a pregnant woman was forbidden in case harm occurred to the developing fetus.

In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, Zoroastrian women were generally not required to veil themselves when venturing outside their residences. Nor did the art of the Sassanid period depict specific women with overt sensualitythey were usually depicted modestly wearing flowing robes. However, generic representations of women on metalwork and stonework in particular were highly sensual, with figures often partially clad or nude. Under the laws of Sassanid Iran, based on medieval Zoroastrian beliefs, each woman's consent had to be obtained at least technically prior to a marriage contract being entered into on her behalf by a male guardian. A wife's legal standing within her husband's household depended, among other factors, on her own social class prior to marriage, the stipulations of the marriage contract, and whether she gave birth to sons for her husband. Ranks among wives included those of pādixshāy, or "lawful, main wife"; chagar, or "dependent, levirate wife"; xwasrāy, or "self-sufficient, independent, wife" who had chosen her own husband; and ayōkēn, or "ancillary wife," specifically a woman whose male children through the marriage were legal successors to her father or brother. While polygyny as a religiously sanctioned practice was attested among Zoroastrians from ancient times, the evidence for polyandry, on the other hand, is so meager as to demonstrate its observance was highly unusual among Zoroastrians. Polygyny was phased out by the faith's leaders during the early 1900s as a practice no longer in conformity with modernity.

Most taxing on medieval Zoroastrian women were the beliefs equating menstruation with impurity, and the isolation practices involved. These seem to have been some factors that influenced Irani Zoroastrian women's conversion to Islam between the eighth and thirteenth centuries ce. Another factor was that of Zoroastrian women adopting the faith of their Muslim husbands.

Attitudinal change, spurred on by secularization and westernization, has produced new challenges for orthodox religious practices. One main issue of recent concern to Zoroastrians is the status of children born to women married to men of other faiths. The traditional, patriarchal structure of Zoroastrianism has generally accepted the children of a Zoroastrian father and non-Zoroastrian mother, but not vice versa. Many Zoroastrian women in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia have begun raising their children as Zoroastrians, taking them to religious classes and fire temples and having them initiated into the faith by liberal magi. Such initiations are not recognized by a majority of Zoroastrian clerics and laypersons in India, however, where the issue remains highly controversial.

The status of Zoroastrian women, first among the Parsis and then among the Iranis, began major reorientation through access to Western-style secular education in the nineteenth century. Initially, girls were educated at home by tutors. School-level education became widespread for both genders in India by the early 1900s and quickly extended to the university level. Among the Parsis in particular, English became the language of rapidly urbanizing and secularizing families. By 1931, 73 percent of Parsis women were literate. By the 1980s, 68 percent of Parsis women held university degrees. Educated Parsis women began entering the economic workforce, mingling with both Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians on a regular basis. Similar processes took place among Iranis in the twentieth century. These women have began choosing professional careers over marriage and domesticity, resulting in close to a quarter of them remaining unmarried by the 1980s. Both within the traditional homelandsIran and Indiaof Zoroastrianism and within the new diaspora communities in the West that formed in the twentieth century, women remain the predominant sustainers and transmitters of religiosity from one generation to the next. More Zoroastrian women (75 percent) practice religious rites daily than do men (60 percent). Additionally, through prominent roles in the lay leadership at communal centers and through service as editors of the most widely read and influential Zoroastrian newsletterssuch as FEZANA Journal in North America and Parsiana in the Indian subcontinentthey play a major function in directing attention to socioreligious issues impacting on both genders and in championing religious reform.

See Also

Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu; Eschatology, overview article; Indo-European Religions; Iranian Religions; Menstruation; Parsis; Purification; Zoroastrianism.


Billimoria, H. M. Attitude of Parsi Women to Marriage. Bombay, 1991.

Boyce, Mary. A History of Zoroastrianism, 2d ed. Vol. 1. Leiden, 1989.

Brosius, Maria. Women in Ancient Persia: 559331 bc. Oxford, 1996.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin, Tex., 1989.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Evil, Good, and Gender: Facets of the Feminine in Zoroastrian Religious History. New York, 2002.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. "Women during the Transition from Sasanian to Early Islamic Times." In Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800, edited by G. Nashat and L. Beck, pp. 4867. Urbana, Ill., 2003.

Culpepper, Emily E. "Zoroastrian Menstruation Taboos: A Women's Studies Perspective." In Women and Religion: Papers of the Working Group on Women and Religion 19721973, edited by J. Plaskow and J. A. Romero, pp. 199210. Chambersburg, Pa., 1974.

Gould, Ketayun H. "Outside the Discipline, Inside the Experience: Women in Zoroastrianism." In Religion and Women, edited by A. Sharma, pp. 139182. Albany, N.Y., 1994.

Gould, Ketayun H. "Zarathushti, Zoroastrian, Parsi: Women in Zarathushti Din, Zoroastrianism." In Women in Indian Religions, edited by A. Sharma, pp. 134165. New Delhi, 2002.

Hjerrild, Bodil. Studies in Zoroastrian Law: A Comparative Analysis. Copenhagen, 2003.

Jamzadeh, Laal, and Margaret Mills. "Iranian Sofreh: From Collective to Female Ritual." In Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, edited by C. W. Bynum, S. Harrell, and P. Richman, pp. 2365. Boston, 1986.

Jong, Albert de. "Jēh the Primal Whore? Observations on Zoroastrian Misogyny." In Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions, edited by R. Kloppenborg and W. J. Hanegraaff, pp. 1541. Leiden, 1995.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Rose, Jenny. "The Traditional Role of Women in the Iranian and Indian (Parsi) Zoroastrian Communities from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 56 (1989): 1103.

Rose, Jenny. "Three Queens, Two Wives, and a Goddess: Roles and Images of Women in Sassanian Iran." In Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety, edited by G. R. G. Hambly, pp. 2954. New York, 1998.

Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen. "Exit Atossa: Images of Women in Greek Historiography on Persia." In Images of Women in Antiquity, edited by A. Cameron and A. Kuhrt, pp. 2033, 303. 2d ed. Detroit, 1993.

Jamsheed K. Choksy (2005)

About this article

Gender and Religion: Gender and Zoroastrianism

Updated About content Print Article


Gender and Religion: Gender and Zoroastrianism