Status of Women in the Zarthushti Faith

Parsi traditionalists often belittle the importance of the Gathas and even of Prophet Zarthushtra, in order to justify their views. One such view is that men and women are not equal or equal only spiritually, in the Menog world, after death, and not during their lifetime in this getig (physical world). Such a view is untenable and an unforgivable insult to the greatness of our Prophet, who had the courage and the vision to say in those prehistoric days that his message applies equality to men and women (Ys.53.6).

If they have not attained an equal position in this world, it can only be attributed to human frailty and not to the Prophet’s teachings. He advises us to bring about Frashokereti by our actions (Ys.30.9) and Frashokereti is not possible without women working as hard for it as men. For this reason, he included women in the initiation ceremony of Navjote, though such may not have been the practice among the Indo-Iranians, because to this day, the Janoi (Hindu initiation) is reserved for men of certain higher castes alone. Even the Jews had Barmitsva only for men and not for women until the nineteenth century or so, calling it Batmitsva.

Men and Women are Equally Required to Make the Right Choice

Women played an active role in the spread of the religion and Farvardin Yasht (Paragraph 141) venerates 16 married women and 11 maidens who did so. To be godlike, men and women have to imbibe the qualities of seven Amesha Spentas, three of whom are female, and of them being Chosen Dominion or Rule, which would postulate equal status for both, in this very world where such an authority is to be emulated. Moreover, Zarthushtra emphasizes, that God has granted us Free Will (Ys, 31.11, 30, 2, 45.2, etc.) and each person has to make his or her own choice. If so how could women be reduced to an unequal status in this world when both men and women are equally required to make a choice, leading to right thinking and right actions, which in turn lead us to Frashokereti? The Ahunavar prayer (FEZANA Journal, Summer 1994), which embodies the importance of serving the needy, in my opinion, includes the principle of righting any wrong done to a helpless woman.

Spenta Armati, the Beneficent Right-Mindedness, is a feminine attribute of God Himself, and the word for religion is Daena, a feminine noun. The Yenghe Hatam prayer venerates both good men and women still living on this earth because of their piety. In Yasna 51.22, which apparently is the origin of Yenghe Hatam, Zarthustra venerates such souls “who have existed and still exist” by their name. The prayer Airyamana (Ys.54.1) also includes men as well as women. In fact there is not a single derisive statement of sentiment about women in our ancient Avesta. Rather, Ha 41.2, which is closest to the Gathic period in its composition, unequivocally state: “May good ruler, man or women, rule over us in both (Getig and Menog) existences.” Yasna 41.3 and 41.6 also embody the importance of both the worlds. Even the word for our Lord, Magva, has a feminine root. When even today girls are unwanted in some cultures, the Avestan blessing for good progeny refer to ‘Frazantin’ --- children of both sexes. Roman records reveal that Persian women fought along with men against the Romans.

Zarthusti Persia had More Queens than Perhaps Any Other Nation

 It is not surprising therefore that Zoroastrian Persia had more queens than perhaps any other nation in the world in ancient times. Zoroastrian women braved sailing to India with their men, and later braved living with them in hiding on Bahrot Mountain when Muslims conquered Sanjan. And once again, they braved fighting the locals who wanted to take advantage of the absence of their male relatives, as the legend of Jange Variav goes. Today, they rank almost invariably as the first among Indian women to compete with men for any and every profession including the arts, and sports.

Aepatistan 37 will further bear out the priestly role played by them in the earlier days. In Yasna 46.10 he decalsres: “Whoever, be it man or woman, would grant to me those things which thou dost know to be the best for existence.” Elderly women continued to perform rituals of a secondary nature in Iran, as late as a few decades ago. (See Fezana Journal, Fall 1994, p. 36.). Insler interprets ‘existence’ as ‘this world’. How can women offer their best for this world if their hands are tied down with inequality in this world? In Yasht 13.143-151 pious men and women of all countries are venerated.

Equality of Men and Women Essential for Frashokereti

Zarathushtra is firm in his conviction for gender equality for women’s equal status forms such an integral part in his divine vision and message, that the very basis of it fall apart if it is compromised or undermined in any way, for whatever reason, may it be for justifying ethnicity, patrilinearity or denouncing intermarriages, and safeguarding the benefits of the Parsi trusts which are already legally safeguarded by court verdict.

Women in Zoroastrianism

 The evidence for the equality of sexes in Zoroastrianism is so abundant it is hard to cite them all. So one can gather a few instances which could prove sufficient enough and establish this fact. Likewise I want to appoint the women whose good thoughts, good words and good deeds prevail, who is well taught, who is an authority for rites, and (who is) truthful. (We worship) Spenta Armaiti (as a female Amesha Spenta) and (all) your noblewomen @ Ahura Mazda!

Yasna 13.1 addresses the Ratu of the women along with troops of heroes. Vispered 2.7 invites the worship of women and Visperad 1.5 even venerates the women “of various varieties”.

Yasna 38.1 venerates females along with “this earth” and implies the similarity between the two in bearing fruits and fertility. Indeed the earth --- Spenta Armaiti --- is represented as a female Amesha Spenta (Bountiful Spirit) throughout the Avesta. Yasna 39.3 venerates both male and female Amesha Spentas --- Spenta Armaiti, Haurvatat and Ameretat being female and the other three being male. Yasnsa 38.1 makes it clear that both of them are equal in goodness. Thus, being female does not carry any stigma or sense of inferiority in the Avesta, but rather represents unprecedented gender equality.

Yasna 35.8 represents Zarathushtra as addressing his message to “every human being” per Almut Hintz (p. 93) and others. For that reason, Yt. 13.152 wants him to be praised and worshipped by “everyone of those who exist” --- Kahmaichit Hatam.

In Yasna 39.1-2 the worshippers venerate the souls of all human beings “wherever they may have been born” (Kudo-Zatanamchit), who has pointed out by Almut Hiintz “are explicitly described not as coming from worshippers own local community or land, but as possibly having been born anywhere”.- A Zoroastrian Liturgy, Harrasowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2007, (pp. 269-270). “Their birthplace being irrelevant, what matters is that they are committed to truth”. Thus, Yasna 39.2 “encompasses, in a universal manner all truthful (Asho) human beings” who follow the law of Asha as expounded by Zarathushtra who was the only one in his time to preach such an intricate doctrine of Asha. According to Hintz, Hakheman in Yasna 40.3 implies “the ‘fellowship’ within the worshippers’ own families and communities. In Y 40.4, that ‘fellowship’ is characterized as one which the worshippers hope to join. Narten suggests that the request for the latter could refer to a situation of mission, in which Zarathustra’s followers approach other communities in order to win them over to the religion preached by him. According to this interpretation, the worshippers ask that all the qualities in Y 40.3-4 desired for their own communities at home may also be present in those groups which they hope to persuade to become adherents of Zarathustra”. (p. 303). If Zarathushtra’s mission was merely to restore the so called “Mazdayasni” religion, there was no need to go in search of “fellowship” anywhere else.

Maria Brosius has written a book, “Women in Ancient Persia: 559-331 B.C., (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996) to denote the high status of women in the Achaemenian court and to counteract the negative impression depicted of them by Greek writers. Numerous texts found at Persepolis refer, among many women, Irdabama, whose workforce consisting of various work-groups ranging from three to several hundred workers. She had her own seal to authorize business transactions. Brosius also adds Arty Stone to this list. (p. 181). On the Greek view, Brosius says, women are not part of and do not belong easily in the male ordered Greek society. It was not at all so in the Persian society: “We cannot overestimate the implications of the action royal and nobles wives could take. Their independence can be observed in the (Persepolis) Fortification texts. Royal women enjoyed a position which allowed them free disposition of the produce of their estates reflected in their ability to give their own orders to officials, to use their own seal and to employ their own bureaucratic staff to execute their affairs. These women had their own centers of manufacture and their own workforce --- and engaged the same officials as the kings.” Women in no other society are known to have enjoyed such independence and gender equality 2500 years ago and it is natural that such equality trickled down to all strata of the Persian society. As a matter of fact, Damascus and other historians claim, on the basis of the remarks of Nicolas of Damascus, that the credit for the formation of the first and foremost Persian empire goes to Persian women who shamed King Cyrus’s defeated soldiers back to the battle for a fight to the finish, which ultimately led to their victory against the Medes.

The equal status assigned to both men and women in the Gathas is also reflected in later Avestan texts. For example, a University of Zurich dissertation, as reported in the 2008, p. 397-8, found only thirteen female names in the Rigveda. But the Avestan female names swelled primarily by the list of twenty-seven female names in the Fravardin Yasht (Yasht 13., 139-42) itself.

Even though Pahlavi Videvdat 18 is in many ways harder on women than on men regarding their culpability for sin in reply to the question: “(Is) man (a) more grievous (sinner), or a woman?”, its response is: “Both (are) equal”.

ary Boyce observes that Greeks characterized Zoroastrianism as the “Persian religion”, “as if it was an ethnic faith like the others which they encountered; but (however true this had become in part) it was in fact a credal religion, the oldest known in history. A person was not born a Zoroastrian, nor did he enter the religious community through a physical rite (such as the Jewish one of infant circumcision); but he became a Zoroastrian on attaining maturity by choosing to profess the doctrines taught by Zoroaster”. (A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. III, E.J. Brill, Leiden 1991, p. 363). This finding works against any claim that one had to be born into the religion to follow it or those born of Zoroastrian mothers (and not Zoroastrian fathers) could not be Zoroastrians, though unfortunately they could not be Parsis according to the Parsis’ self-defined rules. Modernity is changing things so fast that unless we keep up with the changes, the changes will overwhelm and overcome us. But fortunately our pre-historic religion and precepts are our eternal guide if only we shed off our myopic and parochial views, especially as we belong to, what Mary Boyce asserts, the world’s first proselytizing religion. The penalty for going against the prophet’s own precepts will be gloom and doom. I pray the Parsis awake to their prophet’s precepts rather than to the ones who blatantly violate them for their own selfish or political ends. May the prophets eternal wisdom prevail over them. Aedum Baad: May it be so.