Beyond Martyrs and Mullahs: Transformations of Gender Roles and Identities Among Tehran Middle-Class’s Men

December 1, 2020

by Rassa Ghaffari, The University of Milano-Bicocca

Generally regarded as the universal beneficiaries of privileges and prerogatives, both before and after the 1979 revolution, Iranian men have not been the focus of systematic analysis until recently. While literature has extensively debated women’s status and rights, few studies have analysed Iranian masculinities, and those who have embarked in such a task have mostly considered the pre-revolutionary period or the role models endorsed by the Islamic Republic (Balslev, 2014, 2019; Gerami, 2003; Najmabadi, 2005; Shay, 2017). Men, Kimmel argues, “are the invisible ‘gender’”, “[u]biquitous in positions of power,” and yet, “invisible to themselves” (Kimmel, 2005, 5). In Iran, Gerami notices, “masculinity is so standardized that most Iranians do not see it as a category. Khomeini’s manhood is taken-for-granted knowledge in the national consciousness” (Gerami, 2003, 258). However, as Leccardi highlights, “dealing with a gender perspective involves focusing on the ways and forms in which the power relationships between the two sexes are defined and transformed over time within the institutions of daily life” (Leccardi, 2002, 229).

Building on a secondary analysis of census data and twenty-two narrative interviews, the article aims to deepen and compare the representations of masculinities in two samples of Iranian middle-class men: their portrayals of their gender identities, their role within the society, the changes they have been going through, and their relationships with the women they share their everyday lives with. For the participants, men’s status in Iran is anything but static and standardized; rather, it is undergoing several transformations within a number of fields. The reformulation of gender discourses wrapped around an Islamic hypermasculinity constituted a core component of the revolution’s ideology promoting new ideals of manhood, such as the Shiite martyrs, the Islamic clergy, the sexually and socially dominant heterosexual man, and the dispossessed revenged by the revolution (Gerami, 2003). As a by-product of the war with Iraq, martyrs have been particularly promoted as ideal reference models for the new generations of male youth, symbols of purity, humility, bravery, and self-sacrifice (Aghaie, 2004; Gerami, 2003; Saeidi, 2010). Even today, youth are called upon by the State to emulate such qualities and protect Shi’i identity (Honarbin-Holliday, 2013). Nevertheless, reading Iranian men’s status only through the Islamic State’s lenses is a blanket vision that ignores contemporary complexities and ambivalences. As gendered subjects, men are experimenting renovations interwoven with wider developments within the society, and the State’s apparatus itself is undergoing a process of gradual but profound alterations (Bajoghli, 2019).

The study bears relevance on several counts. It aims to contribute to a body of research currently still in its infancy, both in the international and Iranian academia. Problematizing and interrogating men’s practices and representations is not just a matter of revealing masculinity to be taken-for-granted; highlighting ambivalences and contradictions inherent in the social construction of masculinity consents to deconstruct the fetishized figures of “Iranian men,” placing emphasis on men’s unequal relations to men as well as men’s relations to women[1] and on their contradictions and resistance (Amar, 2011; Hearn, 2015).

The next paragraph explains the methodology of the research; the second one analyzes the generation of men born in the 1960s that is, individuals who lived through the Pahlavi monarchy, the 1979 revolution and the Islamization process enhanced by the Islamic Republic and are currently in their fifties. The third section dwells on the narratives of young men born in the 1990s and belonging to the so-called “Iranian third generation.” The juxtaposition of these two generations permits a better framework while distinguishing similarities in the representations of individuals across different historical times, identifying some of the changes and processes that distinguish the youth cohorts born under the aegis of the revolution.


The paper is based on a secondary analysis of census data provided by the Statistical Center of Iran —intended to describe some economic and social phenomena affecting this population—and on narrative interviews[2] collected in Tehran between 2017 and 2018 with twelve men born in the 1960s and twelve men born in the 1990s belonging to the urban middle class[3] selected through non-probabilistic sampling methods. Since the sample is drawn a from small, specialized, and nonrandom population, the research does not aim to extend the findings to Iranian men as a whole; rather, it sheds an in-depth light on the sensitivities and perceptions of a restricted portion of them.

Today, Tehran, and its metropolitan area, include nearly one-quarter of the country’s total population; as well as being Iran’s political capital. The city is also its beating cultural and economic heart. Consequently, its middle class has historically defined, more than other groups, the cultural, political, and economic traits that prevail in society and has been the main protagonist of social movements and political activism (Bagheri, 2018; Harris, 2012; Honarbin-Holliday, 2013).

“The new matriarchate”: the narratives of middle-aged men

Being a man in Iran nowadays is described as an experience much more complex and difficult than it may appear, deeply intertwined with the political, economic, and social transformations of the society and the consequent reconfigurations of gender roles (Bellassai, 2004; Horrocks, 1994; Levant, 1997; Nixon, 1996; Wacquant, 1995). The Islamic Republic is a patriarchal society where masculine identity is achieved through being a heterosexual man dominant both socially and sexually and the male bread-winner still represents a preeminent element for the structuration of gender relations (Abbasi-Shavazi et al., 2015; Mahmoudian & El-Adawy, 2015); therefore, economic independence is an indispensable requirement for a socially accepted transition to adulthood and the full recognition as a ‘man’ (Adibi, 2006; Gelfer, 2014). Census data show that over time, male economic participation has consistently been more than 40% higher than female[4]. The cross-analysis[5] of data on civil status and employment highlights a wide gap between men and women’s economic participation: most married men are employed, but the majority of married women are housewives. While marriage seems to be a deterrent for female employment, economic independence is an essential requirement for men to get married and create a family (Gerami, 2003).

The field research was conducted during the dramatic worsening of the economy following the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“Nuclear Deal”) and the reintroduction of international sanctions against Iran. Consequently, many interviewees underlined the multiple pressures felt to maintain their economic and social status and the fear of ‘not being up to’ the expectations of their families and society. Identified as the main addressees of the economic and social policies of the post-war reconstruction, middle-class Iranian men today enjoy a greater level of education, global connections, and social capital. However, the recent political, cultural, and economic changes—along with spreading neoliberal policies and the burden of a patriarchal system —have simultaneously raised the expectations and tension they are subjected to (Gelfer, 2014; Gerami, 2003; Khosravi, 2017). The male role is described as weakened and struggling in both the public and private sphere (Bahramitash, 2013); for Kian[6], an entrepreneur of 55: “Being a man in Iran is not good. We cannot say we live better than women. I think the differences that women feel are not reasonable. We feel them as well. Since we live in the so-called patriarchy, everybody focuses on how much a man is successful, and this influences the way society and family treat him[7]”.

Regardless of their religious and political orientation, these men expressed concern for a perceived, “Disappearance of the virtues and values with which we grew up, such as honesty, chivalry, and responsibility,” as said by Mehrdad, a 50-year-old professor, replaced today by a new ethic of rivalry, competition, and dishonesty (Adelkhah, 1998; Khosravi, 2017). Kasra, a 52-year-old insurer, emphasized his disapproval in the lack of morals of contemporary families where respect for hierarchies has been substituted by individualism and selfishness – “Our generation had hormat, ezzat[8], modesty, fear, patriarchy, respect, but the current generation... now if you tell your kid that he is not in a hotel and there are things to do, he replies he did not ask to be born and his parents have to look after him.”

Since gender is a relational concept inherent in the construction of different social roles, cultural models, relationships of power, and inequality between individuals (Leccardi, 2002; Rubin, 1975; Thorne, 1993; West & Zimmerman, 1988), it is not surprising that women play a central role in many of the constitutive processes of masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Khosravi, 2009; Zakai, Yazdkhasti, & Yaghoubi Chobari, 2010). Scholars argue that the increasingly visible public presence of women started already at the end of the last century, is responsible for general collective anxiety about the male identity (Khosravi, 2017; Najmabadi, 2005). Still born and raised in a partly traditional society, where even the educated and secular families' gender roles and relations follow a patriarchal hierarchy, these men described their father-figure as the main, if not only, one responsible for family maintenance and embodiment of values such as deference and authority. According to Mehdi, a 50-year-old freelancer, “At our times, society was completely patriarchal (mardsalar). The family man used to have always the final say. The social life of the family was based on his decisions”.

Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, today’s middle-class men are expected not only to provide economically for their family but also to contribute actively to the conjugal life, children’s education, and household organization (Inhorn & Wentzell, 2011). Researches show that even if they do not share yet the overall responsibility for caring activities, these men are much more present in the family scene (Esfahani & Shajari, 2012; Haghighat, 2014; Rafatjah, 2012), enacting concretely new models of fatherhood and manliness, as remarked by Mehrdad, “After marriage, I started to change my mind. I want to show my daughter a model of father different from the one I have had.”

Yet, while all participants declared themselves in favor of gender equality when it comes to concretely asserting men and women’s respective roles, their narratives unveiled the persistence of some stereotypes and an essentialized view of feminine characters[9]. They are married with educated and often employed women who, according to them, are increasingly managing decision-making power leading many interviewees to talk about a ‘zansalari’, a neologism composed by ‘zan’ (woman) and ‘salari’ (control), as opposed to ‘mardsalari’. For Kasra, the so-called ‘matriarchate’ started under Khatami’s administration (1997-2005) when the growing legal, social and political concessions led women to largely participate in the private and public as well as to become more demanding over men, “Who do not have any longer that power of decision they should have.” Similarly, Kamran, a 55-year-old businessman, commented, “Women work and take all the decisions in the family. Often I feel I have become just a money-maker”.

The debate about an alleged ‘masculinity crisis’ is not new nor peculiar to the Iranian society, it represents a hegemonic discourse that focuses on the inability of traditional models to provide meanings to the growing complexities of modern societies (Bellassai, 2004; Ciccone, 2019; Heartfield, 2002; Horrocks, 1994; Levant, 1997). In contemporary Iran, the social, political, and economic transformations have affected men and women at different speeds and levels; for my informants, the loosening of traditional gender roles, and the increasing autonomy of women, amount to a weakening of the patriarchal nature of Iranian institutions and a parallel decrease of men’s authority[10].

The sons of the revolution

As with the previous generation, economic independence and its direct effects on everyday life is also a central issue for middle-class respondents born in the 1990s. Ramin, an unemployed man of 27, argued that, “The most important event in one man’s life is finding a job, definitely. Having a good job is the most valuable thing that gives meaning to be a man, even more than marriage.” The recent economic and political hardships, as one would expect, have made this goal extremely tough. Census data reveals the dramatic significance of youth unemployment – in 2016, Tehran reached 30%[11]. Many youth expressed uncertainty and disillusion regarding the lack of opportunities and stable reference points like those once available to the previous generation, whose entry into the labor market often followed the footsteps of their fathers and was mediated by the family (Azadarmaki, 2010; Honarbin-Holliday, 2013).

Nevertheless, as scholars show (Crespi 2005; Leccardi 2005; Melucci 1994), in a time characterized by a chronic sense of insecurity and precariousness, these young men have settled unprecedented strategies of resilience and elaboration of their identities that increasingly include consumption practices signed by specific class markers (Kanaaneh, 2002; Olszewska, 2013), the importance of bodily appearance[12] (Adelkhah, 1998; Alexander, 2003; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Frith & Gleeson, 2004; Saltonstall, 1993), and new approaches to the job market and family creation (Hashemi, 2015, 2020). To the ethics of hardship and responsibility mentioned by the older generation and the sacrifice and piety embodied by martyrs, they counterpose the need for individualized and flexible biographies (Akhavan Sarraf, Abzari, Nasr Isfahani, & Fathi, 2016; Beck 1992; Leccardi & Ruspini 2006; Leccardi 2005), as defined by this participant of 27, “My mom wants me to do a classic job, you know, going to the office 9-17. She does not understand that I am already working [as a private English teacher]. Today, work is different.” Further examples include the increasing delay of marriage, now considered no longer a mandatory step, and the rejection of conscription, which is often described as a ‘corrupt’ and ‘useless’ institution to be avoided as much as possible in order, “not to waste two years of my life in which I could find a real job”.

Exhibiting a fashionable and trained body, and conforming to up-to-date aesthetics, are no longer the prerogatives of women, but significant markers of new standards of emergent masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Inhorn & Wentzell, 2011; Rahbari, 2019). Sohrab, a 24-year-old student, commented how, “Over 90% of boys perform, show their cars, money, or how many girls they have had, their physical strength, to prove themselves powerful in front of women and towards women. And they are also becoming more fashionable.” The performative abidance to the ethics of modesty mandated by the revolution (Hashemi, 2020) has been replaced by a new iconography of virility conveyed through social networks and widely spread in the capital city, where the proliferation of luxurious clubs and gyms reflect a modern and sophisticated archetypal willing to spend money and time for his body and look (Adelkhah, 1998). The growing availability of new technological means has facilitated the rise of a new dialogue on the male body as a ‘personal and reflective project’ (Giddens, 1991) affected by commodification and medicalization processes; a tool to build a biography and identity positively valued by society.

Compared to the older interviewees, these youth appear more aware and sensitive about gender discrimination and their own privileges. Some criticized their peers for behaviors labeled as ‘traditional’ or ‘sexist’. Comments like those of Ebi, 20, according to whom his friends, “Say they are modern, but they change their attitude according to the circumstances and are jealous and possessive towards girls[13]”, or Saman, for whom, “Most men declare to be feminist, but perhaps less than a third act as such”, testify not only the greater cognizance of the inequalities in which they are personally involved but also the persistence of such contradictions and disparities, even in this generation of the capital’s middle class.

The opinions expressed about women are extremely ambivalent and articulate, mirroring the complexity of power relationships within the society, but share several common points. While most informants affirm to have already embraced a ‘modern’ lifestyle[14], the main criticism towards women are concerns of their presumed unwillingness or inability to make the same transition. The superficiality and excessive tantrums towards men are some vices that would prevent women from becoming ‘truly emancipated’. For Ali, 29, Iranian women, “Want to be simultaneously traditional and modern. They want western rights but most of them just lay at home. It does not work like this.” Sohrab, 22, revealed his disappointment in realizing that the girl he was interested in, “Had done a rhinoplasty. I was so shocked, how could she do it, to conform to the mass? I liked her because she was simple, natural, different from other girls”. The emphasis on most girls’ lack of ‘simplicity’ and ‘authenticity’ is highlighted also by Siamak, 20, who counterposed his girlfriend’s qualities to the “Obsession with prestige and reputation, and lack of interests,” of other women.

The awareness of the difficulties Iranian women face and the solidarity expressed to them, often clash with the interiorization of certain privileges that manifests itself as an apparent inability to consider the resilience strategies implemented to concretely face these challenges (Abedinifard, 2015). On one hand, these youth encourage women to abandon ‘traditional’ practices and attitudes (some of which, like the dowry or virginity, are burdens for men themselves). While on the other hand, they often reproach them for being, “Influenced by the West, that makes them more materialistic, more consumerist,” as specified by Siavash, 25[15]. This double pressure on women’s bodies and behaviors signals the rise of new specific forms of patriarchy and sexism where a perfect image of womanhood is reproduced through references to both modernity and traditionality, and men still act as judges declining which women can fit into the image (Sadeghi & Moruzzi, 2006).


Connell (2000) argues that masculinities are socially organized constructions positioned within dynamic gender hierarchies that vary according to the cultural and social background, the age, and the economic and cultural forces of globalization, all combined with local demographic and social transformations (Adibi, 2006; Gelfer, 2014; Inhorn & Wentzell, 2011; Khosravi, 2008). In Iran, the revolutionary narratives of the homo islamicus and the redemption rhetoric of the martyrs characterizing the post-1979 period has, over time, portrayed middle and upper-class men as fashionable, ambitious, and individualistic, and the spread of a pervasive capitalist model – based on competition, the stigmatization of vulnerability and the erosion of the personal self-esteem (Adelkhah, 1998; Khosravi, 2017; Rivetti, 2020; Salehi-Isfahani & Egel, 2007). My participants noted economic and social changes in Tehran which, they feel, have affected gender relations and the ways in which they perform manhood. Data reveals how men have always been invested by main economic and social responsibilities that, currently, seem to lead many to critically evaluate their own position and duties from within one’s own family and society. Among the participants, men of the older generation appear conflicted as they pivot between a past that no longer fits the present and uncertainty about the changes they are experimenting with. Their narratives depict an apparent generational divide where the reorganization of family roles has led to a loss of the power and authority once associated with a father-figure. While it is fashionable to talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’, these men actually are at a crossroads as they try to find their way in a shifting world and contribute actively to the creation of emergent masculinities (Inhorn & Wentzell, 2011; Zakai et al., 2010).

Literature (Adibi, 2006; Amar, 2011; Fozooni, 2004; Gerami, 2003; Honarbin-Holliday, 2013; Pak-shiraz, 2017) and the interviews confirm that nowadays, the role models embodied by the State or tradition seems to have a weaker grip on urban middle-class youth. The new circulation of goods, services, consumption methods, practices, and technologies combined with the internal transformations of society, such as the weakening of traditional and religious models, all together contribute to the development of new conceptions of virility and the male body (Bagheri, 2018). The spread of capitalism as one of the ‘institutional dimensions of modernity’ (Jafari, 2007) has brought significant changes in the social structures of communities, like a distinctly individualistic attitude much stronger in newer generations (Azadarmaki, 2010; Khosravi, 2017). If, on the one hand, the greater acceptance of gender equity seems to be one of the characteristic of this generation globally (Rainer & Rainer, 2011; Taylor & Keeter, 2010), it should be remembered that these youth live in a society that appears more secular than it used to be (Sadeghi, 2008), where the easier access to modern technologies and communication tools almost guarantees this social class a constant connection with the international sphere, multiple lifestyles, reference models, and visions.

Nonetheless, despite their social, cultural, and economic privileges, compared to ethnic minorities or poorer classes, the Tehran middle-class’s men interviewed do not present a coherent and homogeneous view towards gender, family, and sexuality. When it comes to these topics, their narratives are not immune from uncertainties, paradoxes, and also reactionary stances intensely interwoven with the social, economic, and power dynamics of the shifting society.


[1] In this article, I adopt a cisnormative understanding of men and women.

[2] Interviews were conducted with Schütze’s narrative interview technique (Schütze, 1983,1984). Reporting subjects’ own narratives and thoughts is of crucial relevance as one of my goals is to dismantle some hegemonic discourses that incorporate and standardize Iranian men’s experience into homogeneous macro categories. As said by Behrouzian (2015), narratives harbour ‘stories implicitness’, to use Taussig’s words, ‘as a way of making theory makes itself’, challenging and getting in the way of past theory and reconstructing it with new constituents.

[3] According to Kian-Thiébaut, the particular distinguishing feature that differentiates members of the modern middle class from other social groups is their possession of cultural competence and capital. With a background in higher education, this group consists of salaried employees in the public and private sectors and the liberal professions. Thus, it includes among others, teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, army officers, journalists, writers and university students, etc. (Kian-Thiébaut, 2010).  The social collocation of participants has been established through their occupation, education, neighborhood of residence and self-collocation. The interviewees born in the 1960s have almost all attended university while the younger men were enrolled or just graduated.

[4] Data are drawn from Iranian census of 1966, 1986, 1996, 2006, 2011, 2016, available at and Labor Force Surveys conducted by the Statistical Center of Iran, available at (in English).

[5] I conducted a secondary analysis through SPSS software crossing the statistical data available on the Statistical Center of Iran’s website on marital status with those on economic participation.

[6] The interviewees’ names have been changed to respect their privacy.

[7]  All the interviews have been translated from Persian by the author.

[8] Historically, the concept of honour in Iranian culture has been intrinsically related to masculinity and the proper way of being a man (Balslev, 2019).

[9] As instance, women’s natural predisposition for multitasking, organization, and caring activities.

[10] I thank professor Valentine Moghaddam for her useful comment on this.

[11] Source: (in English); (in Persian).

[12] One example is the exponential increase of male cosmetic surgeries as result of internal cultural, social and economic dynamics but also of a late-modern culture that considers body transformation an act of free self-expression, an exercise of individual autonomy and a gesture of affirmation of one’s social status.

[13] According to most interviewees, jealousy and possessiveness towards women are some of the main traits that characterize younger men too and are described as a legacy of the ‘traditional’ Iranian masculinity.

[14] This expression is actually very ambiguous; for the young men interviewed, it includes a wide variety of behaviours and attitudes such as having premarital sexual relations, not following religion, being emancipated from traditional practices, not being conformists, and so on.

[15] Balslev notices that already at the beginning of the XX century, women’s alleged profligacy and pursuit of luxury were counted among the reasons for the high celibacy rate of Iranian men. Women’s wastefulness, moreover, was explicitly linked to their “shallow imitation of the West” (Balslev, 2019, 202).


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