International Juan Cole women's rights

What American and Iranian Theocrats Have in Common

From veiling to abortion, Iran’s theocrats seek to control women’s bodies, just as U.S. Republican theocrats do.
Two veiled women in Yazd, Iran in 1995. [Neil Hester / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Juan Cole | Informed Comment

On Saturday, hard line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi announced that his government would pull out the stops to crush the popular unrest sweeping the country that was sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa “Zhina” Amini, 22, a Kurdish young woman who was arrested by the morals police for wearing tight jeans. Protesters allege that she was beaten so badly that it led to her death. Hundreds of persons have been arrested, more than 700 in northern Iran alone.

The protests in Iran are not only about compulsory veiling but about compulsory everything. Veiling has become a symbol for the government’s determination to control the bodies and private lives of citizens. That determination is behind a Draconian law passed last fall that severely restricts access to abortion. If you can’t tell whether I’m talking about Iran or Texas, it is because both are in the grip of theocracies.

The theocratic government of Iran wants to control the bodies and personal lives of women, just as Republican lawmakers in the United States do, with their anti-abortion stance. The Republican Party has come to be so tightly intertwined with the evangelical Christian community of the Bible Belt that it is a theocratic party itself, similar in some ways to the Principalists or hard liners in Iran. Just as Iranian hard liners are hostile to democracy, fearful that the people cannot be trusted to vote for the theologically correct position, so US Republicans have increasingly turned against democracy. Evangelicals are only 17% of the US population now, and are rapidly shrinking, so the only way they can impose their religious precepts on the rest of the population is through minority rule– enabled by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the legalization of dark money politics. The US wealthy for the most part have thrown in with the evangelicals to get tax breaks, since they can fly their wives to blue states or abroad for unwanted pregnancies and do not care what happens to the little people.

Just as Mahsa Amini was arrested by morals police in Iran, Brittney Poolaw and 1200 other women over the past fifteen years have been arrested in the United States for having a miscarriage, even where fetal failure to develop has been noted by medical examiners as a possible cause for the miscarriage.

Once the state legislates intervention in your body, you are not allowed to clothe it with tight jeans or to terminate an ectopic pregnancy without the state’s permission, even if that puts your life in danger. Once a political party becomes an instrument of theocracy, it feels a compulsion to impose its theology on everyone. In liberal (with a small ‘l’) political thought, which includes parliamentary conservatism, law is an expression of the majority of the elected representatives of the people. One can dislike a law, but a classic liberal must admit the validity of the law if it derived from that majority.

Theocracy is profoundly anti-liberal. Theocrats believe society must be governed in accordance with God’s will as they interpret it. Many theocrats are not clerics. Many of them wear tailored business suits. From a theocratic point of view, Roe v. Wade was illegitimate even though it was the ruling of a majority of a Supreme Court that had been appointed and voted in by the elected president and Senate. Roe was illegitimate despite being the law of the land because it violated God’s law, the theocrats said. They like to substitute themselves for “God.” Moreover, it had been rooted in a legal theory of the constitutional right to individual privacy, a theory that had itself to be razed to the ground if illiberal theocracy were going to prevail. Theocracy does not recognize a right to privacy, i.e., to individuals’ control over their bodies.

The office of Iran’s clerical leader operates under the theory of the “Guardianship of the Jurisprudent” (Velayat-e faqih). The origins of this ideology, adumbrated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989), lay in Shiite Muslim canon law concerning widows, orphans and other individuals in society who needed a male guardian but had no family member to serve in that capacity.

Earlier religious jurists had stipulated that a qualified cleric should step in to fill this role of guardian. Khomeini expanded this conception, arguing that the cleric is the guardian of all the state’s subjects. All of them, including free adult males, are by this theory wards of the state where clerics control the state. Ideally, the guardian would be a vicar of the Prophet Muhammad, but Twelver Shiites believe that the Prophet’s line ended with the Twelfth Imam, who went into occultation and would one day emerge to restore the world to justice. The return of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, for Shiites is analogous to the Christian belief in the return of Christ.

Until that time, Khomeini argued, clerics should rule in the stead of the Twelfth Imam, since their study of the Qur’an and of the sayings and doings of the twelve Imams made it likely that they would do best at approximating the decisions he would take if he were present.

Likewise, more that 3/4s of Republican evangelicals want to declare the United States a “Christian” state, essentially repealing the First Amendment with its Establishment Cause. They want to control people’s bodies in the U.S., even if they have to do it undemocratically, just as the ayatollahs have the same goal in Iran. Iran has the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent. America’s Red States have the Guardianship of the Pastor and Priest. In neither case are we autonomous adults. We are wards of the state, reduced to being juveniles in custody.

Because of evangelical Republican rule of some US states, we already have elements of the Christian Republic of America, to mirror the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole is a public intellectual, prominent blogger and essayist, and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.


  1. Idiocracy in the USA used to be something to laugh at. Left unchallenged for the most part has allowed it to threaten our existence. This is the kind of radical lunacy that is guaranteed to lead to genocide. History confirms that religious conflict has caused more deaths than all natural disasters and wars combined.

    1. اI beg to differ dear Kathy with your conclusion on more death because of religion than wars.
      History confirms the religion caused most deadly wars doesn’t make the top 10 list.
      Just in last two centuries all major wars like two world wars, Vietnam,Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and so on religion played no rule and all were about economy and control

      1. Kamal, I respect your viewpoint, and cannot argue the statistics concerning “wars”. However, I am referring to deaths caused by genocidal movements that move like waves by individual, group and tidal executions. Prime examples are the Spanish Inquisition, the Puritan witch hunts in early America, the Spanish Christian genocide of all Indigenous Nations in all of the Americas which is still ongoing today. Another example is the wholesale persecution and extermination of Muslims by Israeli Jews with the support of the Christian dominated USA military and government politicians which is a highly Jewish funded entity. The radical Islamic factions that execute even their own people for issues that they consider in opposition to their religious doctrines. The list goes on and on.

  2. “My body my choice”…. hey? You mean like being forced, threatened & co-erced into receiving 3 useless & harmful “vaccines” for a tinpot virus with a 99.98% survival rate if your healthy? Hahahahahahahaha

    1. Dear Kathy
      I also respect your opinion and don’t believe I am correct or shall we statistics, but that is what we have and I do agree there has been and still is war motivated wars and killing, but not as significant as other wars with non religion driven wars, in fact all research’s to the non religion direction here is a copy

      “ According to the Encyclopedia of Wars, out of all 1,763 known/recorded historical conflicts, 121, or 6.87%, had religion as their primary cause. Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things gives religion as the primary cause of 11 of the world’s 100 deadliest atrocities.

  3. Dear Mr Juan cole
    I have always admired your writing and your viewpoints and Been following your articles anytime I could which I thought was fair and accurate until this and last one which I thought either not familiar and done without research or I don’t know what.
    For one, being an intensely studied Iranian Muslim, the privet life of religious part of Iranians are almost absolutely under this theocratic system left completely alone and not intervened by regime. You could almost do anything in your privacy as long as it stays private, and the government gives some leeway’s to citizens in not only their private life but in public too, and recent event was triggered by ongoing meddling by anti government groups supported by west through their puppets.
    And by the way abortion in the first trimester is ok as long as I know and especially for rape and incest is no problem and also with governments financial help transgenders can change their gender identity again as far as I know.
    Thanks for articles.

  4. Not every evangelical is a theocrat. Not everyone who attends a Baptist, Assembly of God, etc service wants to replace democracy with theocracy. And there are theocrats who are not evangelical. An evangelical is, at least to me, simply a Christian who does not believe in infant baptism. Growing out of this is a desire to evangelize the entire world. However, most evangelicals do NOT believe in using government for this purpose. And, no, you can not force someone to convert; that would not be a true conversion anyway. Although some evangelicals can go overboard with their zeal; in religion, as in dating, “no means no”.

    Most of us don’t really evangelize anyway. You may be surrounded by evangelicals and not even know it.

    If you said “certain right-wing religious leaders”, it would have been less religiously bigoted.

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