“When I was in Iran, I used to wish I was a Palestinian woman. I would have been so much luckier because Westerners would have actually paid attention to me.”
These were the words of *Sahar, a young Iranian woman whom I recently met who had escaped the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2015 and is currently pursuing graduate studies in the United States. When I asked for clarification, Sahar added, “If an Iranian woman suffers at the hands of her own government, nothing can be done for her; if a Palestinian woman suffers at the hands of Palestinian leaders, Westerners can blame Israel and she can become a social media hero.”
For many Westerners, Iranian women who remain in Iran, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands in exile in the United States, Canada, and Europe, are often portrayed in the media as helpless victims of the regime’s misogyny. Those who were born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which turned Iran into a fanatic Shi’ite theocracy, were tragically born into the mandatory hijab, (forced Islamic head covering), regardless of their Islamic observance level or even their faith. These women were born into the hijab, and, depending on how long the regime maintains its brutal power, most may very well die with the hijab.
But like all women in the Middle East, Iranian women are complex. For the most part, they are passionate powerhouses — educated, frustrated, and insatiably ambitious souls who balance their self-potential against the reality of living under a regime that sentences a woman to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for advocating against compulsory hijab. That woman is Nasrin Sotoudeh, a former Iranian human rights attorney and recipient of the European Union’s Sakharov Prize, who was arrested in 2019 for defending women who had defied hijab laws. She was charged with “encouraging corruption and prostitution” as well as insulting Iran’s supreme leader.
Western-made documentaries and news segments about Iran often portray a sea of women in headscarves and many at mosques, whether in Tehran, Shiraz, or Isfahan. Are most Iranian women tolerant practitioners of government-mandated Islamic laws or, like Sotoudeh, are they courageous dissidents who face decades-long prison terms? The answer lies somewhere in between. There is, however, another category of Iranian women who, shockingly, are setting the cause of women’s rights in Iran back to the brutality of the seventh century. Few outside of Iran know much about them or even their names, but they are religiously conservative harbingers of women’s suffering in their own country and beyond, and their story is encapsulated in the one woman whose existence is virtually unknown to all Westerners: Zeinab Soleimani.
Zeinab, who was born in 1991, is the youngest daughter of Qassem Soleimani, the former head of the country’s dreaded Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), also known as the Quds Force. “Quds” is Arabic for Jerusalem; why an Iranian paramilitary force is named after a non-Iranian city seems odd, until one considers post-revolutionary Iran’s genocidal hatred of Israel and Zionists, and its vow to “liberate” Jerusalem and the land of Israel of all Jews.
Zeinab’s notorious father was killed by a precision airstrike ordered by then-president Donald Trump in January 2020 at Baghdad International Airport. In April 2019, Trump had designated the Quds Force a foreign terrorist organization, and with good reason: Soleimani was a mass murderer. Since 2003, Iranian proxies under his watchful ultimate command have killed more than 600 American personnel in Iraq, and that’s saying nothing of the thousands of Iranian civilians the IRGC has killed over the past four decades. Until his death, Soleimani remained in the company of terrorists with blood on their hands. Several of them, including Mahdi Muhandis, an Iraqi who headed the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah group, also were killed in the targeted airstrike against the IRGC leader.
The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Zeinab, Soleimani’s youngest daughter, is married to a leader of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organization that has massacred thousands of people, including hundreds of Americans, and which was founded, trained, and armed by Iran in the early 1980s. Zeinab’s Lebanese husband, Riza Safi al-Din, is the son of Hassan Nasrallah’s cousin (Nasrallah is the leader of Hezbollah). Al-Din is considered second-in-command of Hezbollah and is expected to take the terrorist group’s bloody reins if Nasrallah steps down or is killed.
After her father’s assassination, Zeinab entreated Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Yemeni Houthi rebel leader Abdalmalek Houthi, whom she has called her “uncles,” to avenge her father’s death. In a Twitter video, Zeinab met with Nasrallah and warned, “The spider nests of America and Zionists will collapse.”
In another one-minute video, Zeinab spoke in fluent Arabic. In an address to the Arab world, she declared, “As for the Great Satan of the United States and Israel, you will know that my father left behind a thousand Qassem Soleimanis because you have made him victorious and his blood will lead us to the road to pray in Jerusalem.” It is no wonder that in a 2020 Op-Ed in Israel Today, Dr. Edy Cohen, a researcher at Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), called Zeinab “Islam’s female avenger.”
As the daughter of the man who was once regarded as Iran’s No. 2., Zeinab has amassed some wealth, but Iranians were not privy to the extent of her finances until 2021, when she donated $2 million as part of a “gift program” to motivate young women to enter into “temporary marriages” with Hezbollah terrorists. For reference, Iran’s GDP per capita is merely 3,000 USD.
The “Twelver” sect of Shi’a Islam, whose followers, including all Iranian leaders, believe in twelve divinely ordained imams, includes the brutal practice of temporary marriage, called “sigheh” in Persian and “mu’tah” in Arabic. During “sigheh,” a young woman (or even a girl) is temporarily “married” to a Muslim man for one night, a few days, or even a few hours, so that he may have intimate relations with her. The “marriage” is then dissolved, and the man is permitted to leave the women without consequences. Zeinab’s benevolent donation designates $1,000 for the first temporary marriage and $400 “for cases of a second marriage.” The $2 million was sent to Hezbollah’s social services program.
It is believed that the Prophet Muhammed himself recommended temporary marriage to those around him, including his soldiers, as a legalized way to satisfy their sexual desires. The practice is banned in Sunni Islam, but in Iran, the largest Shi’a state in the world, temporary marriages were especially prevalent, even expected, during Shi’ite pilgrimages to shrine cities, where pilgrims needed a legal way to obtain pleasure. Currently, sigheh is still wildly popular in holy cities such as Mashhad, which receives roughly 25 million visitors from Iran and abroad each year. A man who arrives in Mashhad may “choose” a temporary wife from a number of websites that “match” them together, even during the current pandemic.
In Iran today, there is no limit to the numbers of temporary wives a married man may acquire (he can also have up to four permanent wives). The husband may also break the marriage contract at any time, whereas women are afforded virtually zero protection or rights in a divorce, whether one that ends a temporary or permanent marriage.
In a 1990 sermon, then-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani warned Iranians not to be “promiscuous like the Westerners.” The hypocrisy was not lost on those who oppose the practice; the clerical leaders of the regime engage in as many temporary marriages as they like, while also criminalizing adultery and prostitution.
Men who engage in temporary marriage regard it as a God-given solution to their sexual urges. The women who enter such “unions,” however, are almost always disregarded. This includes women who are already in permanent marriages, but who nevertheless constitute an estimated 50 percent of Iranian sex workers. Girls as young as 10 and 12 years old have been known to serve as temporary wives for insatiable men.
Not surprisingly, millions of Iranians were enraged upon hearing news of Zeinab Soleimani’s demonical donation via social media; they remain well aware that the regime spends billions of dollars to support terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah abroad, rather than saving its own starving, thirsty, and impoverished people. The notion of an Iranian woman who acquired wealth through her bloodthirsty father and who now is funding temporary marriages in another country was wholly repulsive to many Iranians.
Why did Zeinab give $2 million for Hezbollah terrorists to copulate, rather than to her own suffering people, who were hit particularly hard by the deadly effects of COVID-19? Perhaps her Hezbollah-leader husband pressured her. Perhaps her late father poisoned her mind beyond repair. Or perhaps she believed she was engaging in an act of kindness by paying young women for something they were previously forced to do without pay. But for millions of Iranians, the more important question is why Zeinab is in possession of millions of dollars in a country wholly ravaged by drought, natural disasters, an inflation rate of nearly 40 percent, and Western-led sanctions.
In early January, on the two-year anniversary of her father’s death in 2022, Zeinab was photographed holding an iPhone 13, which costs more than ten times the monthly salary of the average Iranian worker. Ironically, the photograph was leaked on the same day that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, a self-described enemy of the United States, urged Iranians not to buy American smartphones (it would take most young Iranians years to amass enough funds to buy a new iPhone, anyway). Once the photo surfaced on social media, Iranians of all persuasions, from anti-regime voices to regime cronies and hardliners, expressed outrage at such hypocrisy. Naturally, Zeinab denied that the iPhone belonged to her.
Is Zeinab an outlier among Iranian women? Yes, but she joins thousands of other fanaticized young women in Iran who actively work to maintain the brutal theocratic system that effectively relegates women to second-class citizens. Is there a word in the modern feminist glossary for a woman who pays for subjugated girls and young women to, in effect, ruin their lives to satisfy the pleasure of a man? Zeinab’s deplorable story highlights how women’s advocacy in Iran is not solely restricted to the noble and often self-sacrificing efforts of those who peacefully protest against the regime. Some Iranian women participate in mass civil disobedience; others simple remove their white headscarf, and waive it to and fro, in what has now become an iconic image from post-revolutionary Iran. And in the case of Zeinab, some advocate for a cruel and barbaric form of legalized prostitution.
Women’s rights organizations across the Middle East, from Jordan and Lebanon to Iraq and Egypt, have mostly stayed mum on Zeinab’s support of temporary marriages. In the West, the deafening silence of self-described feminists and women’s rights advocates on the issue of sigheh has also proved hopelessly disappointing.
Western media have often succumbed to romanticizing temporary marriages, if not outright praising this practice. In a 2000 story titled, “Love Finds a Way in Iran: ‘Temporary Marriage,’” The New York Times quoted an Iranian woman named Shahla Sherkat, editor of the self-described feminist monthly Zanan. Sherkat argued in favor of sigheh: ”First, relations between young men and women will become a little bit freer,” she said. “Second, they can satisfy their sexual needs. Third, sex will become depoliticized. Fourth, they will use up some of the energy they are putting into street demonstrations. Finally, our society’s obsession with virginity will disappear.”
One of the sole voices of dissent from Arab media is that of exiled Lebanese journalist Maria Maalouf, a Christian-Maronite and vocal opponent of Hezbollah who once even called for Israel to assassinate Nasrallah. Maalouf is also a publisher, writer, and broadcaster who hosts her own program, Al-Rouwad Web TV, on YouTube. On Twitter, Maalouf published the official contract between Soleimani and Hezbollah regarding temporary marriages and stated, “The people of Iran are dying from hunger and the noble sheikha Zeinab, daughter of Qassem Soleimani, donates 2 million dollars to promote the Muta’h marriage in Lebanon.” In 2017, Maalouf sued Nasrallah on kidnap, rape, and murder charges for his crimes against Lebanese. There are also many vocal Iranian human rights activists, including self-exiled journalist and television anchor Masih Alinejad, who was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for organizing the largest women’s civil disobedience campaign in the history of Iran. Activists such as Alinejad are sounding the alarm against Iran’s abuses via social media on a daily basis. Moderate Muslims, particularly Muslim women worldwide, must unambiguously condemn the practice of temporary marriage and highlight the cruel and destructive work of women such as Zeinab Soleimani. But, in the words of the Iranian graduate student mentioned at the beginning of this essay, human rights activists worldwide continue to ignore women’s suffering in Iran and Arab countries, reserving their obsessive focus for Israel alone. That is an unforgivable blunder that harms all women in the greater Middle East.