Shah: Women Are Inferior To Men
“You’re schemers, you’re evil. Every one of you.”
Without question, Iranian women enjoyed far more liberties under the Shah, a leader routinely praised in the West for his ‘modernity’, than the revolutionary Islamic regime which succeeded him. The Shah’s opinion of women themselves, however, is another matter.
U.S. audiences got a taste of the Shah’s smug attitude toward the female sex in a televised Q&A with Barbara Walters in 1977.1 Filmed at their home in Tehran, it was the first time that he and his Queen, Farah Pahlavi, sat down for an interview together. The appearance is more noteworthy for another reason, however — it produced probably one of the most painful exchanges ever recorded between a journalist and a world leader.
April 6, 1977
The Barbara Walters Special
Walters: Do you think that women are equal to men?
Shah: [hesitates] Equal in the human rights? Yes, sure.
Walters: Allright...you’ve given women in your country their human rights. But what about equal in...intelligence?
Shah: [Long pause] Well, there are cases, sure. You can always find some exceptions, and find fantastic women. But...
Walters: [sarcastically] ‘Here or there...’
Shah: Yes. But on the average.... I repeat again, where have you produced a top scientist?
Walters: Madame Curie. [Famed French physicist Marie Curie, pioneer in radiation research and two-time Nobel Prize winner]
Shah: That’s one.
Walters: But we’ve had a lot of trouble getting ahead perhaps because of this point of view. Do you feel your wife is one of those exceptions? Do you feel your wife can govern as well as a man?
Shah: [Sighs deeply...looks down in contemplation] I prefer not to answer.
Walters: But you have made your wife the regent of this country! If you should die, your wife heads this country! And yet you’re not certain that she can govern as well as a man?
[Both Shah and Farah—visibly embarrassed—are left speechless]
Shah: [After 8 seconds of dead silence] I can’t say. I don’t know how she would govern in a crisis.
Walters: [Turning to Farah] Say something, your Majesty, how do you feel when you listen to this?
[Smiles uncomfortably...very long pause. Walters later recalled that her eyes were “brimming with tears”.2]
Farah: You know..... [looking up at the ceiling in desperation] ...what can I say?
“I could only imagine their conversation in their bedroom that night”, wrote Walters in her memoir.2 The catalyst for her probing, in fact, was a 1973 magazine interview with another woman, famed Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. Stunned by the Shah’s audacious statements, Walters recalled, “I couldn’t quite believe he would be so foolish as to have made them, so I decided to ask him.”
In their lively and oft-quoted conversation, the Shah’s fascinating, inexplicable contempt for women poured out in what can be only described as a misogynist rant.
A lifelong playboy, thrice married, the Shah had probably never been a faithful husband. His previous bride, Soraya Esfandiari, claimed that he had “countless mistresses” before her,3 and his own Court Minister (Asadollah Alam’s) posthumously published secret diaries revealed the extent to which the Shah partook in scheduled trysts with various ladies, including expensive prostitutes.4
Around the time of Fallaci’s interview,5 there had been widespread rumors that the Shah had secretly married one of these women. It all started over the summer when a certain girl he had been seeing called Gilda began bragging to others that the Shah was madly in love with her. Pretty soon even the Shahbanou herself became aware of the gossip.6 Threatened with the prospect of divorce, the Shah cut the girl off. In this interview, the Shah condoned the practice of keeping mistresses and taking a second wife, though he never admitted to any personal infidelity.
The New Republic — December 1, 1973
Oriana Fallaci Interviews the Shah of Iran
Fallaci: Your Majesty, is it true you’ve taken another wife?
A: A stupid, vile, disgusting libel.
Fallaci: But, Your Majesty, you’re a Moslem. Your religion allows you to take another wife without repudiating Empress Farah Diba.
A: Yes, certainly. According to my religion, I could, so long as my wife grants her consent. And, to be honest, one must admit there are cases where… When a wife is ill, for instance, or when she refuses to perform her wifely duties, thereby causing her husband unhappiness… Let’s face it! One has to be a hypocrite or an innocent to believe a husband will tolerate that kind of thing. In your society, when something like that occurs, doesn’t a man take a mistress, or even more than one? Well, in our society, instead, a man can take another wife. So long as his first wife agrees and the court approves. Without those two conditions on which I have based my law, however, the new marriage cannot take place. So can you believe that I, my very self, would break the law by marrying in secret?
Fallaci: Good. Let’s say you deny everything Your Majesty, and…
A: I won’t even bother to deny anything. I don’t even want to be quoted in a denial.
Fallaci: How strange, Your Majesty. If there is a monarch whose name has always been associated with women, it’s you. And now I’m beginning to suspect women have counted for nothing in your life.
A: I fear your suspicion is justified. Women, you know… Look, let’s put it this way. I don’t underestimate them, as shown by the fact that they have derived more advantages than anyone else from my White Revolution. I have fought strenuously to obtain equal rights and responsibilities for them. I have even incorporated them in the Army, where they get six months’ military training before being sent to the villages to fight the battle against illiteracy. Nor should one forget that I’m the son of the man who removed women’s veils in Iran. [Reza Shah made it a crime to wear them, how liberating] But I wouldn’t be sincere if I asserted I’d been influenced by a single one of them. Nobody can influence me, nobody at all. And a woman still less. In a man’s life, women count only if they’re beautiful and graceful and know how to stay feminine and… This Women’s Lib business, for instance. What do these feminists want? What do you want? Equality, you say? Indeed! I don’t want to seem rude, but… You may be equal in the eyes of the law, but not, I beg your pardon for saying so, in ability.
Fallaci: Aren’t we?
A: No. You’ve never produced a Michelangelo or a Bach. You’ve never even produced a great cook. [Julia Child had been world famous for years at this point] And don’t talk of opportunities. Are you joking? Have you lacked the opportunity to give history a great cook? You have produced nothing great, nothing! Tell me, how many women capable of governing have you met in the course of interviews such as this?
Fallaci: At least two, Your Majesty. Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi. [Israeli and Indian Prime Ministers. The Shah and Farah had both met with Gandhi in India in Jan. 1969; she made her own state visit to Iran in 1974.]
A: Hm… All I can say is that women, when they are in power, are much harsher than men. Much more cruel. Much more bloodthirsty. I’m quoting facts, not opinions. You’re heartless when you’re rulers. Think of Caterina de’Medici, Catherine of Russia, Elizabeth I of England. Not to mention your Lucrezia Borgia, with her poisons and intrigues. You’re schemers, you’re evil. Every one of you.
Were he an elected official rather than a hereditary ruler, the Shah’s sexist remarks would inevitably have been used against him politically. But then, unaccountable tyrants need not concern themselves with such things.
1 Barbara Walters taped her interview with the royal couple in Tehran in February 1977. The episode first aired on ABC April 6th, and re-ran July 28th. The other subjects in the annual special, her second such program since it launched in 1976, were Elizabeth Taylor and then husband, Sen. John Warner (R-VA), and Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-TX).
Walters interviewed the Shah again in 1978 and 1979, and maintained a friendship with Farah Pahlavi long after her husband was gone.
2 Audition: A Memoir (2008) by Barbara Walters. Walters herself was a good example of the capability of women. At the time she was not only the first woman in U.S. history to co-anchor the evening network news, but the highest paid anchor on television.
3 The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran’s Royal Court, 1969-1977 (1991) by Asadollah Alam. Alam was Court Minister but had also served as Prime Minister.
4 Palace of Solitude (1992) by Princess Soraya Esfandiari-Bakhtiari
5 The New Republic, December 1, 1973 issue [link] The Shah’s interview with Oriana Fallaci was conducted in early October in Tehran. It was later included in Fallaci’s book Intervista con la Storia (1976), released in the U.S. as Interview With History (1977).
6 More on the Gilda affair can be found in The Shah’s Last Ride (1988) by William Shawcross, The Life and Times of the Shah (2008) by Gholam Reza Afkhami and The Shah (2011) by Abbas Milani.
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