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Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic: A Review

Wed, Mar 22, 2006

Book Reviews

The Historian / Book Review by Jonathan G. Katz

Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic. Edited by Lois Beck and Guity Nashat. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 288. $45.00.)

The ten chapters of this book, a sequel to the editors’ Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800, reflect several disciplinary approaches. Historians Guity Nashat and Shireen Mahdavi deal with royal marriage and European contacts during the Qajar period. Mansoureh Ettehadieh discusses the participation of women in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and the faltering gains made during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Mahnaz Afkhami, a former secretary-general of the Women’s Organization of Iran, outlines the work of the semiofficial social service agency during the last decade of the Pahlavi period. Haleh Esfandiari examines the role of women parliamentarians both before and after the Islamic revolution.

Two chapters–one by Fatemeh E. Moghadam and another (albeit dry) statistical review by Iranian economists Amir Mehryar, Gholamali Farjadi, and Mohammad Tabibian–look at women’s participation in the contemporary labor force. Ziba Mir Hosseini provides an especially perceptive theoretical analysis of competing discourses in contemporary Iran regarding sexuality and women’s rights. And finally, veteran anthropologists Erika Friedl and Lois Beck conclude the volume with densely packed case studies that document changes in the lives of rural and nomadic women.

The status of women in Iran has been the subject of innumerable academic studies since the Iranian Revolution. Recent best-sellers attest to the growing popular fascination with the “plight” of Iranian women. The great virtue of this collection is that it demonstrates the complexities involved in interpreting the status and role of women in Iran. Is it the patriarchal nature of Iranian society or Islamic doctrine or unseen socioeconomic forces that accounts for the inferior status of women in Iran? A case in point is the contractual nature of marriage in Islam. Though Nashat reinterprets it as an example of women’s empowerment during the Qajar period, Moghadam sees its postrevolutionary application as further evidence of the “commoditization of female sexuality” (167).

Like many others who write about women in the Muslim world, the authors in this book often presume the need to correct misconceptions and stereotypes. Despite gender segregation, discriminatory practices that require women to don Islamic dresses, and official interpretations of Islam that put women at a legal disadvantage, these writers nonetheless assert that Iranian women have acquired considerable political power since the revolution. In addition to successfully lobbying for reforms in the marriage contract law, Iranian women have made impressive strides in terms of education. Far from being passive bystanders, women contributed both to the 1979 overthrow of the shah and the 1997 election of the moderate president Ayatollah Khatami. Likewise, Friedl and Beck point out that prevalent assumptions based on the urban middle-class experience often do not apply to rural women or to members of Iran’s many ethnic minorities.

Although certainly not the last word on the subject, Women in Iran can serve as a thought-provoking introduction. The inclusion of a detailed chronology and an introductory historical overview makes this book particularly suitable as a classroom text.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Iran Women’s Movement

"Now, when I look back [on the work of the WOI], it seems to me that our main mistake was not that we did not do other things which we should have done. Our main mistake was that we created conditions in which the contradictions related to modernity, progress, equality, and human rights, especially women’s rights, increased and the reaction to our work put perhaps too much pressure on the country’s social fabric." - Fate of the family protection law

"Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign for the Reform of Discriminatory Laws is an extraordinary phenomenon. It is democratic, nonhierarchical, open, and evolving in a polity that is none of those things." - Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story, Foreword

At the time of her execution, [Ms. Parsay] wrote one of the most moving letters to her children. And in that she expressed the same courage and the same steadfast belief in her principles that she had followed all of her life. And that was that: I’m a doctor. I know what it means to die, that takes only a minute. I’m not afraid of that. What I’m afraid of is to be pressured into denying 50 years of service to women. - Executed But Not Forgotten

“Prostitution was the code word for activism during the early part of the revolution” - I Was Iran's Last Woman Minister