There is a popular narrative about Iranian women, suggesting that they advanced during the Pahlavi Monarchy, and, since the overthrow of the Shah, suffered massive repression and became symbolically and literally re-veiled. Nina Ansary seeks to provide a surprisingly different picture of today’s Iranian women.
Ansary, whose family fled Iran at the onset of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, grew up in the US and has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. Concerned both with feminism and with the history and culture of her people, she has created a highly intelligent presentation focusing on notable facts about the Iranian woman’s movement not immediately apparent to outsiders. First, she dispels the notion that under the Shah all women celebrated their newfound freedoms: the right to unveil, to wear westernized clothing, to study in mixed gender schools and even attend universities outside the country. Factually, there were many women who, without sacrificing their intellectual passion for equality, found such western norms abhorrent. Many girls did not go to school at all rather than attend with boys. According to Ansary, the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, decrying what it called “westoxication,” at first won over some strong-minded but deeply religious women with its promise to protect women’s rights within Islamic law. Then it gradually institutionalized widespread repression of women’s rights. However, the new regime failed to change textbooks. Therefore, elementary educational materials that had been created under the Shah’s rule, illustrating males and females in roles of relative equality, offered subtly liberal guidance. Ansary explores in great depth the implications of this “blunder” on the part of the Khomeini government, which resulted in girls in that religiously conservative ambience learning subliminally about possibilities for gender parity.
In addition to presenting historical facts about the women’s movement in her native country, Ansary pays tribute to numerous heroines of women’s rights, including such leading figures as Shahla Sherkat, Farazeh Hashemi, and Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, who courageously promoted women’s issues in the troubled Khomeini years and afterwards, writing and editing with an overtly activist stance. And though she deplores the excesses of Khomeini’s conservative governance, she offers a unique view of its activities, suggesting that its policies drove women toward, not away from, feminist philosophy. Her work shows extensive research drawing on diverse, international resources. She asserts that despite the apparent paradox, both religiously conservative women and feminist activists in Iran are now working in concert to make positive changes “with resilience and tenacity.” Ansary states simply that, “If this book shatters many of the stereotypical assumptions and the often misunderstood story of women in Iran, it will have succeeded.”
Offering an informed view of the women’s movement within Iran, JEWELS OF ALLAH challenges assumptions and offers cautious optimism.