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Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran

7th September 2015

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In the Western world, there is a persistent image of women in Iran as subservient, constrained and controlled by their fathers, husbands and brothers. They are thought to be second-class citizens in a male-dominated society,  banished from the public sphere, deprived of a voice, and relegated to a purely domestic environment where they are content to fulfil the role of the ‘traditional and dutiful Muslim woman’.

Perhaps to the outsider looking in, basing their opinions on what they see and read in the news, this seems a fair assessment of a wholly unfair and unjust system. But, as with many things, the truth is far more complex and nuanced than the popular myth.

The historical narrative of the “woman question” in Iran is, in reality, an intricate labyrinth. It is not a story that can be accurately recounted by portraying women as either “oppressed” or “liberated” during a particular historical period. It is a maze with unexpected twists and turns, gains and losses, triumphs and defeats.

When I initially began my research on the women’s movement in Iran, I was struck by the fact that women were one of the biggest supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. As an Iranian woman, this information was most baffling and counterintuitive on so many levels, given the fact that the Western-influenced Pahlavi monarchy was solely responsible for emancipating the Iranian woman after centuries of oppression.

When assessing Iranian women’s history, the inconvenient truths that arise are striking. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, ushered in an ultra-conservative leadership that was explicitly antagonistic to the modernizing and pro-equality initiatives of the Pahlavi monarchy.

Yet this revolution gave rise to a flourishing of powerful female voices. Despite the eradication of numerous “liberating” laws and institutions, the spirit of the progressive Pahlavi era influenced popular class women. Ironically, it was the very eradication of these laws and re-introduction of the veil in public and banning of co-education that gave the majority of modern Iranian women access to education and progressive ideas of equality for the first time.

Inspired by my research, my book, Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran, shatters the stereotypical assumptions and the Western misconceptions about women in Iran. The book additionally explores the failed gender ideology of the Islamic Republic, and the ebb and flow of contradictory currents leading to a feminist movement within a post-revolutionary patriarchal climate. Most surprising was discovering the myriad of bold, highly educated accomplished women in post-revolutionary Iran, who despite all obstacles continue to shine their bright light and fight an uphill battle with remarkable grace, courage and dignity.

Today, in a country ruled by theocracy and a misogynistic regimen embedded in the Constitution, the women of Iran continue to courageously pursue liberation despite an imposed, antiquated gender ideology. Contrary to all expectations, a surge in female literacy persists, with women comprising over 60% of all university students; and an unwavering women’s rights movement remains on the horizon despite all attempts by the regime to extinguish their flame.   

Against formidable odds and despite prohibitions and arrests, these women refuse to conform, and continue to forge ahead with an ongoing battle aimed at reversing the discriminatory laws. The beauty of this uniquely Iranian movement derives from the fact that it is fueled from women of all social and religious backgrounds. Theirs is a passionate and common cause – a woman’s right to self-determination.

Once upon a time, women in Iran were profoundly instrumental in contributing to the collapse of the monarchy and bringing about the victory of the Islamic Republic. It now appears that they could be an instrumental force in effecting its dissolution.


Dr. Nina Ansary is a historian and expert in the women’s movement in Iran. She was recently honoured as one of the 21 Leaders of the 21st Century by the award-winning news website Women’s ENews and is one of the top social influencers on Iran on Twitter.

She is the author of the upcoming book, The Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran, and regularly contributes to The Daily Beast, Womens ENews, BBC, and the Huffington Post. For more information, visit: She can be found on Twitter @drninaansary or on 

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