Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran
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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.
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