In her illuminating book Jewels of Allah, Dr. Nina Ansary explores the origins of misconception about the identity of the 20th and 21st century Iranian Muslim woman. Born in Tehran in 1966 but raised in New York City, Ansary received her Ph.D. in History at Columbia and has devoted a great deal of her studies to the condition of women in Iran. Though this book is academic in its approach, the arguments and structure of the book are easy to follow and engaging.
For us here in the west, a veiled woman is an almost instinctive symbol of oppression, but Dr. Ansary examines the origins of these symbols and provides a fascinating account of how Iranian women have found liberation through their oppression. These misconceptions juxtaposed by the actual marginalization of women in the greater Middle East has undermined the power and perseverance of women in Iran who have found liberation within the constructs of the socio-political structure of their country over the last thirty years. From the mandates of the Pahlavi regime forcing Iranian women to remove their hijabs, socially westernize and “progress,” to the principles and mandates of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution and even further to the 2009 anti-government protests, aka “the Green Movement,” the situation and status of women in Iran is complex and nuanced. Ansary does a tremendous job decoding western misconceptions of the Iranian woman, which, in some ways, applies to the women’s movement all over the world. She makes a good case for the fact that there is not just one kind of woman with one set of oppressions but rather that often these are situations that are universally experienced.
Notes Ansary, “The insistent cry for women’s freedom has been heard for hundreds of years in Iran. Twenty-five centuries ago in ancient Persia, women were in some ways more liberated than they are in modern Iran. There is often an ebb and flow to popular movements such as women’s liberation: enlightened progress appears inevitable until political, religious, or social forces turn back the tide with equal fervor.”
Eternally an optimist, Ansary adds, “Knowing that women decades ago — even centuries ago — struggled for what women are still fighting for today can only invigorate and inspire the contemporary rights movement.”
This book is a must-read for anyone looking to better understand the intricate history of women in Iran, their social progress and what we might expect to see from Iranian women, both religious and secular, in the future.
[Note from the Editor: for another recent examination of women under the veil, see our review of Jennifer Heath’s anthology The Veil.]