Parvenu Paidar, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth Century Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

This book argues that in neither the Pahlavi nor the Islamic eras have Iranian women enjoyed direct and independent control over the establishment of gender policies. “By destroying the independence of the women’s movement through cooption and coercion, both secular and Islamic states aimed to protect the nation…from the negative side effects of women’s social emancipation” (p. 358).

The book’s value lies in its detailed discussion of the development of laws and policies pertaining to women under the Islamic Republic. As the Islamic elements of the revolutionary coalition sought to control first the revolution and then the government, gender issues assumed prominence in political debates. During the revolution, the new leadership attempted to construct a popularly compelling image of cultural authenticity. The preeminent marker of that authenticity was the image of the veiled Muslim woman. To prove and consolidate its power, the new regime sought to further Islamize the behavior and appearance of Iranian women. The separation of official Shi‘ism and the state facilitated this effort, with the clergy “in control of both women’s social and familial roles” (p. 257). Women’s employment, the hejab, marriage and family planning were all decided within this larger attempt to gain and monopolize political power.

Paidar shows that consensus on the particular form Islamization would take was difficult to achieve. Often, “economic and political imperatives defined which practices in relation to the family were or were not acceptable as ‘Islamic’ ”(p. 289), with many policies made in an ad hoc fashion. Ensuring that the population adhered to shari‘a law became tantamount to demonstrating the regime’s power. Laxity concerning matters regulating women was thus viewed as a transgression against the state itself.

Yet Paidar provides little evidence of the impact of such ideological rhetoricizing and legal maneuvering on Iranian women and their families. She occasionally cites census reports to gauge the effects of state policies and laws, but government statistics should be used with caution. Oral histories and interviews with exiled communities would have strengthened Paidar’s argument. Yet by focusing primarily on the ideological and political construction of gender relations, Paidar has failed to examine the multifarious technologies of power in multiple locations in Iranian society.

How to cite this article:

Shiva Balaghi "Women and the Political Process in Twentieth Century Iran," Middle East Report 210 (Spring 1999).

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