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Reviewed by:
  • Being Modern in Iran
  • Eleanor Gao
Being Modern in Iran Fariba Adelkhah. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 190 pgs. $19.50.

The best summary of Fariba Adelkhah's Being Modern in Iran appears right on the cover of her book. The panoply of photos of Iranian soccer stars, political leaders, a religious scholar, movie stars, and modern greeting cards foreshadows Adelkhah's treatment of a variety of arenas: sports, politics, religion, and television and how each embodies the modernity of Iran. These fields may certainly be diverse, but Adelkhah notes that the mechanisms of modernity are not. Using a Weberian framework, she demonstrates that processes of institutionalization, rationalization, individualization, and commercialization have permeated all of these aspects of Iranian life. While some of the changes occur primarily in the private or the public sphere, Adelkhah asserts that the effects bleed into one another, resulting in constant renegotiation between the two. Moreover, she finds that alterations in the private sphere, while not strong enough to be identified as democratization, also can strengthen the public sphere.

Also prominent in the book is Adelkhah's discussion of the javanmard, or the man of integrity. While the historic representation of the javanmard is Teyyeb Haj Rezai, a manager of a fruit and vegetable market [End Page 152] during pre-Revolution times, athletes, politicians, and even businessmen today embody this ethic of courage and generosity. By interjecting her chapters with examples of modern-day javanmard, Adelkhah strives to prove that traditional concepts such as this are also dynamic and adaptable in contemporary Iran.

Instead of offering specific chapters regarding Iranian women, Adelkhah weaves a discussion of gender throughout her presentation on various aspects of modernity in Iran. In particular, she focuses on two main mechanisms transforming women's lives. She argues first that women in Iran now possess greater "self-reflexivity" or the ability to sift through a multitude of possibilities and decide according to their own needs. As one example, Adelkhah mentions the proliferation of cookbooks where the "reader is called upon not to submit passively to the attacks of age" but to consider creating dishes that fulfill her own dietary requirements (151). Second, Adelkhah emphasizes the growing entrance of women into the public sphere. With the rule of law perpetuating the "rationalization" of regulation and the institutionalization of the "public use of reason," there are fewer reasons to prevent and more reasons to include women in Iranian public life (138). As a consequence, women have become increasingly integrated into multiple arenas: social, political, religious, and athletic.

Abdelkhah's detailed and meticulous description of modernity in Iran certainly should be applauded, but her book also falters in some respects. Although she spends much time describing various examples of institutionalization, rationalization, individualization, and commercialization, she does not explain how these processes are related to modernity. The reader may agree with her that these mechanisms lead to a very orderly and efficient society, but does that necessarily mean it is "modern"? And if so, what are the normative gains and losses from being "modern"? Adelkhah seems to forget that many societies throughout history achieved bureaucratization, rationalization, individualization, and commercialization but were not better societies because of it. For instance, the Nazi regime was extremely bureaucratized with its efficient allocation of offices and strict hierarchy, and certainly pursued its goals of German expansion and Jewish extermination by using rationalized processes and orderly codes of extermination. Totalitarian regimes in general are among the most modern of regimes. They require an efficient [End Page 153] bureaucracy, an organized police force, and a sophisticated level of communication but for the purposes of perpetuating a system of terror, controlling the economy, and censoring information. To her credit, Adelkhah is cautious not to equate modernity with democratization, but she does state it has strengthened the public sphere at times. While that may be true, she should be aware of its ability to censor and control.

Similarly problematic is Adelkhah's discussion of gender and her conflation of modernity with choice. Modernity is not only defined by the proliferation of choices but also by the arenas in which the choices are situated. Therefore, choices available in cooking are not equitable...


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pp. 152-155
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