- Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic
This is the second of a two-volume project, the first (Beck and Nashat 2003) covering a much longer period. Like the first, this volume is organized in roughly chronological order, with some thematic pieces. There are ten contributions: two focus on the nineteenth century, one on the first half of the twentieth, two center on themes more embedded in the Pahlavi period, and the final five essays concern women's lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The essays are preceded by a Chronology and an Introduction by one of the editors, Guity Nashat.
As with most anthologies, the quality of the essays varies. But in this case, the unevenness is accentuated by and reflects the unevenness of the field of Iranian studies. As far as studies of women and gender are concerned, some of the best scholarship on Middle Eastern countries has come from ethnographers and anthropologists, although in the case of Iran the revolution of 1978–79 produced a rupture for some scholars who for a period could no longer go to the field. Historical research on this topic has expanded over the past two decades for several Middle Eastern countries, but perhaps because of the enormous impact of the Iranian Revolution, scholarship on Iran has been more concerned with the contemporary period, the Islamic Republic, and to a lesser degree and usually as a precursor to the Islamic Republic, the Pahlavi period (1925–79). This scholarship has had a largely sociological and political science bent to it, even if carried out by historians. Precious little of this scholarship [End Page 109] has been informed by the more recent ventures at the intersection of economic and political studies with ethnography, with the remarkable exception of Adelkhah 1999.
It is thus not surprising that the strongest two essays in this volume are written by two anthropologists. Lois Beck's "Qashqa'i Women in Postrevolutionary Iran" is a pleasure to read. It begins with a very important discussion of how so much written about "women in Iran" is largely if not solely about a small group of urban middle- and upper-class women but assumes universal applicability. Anthropologists, on the other hand, have tended to focus on detailed local-level studies of tribal, rural, and lower-class urban women. Moreover, as Beck rightly points out and details further in an important footnote which really belongs to the main text, the ethnolinguistic diversities of Iran are usually ignored in works on "Iranian women," with an implicit presumption that Persian is the group that matters and that differences of ethnicity are not material to considerations of gender. Her own contribution is a marvelous piece of micro-ethnography that demonstrates how all these issues matter. In a series of sections on "Politics," "Economics," "Social Change," and "Islam, Politics, and Culture," she gives us a tapestry of what changes have happened and how Qashqa'i women experience and articulate these changes: some as having improved their lives, others as a loss of what they enjoyed in the past and now miss nostalgically; yet in the end none would want to return to that past.
Both the approach and the conclusion are echoed by Erika Friedl's similarly nuanced and informative contribution on rural women of Boir Ahmad. Although framed initially, and somewhat problematically, in terms of outsider and insider viewpoints, the substantive parts of the essay, informed by almost 40 years of ethnographic work within one community, give us a rich overview of how these women's experience of some changes as welcome and others as a loss correlates closely with issues of control over their lives, access to mobility, and opportunities for communal and individual pleasures and leisure. The details of the changing labor lives of these women make one wonder how such changes could possibly figure in national statistics.
Two of the other essays on contemporary Iran focus on women's labor force participation. Chapter 7, by Amir Mehryar, Gholamali Farjadi, and...