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Reviewed by:
  • The Politics of Women's Rights in Iran
  • Ann Elizabeth Mayer (bio)
The Politics of Women's Rights in Iran, by Arzoo Osanloo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. xix + 258 pages. Notes to p. 225. Gloss. to p. 230. Bibl. to p. 250. Index to p. 258. $22.95.

The contents of Osanloo's book correlate weakly with its title. Osanloo largely writes around her ostensible subject, which is the merging of republicanism with the concerns of Iranian Shi'ism (see p. 8) and showing how "Islamic governance comes together with a republican state form and allows new expressions of individuated rights" (p. 35). The author instead presents disjointed collages of materials, many on tangential topics, along with many interesting anecdotal accounts of encounters with women, some in official or legal settings, whom she met in Tehran during a research trip.

Osanloo's study is strikingly deficient in analyses of crucial developments that should be her focus. For example, Osanloo cursorily mentions in passing the controversial 2004 decision by Iran's Council of Guardians to override the vote by the Majlis to ratify the Women's Convention (p. 189). However, this action is centrally related to her topic, since it involves ratifying a convention that would have outlawed discrimination against women —a move that was vigorously supported by Iran's liberals and feminists and also by many religious authorities —in addition to being approved by elected legislators, only to be blocked by a body affiliated with the executive branch, which rejected it on both Islamic and constitutional grounds. Significantly, the author also fails to grapple with how Iran's proposed Islamic reservation to the convention would have affected women's rights, which correlates with her generally uncritical approach to how Iranian state policy deploys Islamic rubrics to rationalize denying women rights.

Many sections recapitulate what has already been laid out more expertly in the [End Page 674] secondary literature on background topics such as modern Iranian history, Islamic law, and the role of Islamic law since the Islamic Revolution. Osanloo's descriptions of the scholarly literature are most peculiar, involving numerous capricious capsule summaries of the theses that other scholars have allegedly put forward. Since the footnoting is weak and throughout this book only very few references include any pagination, one cannot identify what pages in the cited works Osanloo has read —or more likely misread —in devising her descriptions. The misrepresentation of the contents of Reza Afshari's Human Rights in Iran is only one of many troubling examples. Osanloo presents that book, which probes specifics of human rights politics in the Islamic Republic, as if it neglected that subject and as if it were geared towards legalistic abstractions (pp. 167-168).

Prominent figures in the campaign for equal rights, such as the feminist lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, are ignored, and the regime's record of persecuting women's rights advocates, including Kar, is downplayed. Conversely, the women in the anecdotes that Osanloo reports are treated as if their personal comments possessed overwhelming significance, even when these women are not situated in terms of age, education, family background, economic status, political affiliations, etc. For example, weight is given to the views on women's rights of one "Farideh," about whom one learns only that she is a married mother of two living in Tehran (see p. 37).

The author's grasp of international human rights law is shaky, as exemplified by her failing to recognize that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states customary international law, which is as binding as treaty law but falls in a different category. Osanloo mistakenly describes the declaration as a treaty to which Iran is a signatory (p. 171). Later, she correctly describes it as a declaration —but one that she wrongly asserts "has no binding effect" (p. 182). Her nomenclature tends to be slapdash. For example, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam is called "Islamic Declaration of Human Rights" (p. 181). Moreover, although it is an Organization of the Islamic Conference initiative, Osanloo writes as if it were essentially an Iranian creation (see p. 183).

A symptom of the digressive tendencies that pervade the volume can be found...


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