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  • Conceiving Citizens. Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran by Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet
  • Anna Vanzan
Conceiving Citizens. Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran. By Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xiii plus 306 pp. $29.95).

In the already rich panorama of studies on Iranian women’s history in the last two centuries, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet has managed to increase our knowledge on the topic by writing a book based on a new perspective, i.e., the intersection between women’s emancipation and the evolution of hygiene and reproductive politics in [End Page 810] Iran. Conceiving citizens is to be welcomed as a contribution to a better understanding of how both modern medicine and nationalist concern impacted on women’s education, employment, civil and political rights. In addition, as the author argues in her Introduction, since it is impossible to tell the history of women’s health and the politics of reproduction as one isolated social phenomena (8), the book casts issues of gender and sexuality in a more general frame that contemplates the debates over modern science, family planning, humanism, citizenship and, of course, theories of maternalism that took place in Iran from the Qajar times to the Islamic Republic.

Chapter 1, “Healing Iran: Hygiene and Social Change in the Qajar Era,” tackles the emerging of hygiene in the second half of the nineteenth century as a field of knowledge that merged basic principles of medicine and science. The social perspectives of hygiene urged Qajar authorities to open institutions to combat epidemics and infectious diseases while the theme of hygiene became the symbol of humanism and civilization. As such, hygiene became a common topic discussed not only by specialists but also by intellectuals, reformers and patriots. In this context, hygiene became closely associated with maternalism, i.e., the promotion of motherhood and childcare, out of nationalist concern. As maternalists concentrated on women’s reproductive health, the role of midwives became the target of their attention and harsh critique. Chapter 2, “Infant Mortality and the ‘Crisis’ of Midwifery,” discusses the decline of midwives’ profession, as they were considered to be the first cause of infant mortality and, consequently, of the decrease of Iranian population.

Chapter 3, “From Celibacy to Companionship. The Evolution of Persian Marriages,” shows how Iranian attitude toward marriage changed over time also in consideration of new preoccupations in matter of hygiene. The devastating impact of venereal diseases, particularly discussed in Chapter 4 (“Sexual Mores, social Lives. The Impact of Venereal Diseases,”) encouraged people to change their habits, or, at least, to pay more attention to activities such as practicing illicit sex. At the same time, as the author argues, “the maternalistic discourse and … the hygiene movement in general—liberated the modern Iranian woman by opening up discussion of previous taboo subjects as sexuality and encouraging a public reassessment of family life and women’s rights in the domestic partnership” (92).

Chapter 5, “Giving Birth: Modern Nursing and Reproductive Politics”, deals with the transformations of gender relations at the light of the new culture of childbirth. These changes went hand in hand with the new political deal put in action by the Pahlavi dynasty. Now, women were encouraged to become productive members of the national project that brought some positive results: the mortality of women and children decreased and women were trained in the new techniques of midwifery, thus paving the way for the future first female doctors. These results were mirrored, and somehow caused by, women’s improvements in the field of schooling and education (treated in Chapter 6, “Schooling Mothers, Patriotic Education and Women’s ’Renewal’”). According to the author, female education enjoyed a vast consensus also because it was perfectly plausible with domesticity and motherhood. Oppositely, another crucial issue which came up in the first decades of the twentieth century, i.e., veiling, caused a sharp divide among Iranians. Kashani-Sabet devotes Chapter 7 (“Defrocking the Nation. [End Page 811] Unveiling and the Politics of Dress”) to this issue, because, she states, “no study of Iranian women would be considered complete without a mention to veiling” (147).

Galvanized by the empowerment of education and by a new...


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