Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet’s Conceiving Citizens, a recipient of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies Book Award for 2012, is a welcome contribution to Middle East gender and sexuality studies and provides rich potential for comparative studies in other fields. The author embarks on an ambitious undertaking examining the topics of hygiene, marriage, sexuality, and reproduction in Iran from the late nineteenth century to the contemporary Islamic Republic. The comprehensive nature of the study is matched by a rigorous methodology and analysis of sources ranging from Iranian treatises on hygiene to European and American accounts to visual images from Persian-language periodicals (reproduced in the book). Kashani-Sabet marshals copious evidence to argue that the modern women’s movement in Iran was shaped by the discourses on science and sexuality dominant among maternalists in medical and policy-making circles. Maternalists, she contends, “did not all wish to establish gender equality or to combat patriarchy . . . [but instead] advanced the state’s political ideology” (5). In the process of unraveling the tensions between maternalism and feminism in twentieth-century Iran, she delves into well-trodden themes in the field, such as scientific [End Page 310] domesticity and veiling/unveiling, as well as underexplored subjects, such as sexually transmitted disease, midwifery, and women’s suffrage.
The book’s ten chapters are organized into three sections: “Hygiene and Citizenship”; “Marriage, Maternity, and Sexuality”; and “Politics and Reproduction.” The first part addresses the social and intellectual history of hygiene and maternalism. Kashani-Sabet argues: “Hygiene was a subject at once personal and private but also social and public” (21). Women’s hygiene was particularly important for policy makers and statesmen given women’s reproductive capacity and service to the nation. By the end of the nineteenth century, fears of depopulation, due in fact to high rates of disease and epidemics, led to the scapegoating of midwives. The introduction of Western biomedicine to Iran, primarily through European and American physicians, led to a movement to medicalize childbirth and place midwives under state control, a theme Kashani-Sabet returns to in later chapters.
The second part delves into discourses on marriage and the family, venereal disease, the field of nursing, female education, and unveiling in the early twentieth century. The author argues that Iranian reformers and policy makers considered the supposed decline of marriage and the poor conditions of married women as reflective of the nation’s moral deficit. Healthy marriages would serve to strengthen the bonds between the citizenry and the state. Kashani-Sabet contends that such concerns led eventually to legislation, such as the Marriage Law of 1931, that aimed to limit the number of child marriages (67–68).
In her discussion of press, public, and governmental discourses on sexually transmitted disease, Kashani-Sabet breaks new ground. She constructs a social and intellectual history of venereal disease, tracking its wide geographic spread in Iran, as well as public and private concerns and its relationship to prostitution, including its deleterious effects on women, the family, and marriage. Frank public discussions about such taboo topics led ultimately, she argues, to a reevaluation of women’s rights within the family, since women and children were seen as most grievously harmed.
Kashani-Sabet explores the tension between the emancipatory consequences and limitations of maternalism. Even though women did not overrun “medical patriarchy,” special concerns for women’s and children’s health, an important feature of the hygiene movement, expanded women’s opportunities on several fronts, most notably by opening up new careers to educated women, such as professional nursing and modern midwifery (118). A shift from the discourse of “patriotic motherhood” to “patriotic womanhood” facilitated activism in support of women’s political rights and the birth of modern feminism in Iran in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The third part takes the reader from the post–World War II era of the Pahlavi monarchy to the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Whereas developments in the early twentieth century expanded women’s educational and professional...