- Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture by Farzin Vejdani
In this historiographical study of Iran from the later nineteenth (1860s) to the early twentieth centuries (1940s), FarzinVejdani — Assistant Professor of History at Ryerson University — argues that Iranian histories were written by a range of people from different backgrounds and for different purposes, such as: people at the imperial court who translated histories from European languages into Persian for the monarch; those who wrote history textbooks for school children and youngsters; and journalists who wrote serialized histories in newspapers or journals for their readers. Thus, concludes Vejdani, the writing of history was not reserved for a specific segment of the society, but rather was broadly-based.
The author details how, in earlier historiographical stages, authors were less bound by the state in writing history, but later, under the more nationalist Pahlavi regime of Reza Shah, history writing was not only limited, but even standardized in content. In the late 1800s most histories were written to provide legitimacy for the ruling Qajars. Later, during the Constitutional period that imposed limitations on the power of the ruler and stressed individualism, citizenship, rights, and other constitutional values, a new approach to the writing of history emerged. Yet later, during the Pahlavi period and toward the end of the period covered by the book, Iranian nationalism reached its apex. This nationalism aimed to link Reza Shah’s Iran to pre-Islamic Iran, namely to the period of Iran’s greatness, when it developed mighty empires. In spite of a millennium of foreign occupation (from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries), Reza Shah’s nationalism necessitated a history that created a sense of continuity with the past rather than one that stressed such major ruptures.
This standardized history was a more professionalized history. In content it centered more around orthodox Zoroastrianism (as the prevalent religion of pre-Islamic Iran) and its discussion of other religious minorities was minimal to almost non-existent. These histories represented movements and religions which split from the orthodoxy in a negative light, and there was an almost complete absence of women.
These characteristics of the standardized history helped those who were quite absent from it to develop their own history and to publish it in circles other than the official history textbooks. For example, in the 1920s, during the post-Constitutional period, the Iranian women’s movement began to present women’s history in serialized biographies in the women’s press. Here one could find biographies of women from Europe and America, but the majority concerned eastern — particularly Muslim — women. While the examples of western women’s biographies recognized the various [End Page 411] fields in which women could be involved, those of eastern women made such involvement seem achievable, thus inspiring Iranian women to improve their status in society. As progress in the status of women in Iran was one of the pillars of Reza Shah’s reforms for a modern Iran, women’s history continued to flourish well into the 1930s.
Educational reforms in Iran were not detached from Iranian nationalism or from professionalism in writing history. With the introduction of modern schools and universities, better-educated and higher-qualified students graduated, and those who turned to writing or teaching history were therefore more attuned to historical methodology. This ‘‘professionalism’’ in writing history usually came with a price. Apart from the lucky few who had patrons that commissioned scholars to write history as they saw fit, most had to follow the standardized history dictated by the state. This latter type of historian needed to make and secure their and their family’s livelihood, and therefore made the compromises and sacrifices necessary to live in a strong dictatorship with a very defined sense of Iranian nationalism. Since the Iranian nationalism of Reza Shah was largely molded around the Persian culture, language, and ethnic group, professional historians needed to find ways to still include other ethnic groups, such as stressing their roles in defending and protecting the Iranian nation.