Book Review: Jewels of Allah, by Nina Ansary

As Iran and the West enter a detente phase, this subtle, intelligent book offers compelling insight into the role of women in Iran. Nina Ansary, an Iranian academic living in the US since middle childhood when she left her homeland at the onset of the Iranian revolution, concentrates on the situation from that crucial point onwards, but, crucially, also looks back at how women in Iran have sometimes enjoyed emancipation in the past. She brings to life women from Iran’s past, who have held powerful positions in the military, the judiciary and as businesswomen.

Ansary expresses an inconvenient truth – although women were emancipated in law by the Pahlavi regime, in truth because cultural mores had not caught up, the top-down policies did not work as well as had been hoped. The veil was banned, for example, but instead of emancipating all women, many stayed at home rather than venture forth without head-cover – thus driving them back into the home, rather than the objective. She draws attention to the ironic paradox that whilst women’s roles were supposed to be circumscribed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, in many ways women continued to struggle for freedom and some of the steps the mullahs took underpinned that. (She also discusses the irony of the fact that many women, including feminists, joined the revolution against the Shah – and then regretted it.) The reintroduction of the veil, for example, meant that girls and women from stricter households could venture forth yet again – and did, in increasing numbers, meaning that they had access, crucially, to education. As Ansary says:

“The fact is that the so-called Islamization of education has proven to be responsible for generating unprecedented educational gains for the vast majority of the female population.” Classrooms were strictly segregated, leading to the unintended consequence that girls could learn, undisturbed by the demands of male pupils. Ansary also points out that textbooks were hardly changed, and continued to showcase women in professional roles, giving girls role models to which to aspire.

Girls and women, behind the Islamic curtain, continued their struggle, despite the threats of imprisonment in horrific prisons (in one of which, Evin prison, my own birth father was imprisoned for several years after the Revolution). Their role was bolstered during the Iran-Iraq war, Ansary also notes, when women filled the roles of men fighting on the fronts. As Ansary says:

“Perhaps the government’s failed ideology has been most obvious to a defiant female population that continues to boldly protest their enforced status of inferiority.” Girls and women played a crucial role in the 2009 uprisings, as Ansary says, despite all odds. Women also continued to run a number of important magazines – also crucial because women from all backgrounds, secular and religious, have worked together to combat misogyny. Ansary’s understanding of Islamic feminism is crucial to this middle section of the book.

This is an engaging, fascinating and beautifully written book, countering, as Ansary writes, “convenient half-truths” and expressing instead, as Ansary says, “the audacious history of women in Iran”. Anyone seeking to understand the troubled history of Iran should read it.

I read it with great interest, both as a feminist and as someone with Iranian roots through my birth father (and am grateful for receiving a review copy from the publishers). It gave me insight into the life of my birth family in Iran, in which women in the family had to see members in prison (and one executed) and were stifled, like others, as women.

The book started its life as an academic thesis, and as such is fully footnoted and rigorous. However, it is also engaging in its tone and suitable for all readers. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Jewels of Allah, by Nina Ansary, published by Revela Press.

Katharine’s own book, Blood and Water, about her search for her Iranian birth family, can be found here:

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