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DATE: Nov. 14, 2002

UM-Dearborn scholar publishes study of "The Making of the Modern Iranian Woman"

DEARBORN---Much can be learned about the history of women in Iran from two images included in a new book by University of Michigan-Dearborn history Prof. Camron Amin.

In the first illustration, taken from a government newspaper in 1861, women wearing veils are shown grouped in religious devotion. The second image is the photo of a woman, the Shah's sister in fact, giving a speech, solo, in a political setting, not a religious one.

The difference in the status of women shown in those two images reflects the enormous changes in the role of women in Iran over that period. Women adopted new guises, played larger roles in society and symbolized the country's sense of progress and reform, Amin says.

Amin is the author of "The Making of the Modern Iranian Woman: Gender, State Policy and Popular Culture, 1865-1946," which was published this fall by the University Press of Florida.

The work relies on archival materials, journalism, memoirs and oral histories to examine one of the least understood periods in the history of the Middle East. "This is a study of the emergence of a concern for gender equality in Iranian public discourse, the role of the Women's Awakening in provoking it and the memories of individuals who lived through it," Amin said.

The Women's Awakening is the name given in Iran to the period between 1936 and 1941, a "state feminism project that offered new opportunities in employment and education for some Iranian women in exchange for the requirement that all Iranian women abandon their veils in public," Amin said.

"The regime of Reza Shah championed and enforced a particular vision of the modern Iranian woman," he said. "She was to be as educated as any European or American woman; she was to be integrated into the workforce in increasingly prestigious professions; not just a supportive companion to her husband, she was also to complement the modern Iranian man in the civic arena."

The Women's Awakening had its roots in a national political renewal movement in Iran in the 19th century. That movement lead to more liberal government and less conservative religious traditions. "Part and parcel of that movement was that conditions for women must be improved," Amin said.

The movement gained momentum in the 1930s: women were admitted to the University of Tehran in 1935, and civil service jobs were opened to them. "So much so that there was a backlash against women working in professional offices in the 1940s," he said.

Many of the changes in the status of women are indicated by changes in marriage laws and customs, Amin said. In 1931, the Iranian government approved a marriage law that established the state's interest in marriage.

Among other changes, the law specified that marriages must be recorded with the government, and outlined specific conditions for divorce.

While many say that the Marriage Law of 1931 merely codified the gender inequities of traditional interpretations of Islamic law. For example, "husbands still controlled their wives right to work and travel, and the husbands chose their place of residence," Amin said.

"Nonetheless, the principal of the state control over marriages was intact," he said. "By inserting state regulation into the process, the state provided women with an automatic (and powerful) third party to whom they could appeal, but also to whom they must ultimately defer."

While Iranian marriages after 1931 still reflected gender inequities, the 1931 law provided modern Iranian women with the beginnings of some protection from the state. "It also provided the government with a claim on the loyalties of modern Iranian womanhood," Amin said.

"The Pahlavi regime enforced that claim by suppressing independent women's organizations in favor of the state-run Women's Society in 1935," Amin said. "So the Women's Awakening is a prime example of how progressive changes were often wed to authoritarian state policies during the Pahlavi dynasty, which endured from 1925 to 1979 in Iran."

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