A major watershed in the making of modern Iranian society was the bold and controversial attempt of Reza Shah Pahlavi (reigned 1925-41) to radically transform Iranian womanhood. The Women's Awakening of 1936-41 was 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.
Drawing upon decades of debate on “the woman question” in the popular press, the regime of Reza Shah championed and enforced a particular vision of the modern Iranian woman. 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 — her unveiled entrance into society “chaperoned” by her modern male guardian. Yet the notion of the modern male guardian likewise reflected new social realities. He was no longer simply a woman's relative or husband, but also her classmate, her professor, her colleague and, ultimately, her “great father,” Reza Shah.
This book explores the emergence of the modern concept of womanhood in Iran, based on a concern for true gender equality, by examining both the implementation and implications of the Women's Awakening Project within both public discourse and the memories of individuals who witnessed this change. For while the impetus for the Women's Awakening declined with the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, it had permanently changed the parameters of “the woman question” and Iranian society's conception of gender roles. The regime's effort to strike a balance between emancipating and controlling women served to bring longstanding tensions between male guardianship and modern Iranian womanhood to the breaking point.
It was only after of the Women's Awakening that some Iranian feminists began to argue publicly for true gender equality in Iranian society. Even Islamic Revivalists, opponents of the Women's Awakening, began to appropriate the modern Iranian woman of the 1930's, albeit re-veiled, for their cause. Indeed, because the Pahlavi regime had made women's progress an integral part of its legitimacy in the 1930's, politicians across the political spectrum in the 1940's realized that any viable political movement in Iran had to make “the woman question” an active part of its platform.
You Can Only Die Once: A Young Woman Signs Up for Flight School, 1940
From Chapter 6, “The Capable Woman,” page 177
[In 1940, the Pahlavi regime made government flight training available to civilians — men women. Images of women pilots soon filled the press as part of the propaganda of the Women's Awakening Project of 1936-1941. But the training was real, and it took women of special character to run the gauntlet of unofficial opposition to their training and to complete the demanding training. Sadiqeh Dowlatshahi, a young typist at the Ministry of Finance, had to endure teasing by soldiers on her way to sign up for training, but that paled in comparison to the last hurdle she faced — the director of the program.]
A servant showed her into the office, and at the desk was Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq, the future Prime Minister of Iran. Turning on the charm, he tried to dissuade her as well:
He stood up and said, “Hello Little Miss. How are you? Do you have a request?” I said, “Well, yes. Nobody comes here without something to say. Of course I have some business.” I showed him the newspaper. He said, “Eh! You want to sign up too!?” He was so well spoken and kind that I will never forget [it]. “Miss, you want to sign up?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Bravo. God's blessing. But you are such a tiny little person now — I must tell you that flying airplanes requires big people.” I said, “Man, no, look, tiny people [can] do it better.” He said, “God's blessing. God's blessing.” Then, he called for — no, then he said, “Let me tell you one thing, dear child.
Her eldest brother was not pleased to hear of his sister being the first person to register at the flight academy. But his objections were silenced by their mother who said, “It will be source of pride for us.” This was less an endorsement of the veil than a recognition of the tone of the officials of the host country. Nur Hamadah added:
We have inserted broader principles in our platform because we wish to say to Western women that Eastern women do not [merely] have limited goals. We are also trying to bring ourselves to their level. Just as the women of Turkey have the highest degree [of progress] among our Eastern sisters, and after them the women of Egypt and the daughters of the Land of the Pharaohs, and then Syria proper followed by Greater Syria. The women of Iraq have a new awakening, and most of the [progressive] women of the Hijaz are women from Syrian and Greater Syria who have Hijazi husbands.
Nur Hamadeh, rather gently, disabused Owrang, and through him the Iranian government, of the notion that Iran's progress was exemplary in the Eastern world She was tactful enough not to specify Iran's ranking (better than Syria, the Hijaz?), but did stress the Euro-American standards to which Eastern women needed to aspire. Ettelaat's coverage of the conference quickly became more limited and more critical.
marriages were arranged by families of the bride and groom as in Iran…
For the most part, the customs of foreign societies were presented without additional comment. However, the discussion of Zulu marital rituals was presented differently. While it is clear from the article that Zulu families arranged marriages for their sons and daughters and negotiated bride-prices, neither this nor any other Zulu marital custom was compared with European, Ottoman, or Iranian customs.
No such disparaging remark occurs in discussion of European or Ottoman practices. While Ottoman customs had inclined toward those of progressive Europeans, and Iranian practices had an element in common with a couple of European countries, the Zulu were outside the pale of modernity and, in the final analysis, were somewhat silly. Iranian women could have someone to look down upon as well as some to look up to…
'); } // End –>
1 – Interview with Sadiqeh Dowlatshahi, 5 February 2000, tape 1, side A, 271-95 on the tape counter. Top