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Sadiqeh Dowlatshahi, ca. 1940

Conception of gender roles
Reza Shah's "Women's Awakening Project"

July 10, 2002
The Iranian

Excerpts From The Making of the Modern Iranian Woman: Gender, State Policy and Popular Culture, 1865-1946 by Camron Michael Amin (University Press of Florida, 2002). Amin is an Assistant Professor of History at The University of Michigan-Dearborn and serves as the Project Director for the Modern Middle East Sourcebook Project which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (

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.

My daughter, these planes -- all of them -- are the most damaged and junky German planes" -- they sent German and French [planes] -- You will go up, hit the ground, and die. What kind of business is this?" I said, "Doctor, sir?" I placed my hand on my chest, "Doctor, sir, a person -- a human dies once, right?" He said, "No -- twice is impossible, just once." I said, "Either I die on the ground, fall to the ground and die, or I have an automobile accident, or it is possible I'll die in bed if I get sick. Well, now I'll die in a plane. Does it make a difference?" He said, "BRAVO. I have no answer for you. Come here!" He called somebody in, "Come here and take a picture." I became the first student. (1)

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." (2)

Speaking Truth to Power: A Syrian Feminist Rebukes an Iranian Member of Parliament During Second Congress of Eastern Women in Tehran, 1932

From Chapter 7, "The Limits of Emancipation," page 195

[It is often assumed that the beginning of Pahalvi state efforts to engage and control "the woman question" in Iran began with the encouragement of unveiling in 1935 and subsequent banning of the veil during the Women's Awakening of 1936-1941. In fact, the first regime effort was the Marriage Law of 1931, followed by hosting of Second Congress of Eastern Women in November, 1932. The regime wanted the Congress to recognize its limited efforts as being fully in line with the extent of the Congress' platform. State officials, including a Pahlavi loyalist Member of Parliament, Zahir al-Eslam Owrang, attended the conference and attempted to control the agenda of the meeting. Tensions between the Pahlavi state and delegates to the Congress (including differences among Iranian feminist participants) occasionally spilled over into press coverage of the event. The tensions were never more apparent when Owrang addressed the Congress and warned them not to overreach on such issues as, ironically enough,"the veil" and, implicitly, equal economic and political rights with men. Nur Hamadeh, the delegate from Syria and President of the Congress, was not about to let him get away with that.]

[Zahir al-Eslam] Owrang followed his speech with a poem emphasizing the themes of deliberate and learned and unified action. Nur Hamadah affirmed that, indeed, the veil was not the first priority for the women's congress. "The veil and the face veil will not slow progress or impede its development [for women." (3) 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.

And now that I have come to Iran and gathered with learned men and women, I am endlessly pleased that I am among them. I am also eminently satisfied that in Tehran, the imperial capital of Iran, with a great king such as the Pahlavi emperor, I see this awakening in [my] Iranian sisters. I can say that among the women of the countries I have listed, we can place them [the Iranians] in the middle -- we should not exaggerate and say that they are in the highest level [of progress] nor be unfair and say they are in last place. (4)

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.

As Good as Ottomans and Better Than Zulus: The First Iranian Women's Magazine Compares Marriage Traditions, 1911

From Chapter 4, "Renewal's Bride," 117-118.

[Established in 1910, Danesh (Knowledge) was the first Iranian women's magazine. It advocated education for women, more harmonious (and monogamous) marriages and took the lead in advocating careers in teaching and medicine for women. It stayed out of partisan politics, but was clearly a creature of the Constitutional Revolution. In addition to preaching the virtues of "scientific housewifery," Danesh, like the periodical press generally, played a part in shaping an identity for Iranian women in relation to the other women in the world and creating a sense of modern Iranian womanhood.]

Danesh ran a series of articles detailing the marriage practices of foreign women -- European, Ottoman, and Zulu. By addressing a culturally universal experience -- marriage -- and locating Iranian customs within a continuum of varying traditions, these articles created both a sense of connection to the world and sense of what was distinctly Iranian. The reader would learn that in Russia (5) and France (6) marriages were arranged by families of the bride and groom as in Iran...

Ottoman women were portrayed as resembling their European sisters in education, in the maturity of their relationships with their husbands, and the gradual removal of the "face veil." (7) Perhaps most daring was Danseh's endorsement of the Ottoman "constitutional era," a rhetorical tactic often used by the more vituperative supporters of the Iranian Constitution during the civil war in Iran.(8)...

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.

The article clarified that the Zulu were mardoman-e seyah, or "black people." The article closed with a rather disparaging remark: "In [the husband's] house, again in another custom, [the new bride] attempts to escape. This time the husband's family, to prevent this boldness guards her, for if they could not catch her and she escaped, it would be a great disgrace for her husband. The marriage would be voided, and this tomfoolery would have to be initiated all over again." (9)

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...


1 - Interview with Sadiqeh Dowlatshahi, 5 February 2000, tape 1, side A, 271-95 on the tape counter. Top

2 - Ibid,. 430 on the tape counter. Top

3 - cA. H. Hashemi-Hae'ri, "Dar Jalaseh-e Dishab-e Banovan," Ettelaat 1751, 7 November 1932, 1. Top

4 - Ibid. Top

5 - "cArusiha-ye Mamalek-e Kharijeh: Rusha, Englisha," Danesh 14, 18 January 1911, 5. Top

6 - "Tafsil-e cArusiah-ye Mamalek-e Kharijeh, " Danesh 13, 12 January 1911, 6. Top

7 - "Taraqqi-ye Zanan-e cOsmani," Danesh 24, 14 March 1911, 4. Top

8 - For an example, see any issue of Ruh al-Qodos, 1909-1911. Top

9 - "Tariq-e Nekah-e Zulu (Mardoman-e Seyah)," Danesh 30, 24 July 1911, 8. Top

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for Cameron Amin


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