Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran

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Edited by Tara Povey and Elaheh Rostami-Povey

Since 2003 there have been a growing number of books seeking to explain the "real Iran". From investigations of the Revolutionary Guards to studies of the Ayatollahs, such books have been sometimes helpful, often crude and occasionally ridiculous. One book I read even threatened to reveal to the reader "Ahmadinejad exposed".

This collection of 12 essays by Iranian women activists is not cheap, but helps to redress this balance. From the offset it acknowledges the "racist ideology and rhetoric of 'saving Muslim women' that has conveniently served the West's project in the Middle East". All the writers believe that further sanctions and military intervention in Iran would be totally detrimental to the women's movement. The chapters cover the position of women in the media, the judiciary, employment, education and art. It is a shame there is not a chapter on women in the family, but a portrayal partly seeps through in other essays.

The first chapter by Elaheh Rostami-Povey charts the fortunes of the women's movement from the women in the harems who took part in the Tobacco Protest of 1890 to the women central to the Green Movement in 2009. It is interesting to read that it was resistance to a mass unveiling in January 1963 that led to a general strike which forced the Shah to grant women the right to vote.

A chapter on the boom in education highlights the fact that across the Middle East there are now more female university students at undergraduate level than male. During the "reform period" from 1997 to 2004 women's groups flourished alongside what several authors refer to as the "NGOisation of Iran". Combined with neoliberal reforms NGOs emerged to fill the gap of welfare services. Under Ahmadinejad many of these NGOs have since been taken over by the state - and numerous women's groups closed down.

The first woman vice-president of Iran, Massoumeh Ebtekar, is a revealing contributor and outlines her experiences on the international stage from 1997 to 2005. She was also the main spokesperson when 52 American diplomats were taken hostage at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. Her rise to political prominence is evidence of the long-lasting importance placed on those associated with the revolution - indeed, also their co-option into the regime. Ebtekar was, for example, also part of the administration that brutally repressed the Iranian student riots of 1999.

The final chapter by Tara Povey addresses the claims that Islam is on the wane in Iran. Authors like Asef Bayat and Hamid Dabashi, for example, have in recent years spoken of a "post-Islamist turn". Povey thinks this is premature and points to the role of Islamic groups across the region as the main opposition pushing for democratic reform. The chapter also examines the portrayal of the Green Movement in the West and cuts through the myth that Ahmadinejad's supporters were largely poor "mosque-going masses", whereas the opposition were young, middle class and educated.

The full impact of the Arab Spring on Iran is far from clear. But what is certain is that the oppression described in this book is not rooted in Iranian men, or the West or Islam. To quote the authors it owes its origins to "the inequalities and tension present in modern capitalist societies". To those interested in exploiting those tensions, this book is indispensable.

Estelle Cooch

Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran, Ashgate £55