As the democratic uprisings continue to rage in the Middle East, women continue to struggle for equal rights and the elimination of laws that discriminate against women in Iran. Janet Afary’s book “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran" is a tremendous contribution to the study of gender politics in Iran. Sexual politics in Modern Iran introduces new theoretical and conceptual frameworks to the intellectual study of gender in the Middle East. While most literature about gender dynamics in the Middle East focuses on analyzing and re-reading existing texts to conceptualize the femininity and masculinity of a certain era, “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran” directly addresses female socio-political issues.
(Professor Janet Afary is a widely regarded historian and the first holder of the Duncan and Suzanne Mellichamp Chair in Global Religions and Modernisms in the Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara)
Sexual Politics in Modern Iran is also enlightening in that it employs an interdisciplinary approach through a meticulous reflection of the anthropological, sociological, and economic aspects of each issue. Afary’s mastery of Michel Foucault’s work relating to power, family structure, state, and gender enriches the readers understanding of the material immensely.
The lack of archival access to scholars of gender dynamics in Iran makes conducting research a very challenging task. However, Janet Afary is able to fully utilize the resources available to her. This unique ability is reflected in her work which reflects her use of historical documents, literature, poetry, letters and oral testimony that have been enriched with a number of photographs, paintings, posters, newspaper cartoons and family portraits.
Sexual Politics in Modern Iran is organized into three sections. The first part covers late Qajar history, “Pre-modern practices” until the end of the Constitutional Period. The second part focuses on modernity and the history of women under the Pahlavi Dynasty. The third part covers the history of women post-Islamic Revolution. In this section she argues that women’s movements were shaped as a response to shifting gender roles.
She thoroughly explores how the state redefines normative sexuality, purity, romantic love, suffrage, marriage reform, and the threat of female sexuality. She also investigates how shifts in gender roles were a result of the interactions and contradictions of the Iranian state in their attempts to control the female body, women’s movements as well as to dismantle the patriarchal framework. Janet Afary provides the reader with hope that women can challenge the Iranian regime to achieve their legitimate demands through rural, upper and middle class female activism and grassroots social movements (such as the “One Million Signature Campaign”).
Finally, As Janet Afary states, “In a visit to Iran in 2005, I noticed some dramatic changes in sexual mores and realized that the nation was quietly moving toward a sexual revolution. It was a revolution that was taking place behind the Hijab and closed doors, and also working itself out at different stages in rural communities…”