THERE’S GOOD NEWS and bad news, and Nina Ansary does an admirable job of delivering them both with restraint and objectivity in her new book, Jewels of Allah

The good news is that pre-Islamic Iran, then called Persia, was a haven of freedom and equality for women. From the sixth century BC when the First Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great, to the seventh century AD and the Arab conquest of Persia, the predominant ideology in the empire was Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest known religions. Women became emperors and commanded armies, owned property and supervised male employees. They were deemed equal to men not only physically, but also intellectually. They earned equal pay, enjoyed equal rights of inheritance, even (who would have known this wasn’t a Western invention?) received maternity leave. 

Then the bad news — with the Arab conquest of the empire came the takeover of private and public life by the ulama, the Muslim clergy. Zoroastrianism is an egalitarian creed that champions good deeds and righteous values more than it does ritual worship, and among its basic tenets is equality of the sexes, social classes, and age groups. Islam, on the other hand, views women as inferior, with brains that are “incapable of retaining knowledge.” It relegates guardianship of women to their male kin — father, brother, spouse — and isolates women from public life by confining them to the home. Even the Mongols, Ansary observes, were more accepting of women as equal to men. Their most notorious warrior, Genghis Khan, blazed a path of destruction from Russia to China and slaughtered nearly 40 million people, but was nevertheless more tolerant than Islam of other religions and more accepting of women’s equality. 

But it gets worse.

At the turn of the 16th century, an Iranian king adopted Shi’a Islam as the official state religion, and brought in clerics from Arab countries to formulate a judicial system. Ruling dynasties were henceforth “representatives of the Hidden Imam on earth,” and deferred “to the high-ranking Shiite clergy in all matters of the state,” who bestowed the “legitimacy for their right to rule.” The notion of women’s inferiority was therefore sanctioned by the state. Women’s literacy became a sin, having been forbidden by the prophet, schools for girls were viewed as houses of prostitution, and laws were passed restricting the times of day when women were allowed out of the house.

Ansary tells the familiar narrative about Iranian women being oppressed by the ruling mullahs, but also less familiar accounts of the ways in which said mullahs have — inadvertently — strengthened the position of women. Ansary paints many a portrait of grace under fire — Qurrat al-Ayn (Táhirih), for instance, became one of the converts to the new Bábí religion in 1844, and advocated for better treatment of women. Bibi Khanum Astarabadi founded the School for Girls in 1907. Sadiqeh Dowlatabadi opened the first school for girls in Isfahan in 1918, published the magazine Zaban-e Zanan (Women’s Voice) in 1919, became the first ever Iranian woman to participate in an international conference — the International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage — in 1926, and a year later “fearlessly appeared unveiled on the streets of Tehran.”

It is perhaps impossible for any person who has not lived her formative years in a “closed” society to grasp the grit and heroism of these and other activist women. Bold and charismatic, highly intelligent and inevitably reckless, they must battle not only entrenched ideologies, ancestral laws, and the will of the dominant male population, but also, in most cases, the resistance and hostility of the majority of the female populace who have come to “own” the very worldview that has led to their oppression. In places where government rules by divine authority, they must also take on God’s will as expressed in one holy book or other and interpreted by his representatives on earth. 

More than anything else, Jewels of Allah is an attempt to present to the reader this lesser-known view of Iranian women. In this, it succeeds proficiently. In addition, Ansary gives a credible, if at times cursory, overview of the many rights granted to women by the Shah and his father in their effort to modernize Iran, despite the resistance of a large segment of the populace, including women, to embrace those reforms. Later, she explains how the Iran-Iraq war, having claimed so many working-age Iranian males, compelled the regime to allow women a bigger share of the work force — how religious families who, under the Shah, had kept their daughters at home rather than allow them to go to school unveiled, opened the padlocks once they were able to let the girls out with what they considered sufficient covering.

Then there’s the unfortunate, the senseless, and the incomprehensible, and here Ansary fails to put forward a satisfying explanation. Between 1931, when Reza Shah passed the Marriage Act, and 1979, when Khomeini and his allies created a constitution based on Islamic law, the two secular-leaning Pahlavi monarchs banned the veil, made women’s education free and compulsory, raised the legal marriage age to 15, gave women the vote, passed labor laws providing equal pay for women, and raised the share of literate women in the workforce to 65 percent. They passed laws that established wives as equal partners in a marriage, made it impossible for men to take more than one wife at a time, allowed women to seek divorce on the same grounds open to men, to collect alimony and child support, to gain guardianship of her children in the event of her husband’s death, and to hold a job without her husband’s permission. They eliminated laws that protected honor-killing, and made abortion legal. These were the types of rights and freedoms women had enjoyed in pre-Islamic Persia, and that had been taken away by clerical interpretation and rule. They had been fought for and regained at great personal sacrifice by a great many pioneering women. 

And yet an estimated million women actively took part in the overthrow of the Shah and the return of the ayatollahs to Iran. Without them, it is doubtful that the balance of power would have tilted so easily toward the mullahs. Many of these women came from religious families that saw the Shah and his reforms as anti-God and “corrupt on earth.” Some, such as Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, came from traditional backgrounds, and, although they benefited greatly from unprecedented advantages under the Shah, nonetheless supported the ayatollahs. Ebadi, who was the first woman to become a judge under the Shah, lost her judgeship under the mullahs because Islamic law prohibits women from serving as judges. When attempting to explain, in her memoir, why she “willingly and enthusiastically participated in my own demise,” Ebadi wrote that she had more in common with the religious middle classes than the American-cavorting, champagne-drinking officials of the “gilded court of the shah.” Mostly, though, she has claimed “naivete.”

That is hard to comprehend. Islam’s view of women was no more a secret or open to interpretation in 1979 as it had been a thousand years earlier. Nor was the Shi’a clergy’s belief in having a divine mandate to rule, and to do so according to the laws set forth in the Qur’an. Ebadi and other religious, middle-class, educated women were neither ill-informed about the letter and spirit of Islamic laws, nor ignorant of Khomeini’s ideology as spelled out in his pre-revolution writing. 

Gullibility has likewise been the defense of the scores of educated, upper-middle-class, secular, and even Westernized women who — also incomprehensibly — gave themselves freely to the cause of bringing Khomeini to rule. In their enthusiasm to break free of the bonds of political oppression under the Shah’s secular regime, the argument goes, these women disregarded all evidence to the contrary, and believed Khomeini’s 11th hour promises that, should he become ruler of Iran, women would “have complete freedom in everything they do.” 

How and why so many Iranian women actively engaged in retrieving the shackles that had bound them for centuries is a question whose relevance extends well beyond historical curiosity or Iranian history. In reviewing the efforts of Iranian women to restore some of the freedoms they so easily gave up, Ansary describes the ongoing ideological battle between the secular-leaning “feminists” and their more devout counterparts, commonly referred to as “Islamic feminists,” who manage to ignore the unrelenting badgering by a regime that has consistently crushed any real dissent, allowing women just enough wiggle room to keep the pressure cooker from exploding. The bigger enemy of equal rights for women in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world may well be, in fact, women themselves.

In the end, the title, Jewels of Allah, may be a misnomer for the extraordinary women of Ansary’s book. Jewels indeed, but it was Allah himself, as understood and interpreted by his self-appointed representatives on earth, that they had to fight.

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Gina B. Nahai is a best-selling author and a professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California.