Nina Ansary was 12 when she left Iran with her family at the onset of the 1978-79 Revolution. She has lived in the U.S. ever since. Her book, Jewels of Allah – inspired by her doctoral research in history at Columbia University – tells the story of Iranian women from the days of Cyrus the Great to the present. It has won her a number of prizes, including the First Prize in Women’s Issues in the 2016 International Book Awards, and the Eric Hoffer Award.
Kayhan London caught up with her on her international book tour.
Q: You start the book by describing your two very different grandmothers. One was a devout lady who never left home without a headscarf, the other a Western-educated lady who sometimes swam topless in her pool. How did they influence you?
A: What both grandmothers exemplified to me was how strong-willed they were, and how they ruled their household. These women were by no means subservient. They were courageous and defiant. What I took from them is that a woman should never be defined by her attire, and that a piece of cloth is not necessarily emblematic of subservience.
In many instances, my devout grandmother stood up to my grandfather, who worked as a bank clerk in Shiraz, and who was not a religious man.
In the 1920s, at around the time that Reza Shah [the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty] banned the veil, my grandparents were invited to an evening for the bankers and their spouses. He told my grandmother, ‘You cannot wear a headscarf to this reception.’ So my grandmother refused to leave the house.
She ended up separating from him much later in life – in a society where separations were considered taboo. She passed away in Santa Monica 20 years after the Revolution. Yet she still never left her apartment without a headscarf. Nobody mandated it. She just felt comfortable that way.
Q: What happened when you arrived in the United States?
A: I went to Barnard College and studied sociology as an undergraduate, then attended Columbia University for my Masters, where I studied Middle Eastern culture. I reconnected with Iran much later with my doctoral thesis.
I had an innate curiosity about my country. The main narrative I had was from the mainstream media, my family and friends. I always felt a void in my life. I wanted to know where I came from, the history of my country of birth. Part of my curiosity was, why was there a full-blown Revolution if everybody was happy?
In one of the classes I took, I learned that women were initially among the biggest supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. On the surface, that made no sense. It was the first time that I thought to myself, I’m not getting the full story.
Q: In your book, you describe Reza Shah banning the veil in the 1930s, and women being prevented from wearing it on the bus, in movie theaters, etc. Can you talk about that?
A: Reza Shah wasn’t anti-religion. He just felt that the veil, the religious ideology, was holding Iran back, which in many ways was true — had he not unfolded his vision in such a rushed way.
Likewise, what his son — the Shah — did was exceptional in so many ways, but it undermined the really traditional segment of Iran.
The Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, said it best in her memoir: You can change laws, give women rights, and bring about Western-style reforms, but if the mindset is not ready to embrace or accept a new way of life, it cannot be dictated. If someone doesn’t understand women’s rights because they’re illiterate, it’s not going to work. It’s too much of a rapid transition.
What’s amazing is that everything that father and son did in such a short period of time has actually, in many ways, come to fruition in post-revolutionary Iran. It’s the irony of Iran.
Q: Your book mentions a number of misconceptions about Iranian women. Can you list a few?
A: One of the biggest misconceptions was that all women were liberated under the Shah. Measures to liberate Iranian women and bring them out of seclusion did not translate with the majority of the female population. So women initially supported Ayatollah Khomeiny with his sermons of a return to cultural roots.
Khomeiny capitalized on this particular malaise. He never said women in the Islamic Republic were going to be deprived of their rights. His rhetoric was vague at best, which explains the barrage of women who went behind him.
The Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi writes that she and many other women related to the modesty that the Islamic Regime was promoting. They all gravitated to that. Yet Ebadi – one of the first women to become a judge – was stripped of her position immediately after Khomeiny landed, because women in the Islamic Republic were not allowed to serve as judges. She said it took her scarcely 10 minutes to realize that she had participated in her own demise.
Q: What’s the other common misconception?
A: That women are oppressed in post-revolutionary Iran. Yes, they’re under a barrage of gender-discriminatory laws — whereby a woman’s life is worth half that of a man’s, or a woman’s testimony in court counts half that of a man, etc. But through their ongoing activism, women have been able to amend some of those laws.
Women in Iran today are highly educated. They find a way to navigate around so many obstacles. They don’t bend to the laws. They often pay a high price for trying to circumvent them.
There’s a well-known quote by the author Haideh Moghissi. She says the Islamic Republic may have closed the gates, but women are jumping over the fences.
If there’s any hope for change in Iran, I firmly believe that it’s going to come from women. What’s beautiful about the women’s rights movement in Iran is that there’s no leader. It’s a grassroots movement.
So many women in post-revolutionary Iran were born and raised in the current climate. Yet most of them don’t subscribe to this outdated, antiquated gender ideology. There are actually women in Iran who are very liberal. That’s what the Shah had envisioned. It’s happening 50 years later.