In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution, and opposition to the shah united most of Khomeini's followers. As he and his clerics consolidated power, resistance among many Iranians grew—especially the more secular and liberal. Khomeini's strict religious interpretations hit women hard. While some women rallied around Khomeini—most famously Masoumeh Ebtekar, the spokeswoman of the hostage-takers—many others were aghast at forced veiling and efforts to curtail the professions and education available to women. Some believed clerical rule could not last.
It did. One main reason was the Iran-Iraq war. The September 1980 invasion by Saddam Hussein's Iraq created a crisis that rallied Iranians. The military history and political history of the 1980-88 war, and even Iranian art and graphic design of the era, are well studied, but Farzaneh, a history professor at Northeastern Illinois University and a volunteer during the war, contributes a missing piece with an in-depth and well-written study of women.
Farzaneh notes millions of Iranian women participated in the war effort: fighting alongside men, gathering intelligence, working as doctors, truck drivers, journalists, and donating blood. Many also contributed gold and money to fund the war effort. Most served as catalysts for men in their family to volunteer and fight. However, many suffered sexual and physical violence. Farzaneh argues that the significance of women's contributions was that it allowed them to escape centuries-long "gender roles and sociocultural limitations."
While Farzaneh focuses on the Iran-Iraq war, he provides ample background both to the diplomacy and politics that preceded Saddam's invasion, and the situation of women in the decades prior to the Islamic Revolution. He carefully differentiates between groups of women—religious and secular, urban and rural, Persian and ethnic minority. Such nuance and appreciation for Iran's complexity distinguishes Farzaneh's historical approach from the theoretical takes fashionable in Middle Eastern and gender studies programs.
Some chapters have a geographical focus, for example, about the women of Khorramshahr and Abadan, two cities that took the brunt of the initial Iraqi invasion and subsequent fighting. Others examine women in the government and those that founded and worked in grassroots organizations. A separate chapter on female prisoners of war based on primary sources expands knowledge of the broader conflict.
In his final two chapters, Farzaneh considers the continuing impact of the war on women, especially those married or related to those missing or killed, and the role of women in Iranian society today. Many Iranian propagandists laud the Islamic Republic's advancement of women. Farzaneh is no apologist and takes a more honest approach. "There is a long list of unmet expectations by women who participated in the war," he notes. "Women's education and participation in the war have not, however, provided them with a broader say in what is decided on their behalf by the patriarchy."
While Farzaneh undercuts the seriousness of his narrative at times with diversions, these are relatively few and do not detract from the broader contributions of the book.