Revolutionary Road: Reading The Islamic Revolution For Women, With Care

The 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution has prompted a raft of stories profiling both those women who fled the country in its wake, and others who have made lives in a new Iran.

NPR profiles one of those who chose to leave. Roset Melamed, who was Miss Iran 1976, had a typically secular upbringing. Although her family was Jewish, they were not religious, and the strictures the 1979 revolution brought in its wake came as a shock to her. After she and her husband were threatened by a soldier for holding hands at a pizzeria, the family, like many Iranians of their generation, made a new life in Los Angeles.

Any discussion of the Iranian revolution is inevitably going to address women's issues. While this is important - nay, vital - an article on the blog Muslimah Media Watch makes the argument that too often these pieces focus on the simplistic symbol of the enforced hijab and chador, pointing to Vermont Public Radio's point that even "if the law imposing hejab were repealed tomorrow many Iranian women would continue to dress this way out of habit and religious conviction. The more universal issues for women in Iran concern legal rights and economic opportunity."

The author adds that frequently reading coverage of Iranian women's issues, one is left unaware of the important gains made by female activists towards education and employment and, worryingly, with the impression that Islam itself is responsible for revoking women's rights, rather than "patriarchal interpretations of Qur'an and hadeeth, which form the basis of Islamic law." The author sums up the argument by quoting the Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi:

Women took part in the revolution beside men. They felt their freedom and independence would be guaranteed when the country shifted into an Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, they did not obtain the freedom worthy of an Iranian woman.

For her part, Melamed and her family found success in America after leaving everything behind. Her husband, an engineer, eventually became part of the NASA team responsible for the Mars Rover, work that won him a special prize in his field. Says Melamed, the former beauty queen, "We are a successful family." Success, of course, can be defined a lot of ways. Sunday's "Modern Love" column in the NY Times explored the lifelong fears the revolution instilled in even those women who seemed defiant, but it seems impossible to generalize. Says one Iranian friend, "nothing about the situation is black and white, even for those of us with strong opinions and fears. Being in a certain situation doesn't automatically make someone a victim. There's a big burden of context to modern Iranian identity, and we just hope, when they read all the recent coverage, people can remember that."

Roset Melamed, An Iranian Beauty Queen [NPR]
A Look at Women In Iran 30 Years After The Islamic Revolution [Muslimah Media Watch]
Iran 2009: Iranian Women Make Gains, But Barriers Remain [Vermont Public Radio]
In My Mother, A Fear Stripped Bare [New York Times]