My grandma was telling us stories about when she was younger, and how her father hated my grandpa. It was really bizarre to me, I mean, I knew that even in Iran there was/is some form of g*psy racism, but it’s never been as outright as it is in the West (probably because in Iran there was still a lot of nomadic tribes, especially when my grandmother was growing up, and Romani - what we call koli, looli, or kaardaag - definitely fell into the nomadic tribe category)

But my grandmother was telling me that when she met my grandfather, her father was livid. She said he hated my grandfather because his family was “g*psies”. It was crazy to hear her talk about it, and how at fifteen, she basically defied her own father to literally run away with a tribe of koli. And holy shit, did she run away with a tribe of koli, and basically her father disowned her.

It was then that I realized, holy shit, my grandmother had a defiant bad-girl streak…. And if she hadn’t followed through with it, I wouldn’t be here.

Anyhow, happy ending to the story. My father was born extremely premature, and almost didn’t make it. But when he finally got better, my grandmother took him back to her grandparents’ home so that they could see their great-grandchild, and apparently her grandmother walked over to the next house, where her son - my grandmother’s father - lived, pounded on his door, and dragged him out of the house and forced him to see his grandchild. 

Apparently my father was so fucking adorable that my great-grandfather forgot he was mad at my grandmother and fell in love with him. Although he still did apparently make remarks about how it was a “g*psy” baby for a while, but eventually he got over it. My grandfather settled into a home and got a job in the petrol oil industry and tried to live like a settled Iranian. His still had the “kaardaag” itch, and still does…. And my grandmother’s family still really regards my grandfather’s family with some distaste…. but it was just so weird to think that was why.

I mean, I thought my grandmother’s side of the family didn’t like my grandfather’s side because they were all crazy, and because they gambled, and because my grandfather and grandmother divorced…. Yeah, I mean, that was part of it, but I guess the big part of it was that my grandmother’s family were “shahrestanih” in the sense that they were settled versus the koli who were “kaardaagih“.

Nina Ansary's The Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran

Is there any subject of which the average Westerner harbors more misconceptions and false assumptions than the role of the Middle-Eastern woman? Dr. Nina Ansary tackles these misconceptions directly in her book Jewels of Allah, explaining that the history of women’s rights in Iran isn’t as simple as we assume. In fact, what is surprising is how women have found methods of liberation through their oppression. Two prominent examples are the mandated wearing of the hijab, and the institution of single-sex education. Ansary explains that with the institutionalization of both the hijab and single-sex education, many conservative Muslim families felt more comfortable sending their daughters to school. Additionally, girls attending an all-girl school flourished more, were more comfortable voicing their opinions, than they had been in the co-educational schools of the Pahlavi monarchy.

The Pahlavi era was one of rapid social progress. Too rapid, perhaps: centuries of custom and tradition were ousted almost overnight, including the equal role of women. During the Persian centuries, women played a subordinate role, but with the advent of the Pahlavi era, women were allowed to hold political office, become lawyers, obtain divorces, and dress how they pleased. The hijab, however, was outlawed, and many Iranians believed the Pahlavi were mere puppets of the western powers. In 1979 the pendulum of progress swung back with a vengeance, as the revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the Pahlavi regime and the era’s hard won social progress. Women were once again forced play a subordinate role. Yet as Ansary shows, there was and continue to be a thriving women’s rights movement despite the oppressive patriarchal laws and regulations. During the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988, for instance, women filled many of the jobs left vacant by men fighting in the war, not unlike women during WWII. Ansary also cites the numerous women’s magazines and periodicals in post-revolutionary Iran as an impetus and outlet for women’s concerns, and devotes an entire chapter to the women’s magazine Zanan and its founder Shahla Sherkat.

One of the most important revelations of the book is that there is not just one type of Iranian woman. Even within the progressive women’s movement there are differences. There are devout Muslim women who seek to reconcile and reinterpret the Koran more favorably for women, and there are also secular women who believe no such reconciliation is possible and work for a complete break with tradition. Yet despite their differences both camps work together for the advancement of women’s rights. Nina Ansary’s book is a must-read for anyone hoping for a fuller understanding of the role of women and the women’s rights movement in Iran. It is a much needed antidote to Western misconceptions.