Women, in Black and in White

Women, in Black and in White

Nina Ansary presents a feminist perspective on recent Iranian history

Extract from ‘Jewels of  Allah: the Untold Story of Women in Iran’ (pages 58-64), by Dr Nina Ansary, Revela Press, Los Angeles, California, 2015


Included in the Shah’s White Revolution package were free and compulsory education for children of all ages and the establishment of the Literacy, Health, and Reconstruction Development Corps, whose mission was to improve the quality of life throughout the provinces, raise productivity, eradicate illiteracy, and facilitate the transition from an outdated system to a market economy. The Literacy Corps (Sepah-e Danesh), designed to combat rampant illiteracy in rural areas, was composed of male urban middle class high school graduates who were given the option of serving as instructors in lieu of a two-year mandatory military service. The corpsmen’s various duties were not limited to instruction, and they included health and hygiene instruction as well as large-scale development projects throughout the provinces.

Established in 1968, and also part of the White Revolution, Women’s Social Services (Khadamat-e Ejtemai-ye Zanan) led to the formation of the Female Literacy Corps. Similar to the roles performed by their male counterparts, young urban women were recruited to advise and instruct the rural female population. They wore European-style military uniforms, reinforcing a westernized outlook.

Although the Corps became instrumental in the Pahlavi regime’s quest to reduce illiteracy and establish a modern nation state, it proved incapable of altering the conventional religious mind-set of a large segment of the population. Despite the fact that government statistics reflected increased educational facilities and enrolment, a considerable number of families beholden to traditional norms continued to feel that it was inappropriate to send girls over the age of ten or eleven to schools that had by now become predominantly coeducational. Aware of this reality, Corps members resorted to various strategies, ranging from Koranic recitations and daily prayers to the separation of boys and girls in the classroom, but to no avail. During what effectively constituted an era of unprecedented transformation, the implementation of new measures increasingly provoked the wrath of the clergy who regarded such trespasses on their authority as unconstitutional and a violation of the principles of Sharia.

In direct contrast to rural areas, the impact of radical educational reform became exceedingly apparent among the urban female population, where the percentage of girls attending primary school increased from 34 percent in 1966 to 42 percent in 1977.

The move toward adopting a more Western philosophy within the academic system required revisions in primary and secondary textbooks. The objective was to ensure that both text and image reflected the monarchy’s vision of a modernized, predominantly secular society, with few religious features.


Sociologists regard the early years of education, including what is communicated via elementary textbooks, as a vital component of a child’s socialization. Socialization is a term used by sociologists, anthropologists, social psychologists and other professionals to refer to the process by which an individual learns the norms, customs, and ideologies that will provide her/him with the skills and habits necessary for participating within his or her particular society. It is widely acknowledged by child development experts that the period in a young person’s life between the ages of seven and twelve is when an important phase of this process takes place and core values are instilled.

Sociologist Daniel Coleman confirms that the preadolescent years (ages seven to twelve) are when children begin to exhibit “more realistic views of life as opposed to the intense fantasy-oriented world of earliest childhood,” fortified by a more mature, sensible, and realistic perception of behavioral conduct. This age group is distinguished as the initial stage when a child begins to develop a pronounced sense of the future along with a more formulated moral compass. The structured learning environment of elementary school is considered to be a child’s earliest means of perceiving the world beyond the realm of the household.

Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology and architect of modern social sciences, underscores the vital role education plays in instilling society’s values. He specifically focused his studies on the socialization of the younger generation in the school system and concluded:

Education is the action exercised by the adult generation over those that are not yet ready for social life. Its purpose is to arouse and develop in the child a certain number of intellectual and moral states which are demanded of him by both the political society as a whole and by the specific environment for which he is particularly destined.

In terms of the Shah’s sweeping plans for Iran, he and his education advisors recognized that one of the most effective ways of transforming a society is to instill new values in its youngest citizens. Children tend to model their behavior after their parents, but they are also introduced to role models at school – and their earliest schoolbooks are an integral part of that role-modeling process.

As one of the hallmarks of early childhood socialization, the elementary school textbooks (grades 1–5) used during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were analyzed in order to determine the extent to which they portrayed the monarchy’s gender ideology. The term gender ideology refers to attitudes regarding the appropriate and expected roles and obligations of men and women in a given society, which are often reflective of the doctrines of the ruling regime. A “traditional” gender ideology emphasizes the distinctive roles assigned to both sexes based on presumed innate differences, with men fulfilling their primary duty as breadwinners and women as homemakers and principal caregivers within the family unit. In direct contrast, an “egalitarian” philosophy regarding the family endorses shared gender responsibility both in the private and public domain.

Were the Shah’s visions of westernized Iranian women reflected in the elementary textbooks employed during his administration? What unspoken messages were communicated in the textbook images presented to elementary school students during the Shah’s tenure? How did the colorful illustrations reflect family life, work, careers, and gender roles in mid-twentieth-century Iran?

Given the agenda and the progressive ideology of the Pahlavi regime, perhaps it is no surprise that elementary school textbook illustrations portrayed a westernized lifestyle and perspective, one that the Shah hoped would spread throughout a rapidly changing Iran.

In the Farsi textbooks (grades 1–5) from the late Pahlavi period, men, women, and children are mostly presented in Western attire in a distinctly urban environment. When a classroom is shown, it is usually coeducational and presided over by both male and female teachers. Men and women are portrayed as mothers and wives, fathers and husbands, and teachers. There are occasional images related to farm labor but very few illustrations that depict men and women in either skilled or unskilled professions. Women and young girls are shown performing a variety of domestic-related chores, and in some settings both sons and daughters are shown washing dishes together in the kitchen.

Family members are shown in activities such as shopping, park outings, walking to and from school, and museum excursions. Boys and girls appear to be engaged in common activities, and in only rare instances are they playing with gender specific toys such as dolls or trucks.

Illustrations that reflect a more rural or conservative population are fairly scarce. There are occasional pictures of pastoral settings that depict women in village attire, as well as some images of segregated classrooms and the occasional elderly woman wearing a head scarf. But these represent only a small minority of the overall textbook graphics.

The mathematics (Hesab va Hendeseh), social studies (Tarikh va Goghrafi), and science (Ulum) textbooks refrain from distinguishing specific male/female domestic or professional roles. The science books in particular show images of boys and girls equally engaged in a variety of fieldwork and scientific experiments.

On balance, these illustrated textbooks for elementary school students portray a society in which girls and women participate in activities and perform jobs along with their male counterparts. For the most part, the unspoken message seems to be: females are free to have a life outside the home and to engage in pursuits equally with males.

With that said, there was a noted lack of female role models in textbooks of this era. The elementary textbooks of the Pahlavi period failed to reference women in roles other than mothers and teachers. The only female role model depicted or referenced was the Shahbanou (Empress) of Iran and wife of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. From a sociological perspective, this was a missed opportunity. Given that the Shah’s policies favored women’s access to a wide range of occupations, it would seem that educational materials published during his reign should have reflected that ideology. Drawing on the regime’s
progressive perspective with regard to the role of women, a more concerted effort should have been made to incorporate into elementary textbooks accomplished western women, such as chemist Marie Curie, as role models.

Nina Ansary is an Iranian-American historian and author. Born in Tehran, Iran, she was awarded her Ph.D. by Columbia University. Jewels of Allah was inspired by her doctoral thesis on the women’s movement in Iran.

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