Days of Revolution: Political unrest in an Iranian village

Mary Elaine Hegland

Stanford, CA: Stanford U Press University of Toronto Press, 2014, 316 pp.

Reviewed by Carol C. Mukhopadhyay

Rarely do anthropologists conduct fieldwork during revolutions or detail how ordinary villagers create localized versions of broader, national political-economic transformations. Mary Hegland’s book does both, describing the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 as experienced in the village of “Aliabad,” near Shiraz.

Hegland begins with a refreshingly frank discussion of fieldwork limitations and challenges, as an American during this volatile period of Iranian-US relations. She then provides local historical, social-political-economic, and ideological context for the book’s core, the revolution. Particularly significant is taifeh-keshi, a traditional kingroup-based model of political competition and conflict which, the author argues, framed and guided villagers’ behavior throughout the revolution and post-revolution local uprising. The book concludes with Hegland’s return to Aliabad, and the Islamic Republic, some 34 years later.

Days of Revolution is a fascinating, valuable addition to the ethnography of political processes.  It illuminates how national and local politics become linked, in what circumstances and contexts, and how ordinary people come to support (or not support) revolutions. It reveals how dormant, local political “processual paradigms” (taifeh-keshi), remain culturally available for recruitment in new circumstances. A glossary, event chronology, and “cast” of characters, helps readers navigate complex terrain.

As feminist analysis, however, the book is less satisfying. Hegland valiantly attempts to identify where women fit into a political process in which, she admits, “everyone” thinks women aren’t political actors. She argues that women’s social activities, in their husband’s and their own natal families, are crucial in creating, reinforcing, and expanding the intense social relationships that purportedly are the heart of taifeh political alliances, and hence village politics. Women’s social networks, interactions, hospitality, and emotional displays grease the wheels of village factional politics: at weddings, funerals, in crises, such as the revolution.   During conflicts, women act as mediators because, unlike men, they remain on speaking terms with the other side.

Hegland’s argument and illustrative examples and quotes are intriguing. Yet, her data suggest a different reality, belying the importance, much less centrality, of women in village politics. With brief exceptions, men occupy center stage—explicitly or as the unmarked category—in the heart of the book, the chapters that describe village level political processes and activities, before, during and in the immediate post-revolutionary period. Even when women act, it seems male-initiated or directed (173-175).[i]

To be fair, Hegland’s 1978-1979 research was designed to explore village level political processes. And on a structural level, this is clearly a male domain.

Hegland describes Aliabad kinship as “bilateral,” which, assertedly, produces equally strong maternal and paternal kin relations, and strong affective ties between a woman and her natal family. Yet, when one pieces together Hegland’s data on family and kinship, Aliabad seems to resemble an Iranian, Islamic version of a patrifocal family system that Seymour and I (1994) identified in India and which influences male-dominated village politics as well as the gender gap in engineering.

In Aliabad, wives join their husbands’ households, sometimes in different villages, creating clusters (courtyards, neighborhoods) of related males—patrilocal extended households. These constitute women’s major social networks, if only because of proximity. Taifeh core members (vs. allies) appear to be patrilineally related males: brothers, their sons, and sons’ sons; they cooperate economically, arrange marriages, serve on Village Councils. Only male villagers[ii] apparently access village land through inheritance or in post-revolution land redistribution, sisters forgo their inherited land to brothers, and widows are entitled to virtually nothing. The dominant village-family-lineage, the Seyyid, “descendant of the Prophet through his daughter Fatimah (he had no surviving sons) and then through the male line” (263), certainly seems patrilineal.

Structurally, then, women as wives, but also daughters, are peripheral to the core units and economic resources that underwrite village politics. And when maternal, matrilateral kin are recruited to patrifocal taifeh units, it is males, not females. Women’s structural marginality, then, is reflected in their relative invisibility and irrelevance during and after the 1978-1979 revolution.

Chapter 7, provides glimpses, from the few families remaining in Aliabad three decades later, of transformations in family and gender dynamics, at least among wealthier, urban-oriented, relatively secular elites. Hierarchical, traditional kingroups are giving way to nucleated families and households. Women’s political roles, though, are not addressed.

Hegland’s book does offer tantalizing food for feminist thought. It suggests potential informal political avenues for women confronted with formal structural-ideological barriers. It raises questions, such as whether the shift from taifeh to nuclear families has eroded women’s informal political power. More broadly, one wonders in what ways the Islamic Republic has narrowed or widened the gender gap in politics or other spheres of life. Hopefully, future gender-focused analyses and research will fill current gaps, making the invisible more visible.

 

Works Cited

Mukhopadhyay, Carol C. and Susan Seymour, eds. 1994. Women, Education and Family Structure in India. Boulder: Westview Press/Perseus.

 

Carol C. Mukhopadhyay is Professor Emerita, San Jose State University. Her feminist research focuses on gender divisions: in households, politics, and particularly science and engineering, in the U.S. and India. Publications range from the classic 1988 Annual Review of Anthropology article “Anthropological Studies of the Status of Women Revisited: 1977-1987” (with Patricia Higgins) to “A Feminist Cognitive Anthropology: The Case of Women and Mathematics” (2004) and Cognitive Anthropology Through a Gendered Lens (2011). Work on race/ethnicity includes the AAA RACE project/exhibit and How Real is Race: A Sourcebook on Race, Culture and Biology (Mukhopadhyay, Henze and Moses, 2nd edition 2014). For further publications, downloadable materials, see her website: www.sjsu.edu/people/carol.mukhopadhyay

[i] Hegland sometimes obscures gender composition (e.g. the Village Council, Village Census respondents, activity participants (are these “people” all male?).

[ii] In pre-revolutionary Aliabad, the key landowner, from Shiraz, was a woman!

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