An Iranian Woman In Changing Times

SATTAREH FARMAN FARMAIAN'S autobiography begins back in the days when Iran was a highly underdeveloped country, where men of wealth and status wielded absolute authority over many wives and children.

Born into the ruling Qajar family soon after its overthrow by Reza Shah, Sattareh spent her childhood in a harem compound, a place of "enchanting tranquillity and beauty," with her father's many wives, children, and numerous retainers.

Reza Shah, an absolute ruler, was intent on drawing his people into the 20th century. He undertook to build roads, bridges, a trans-Iranian railway - and schools.

Sattareh's father was aware that Iran needed to educate its people. Farman Farmaian became one of the first Iranian women to receive a formal education.

With sensitivity and insight, she describes coming of age in a time of dramatic change. Iran's initial love affair with the United States mirrors Farman Farmaian's own fascination with the US, which began when she attended an American Presbyterian school.

Through Americans, she became aware of the desperate poverty of many of her countrymen. Seeking to help them, Farman Farmaian found her way to the US where she studied social work, married, and had a child. Abandoned by her husband, she found work. She became disillusioned with the US as it followed a pro-Shah agenda and returned to her homeland to establish a school for training social workers. The difficulties she encountered and the obstacles she overcame make fascinating reading.

Iran was following an uneven course of development under the Shah. Disliked by his own people and unwilling to share power, he nevertheless enjoyed the unquestioning support of the US. Farman Farmaian describes the frustration, social conditions, and events that eventually led to the Islamic revolution.

Caught up in the vortex of the early days of revolutionary fervor, she found, to her horror, that her record of service to her country would be used to denounce her. Narrowly escaping with her life, her aspirations shattered, Farman Farmaian resolved to leave Iran. With poignancy she reveals her feelings of betrayal and disillusionment when all seemed lost. Yet she managed to recover from this searing experience and rebuild her life.

The cooperation between Dona Munker and Farman Farmaian in writing this book has been felicitous. Munker has captured the forceful personality and the courage and determination of the woman whose tale she tells with lucidity and power. Farman Farmaian's many insights and comments on a large slice of Iran's history, on Iran-US relations, on events that led to the revolution, and on the foibles and excesses of her countrymen - as well as their talents and gifts - make this work both riveting and informativ e.

This autobiography is significant for another reason. Until recently, Iranian women did not write autobiographies - their culture denied them a public presence or voice.

The reasons are not hard to see. The genre of autobiography is one of public self-revelation. In writing the story of her life, Farman Farmaian has broken many barriers and exposed her life, her thoughts, and her opinions to public scrutiny.

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