The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origin of Feminism. By Janet Afary. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Pp. xxi, 448. $32.00.)
In 12 detailed chapters, the author of this study attempts to recount the history of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911) in the light of new concerns about race, gender, class, and the world capitalist system. The traditional historiography of this revolution, according to the author, has relied on single-factor analysis or one-dimensional explanations. Afary attempts, for the first time, to correct for this by taking into account the "multiclass, multicultural, and multi-ideological dimensions" of this revolution. She relies on available historical documents, newspapers from the period, and accounts of participants and observers of this revolution, to show that, contrary to widespread belief, the revolution was not the product of an alliance between the secular intellectuals and liberal clerics only. The revolution was also a product of the efforts of diverse groups motivated by various ideological, political, economic, ethnic, and social causes.
In chapter one, the author places Iran within the context of the capitalist world economy and discusses the political and economic effects of this system on Iranian society. Chapter two deals with the diversity of views and ideologies that contributed to the emergence of the Constitutional Movement, with an emphasis on the role of Azali Babi thinkers in the revolution--a role conventionally ignored by other historians. The composition and efforts of the first parliament in social reform and of various urban councils in expanding grassroots democracy is examined in chapter three. Chapter four deals with events and forces that contributed to the clash over the supplementary constitutional laws, with importance given to the role of conservative religious forces. A unique attempt to deconstruct the ideological and political texts of this period, especially the press, is discussed in chapter five. The next two chapters are devoted to the role of various classes and groups such as peasants, artisans, and women in fighting the dictatorship of the Qajar rulers and foreign intervention. While chapter eight deals with the civil war in Azerbaijan as a form of class struggle, chapter nine attempts to show the connection between the revolution and international efforts to establish democracy and social justice. Chapter ten deals with the second national assembly and the formation of political parties. Chapters eleven and twelve describe events that began to undo the revolution, especially the role played by the imperialist powers and Iranian conservative forces.
Afary's well written reevaluation of the history of this revolution is unique and innovative--unique because it explains the dynamics of the revolution in terms of the multiplicity of forces and ideologies that were present at the time and innovative in an approach that goes beyond the description of events and personalities and looks at this movement from a theoretical angle. By employing theoretical insight, Afary enriches historical facts and provides a deeper understanding of historical processes. The downside to this approach is that the usage of contemporary terms such as "democracy" and "feminism" for explaining events and individuals of a century ago runs the risk of reading too much into realities that may fall far short of their contemporary meanings. It is not far from the truth to speak of the political activities of the Iranian intellectuals and the activists for constitutionalism as a struggle for social justice, whatever social justice may have meant at that time. But to think that those intellectuals and activists understood the meaning of democracy as we apply the term today is questionable. Even the Social Democrats of the period could not come close to what we understand as democracy at present. The same can be said about the application of the concept of "feminism" for the political and social activities of women in this period.
Still, Mary's efforts in synthesizing theory and historical facts is bold and encouraging. As historians move away from pure descriptive analysis, the likelihood that we may have a better grasp of the meanings imbedded in the behaviors of historical actors increases. This book provides history as analysis rather than history as narration.
By Ali Akbar Mahdi, Ohio Wesleyan University