Voices from Iran: The Changing Lives of Iranian Women, by Mahnaz Kousha. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002. 228 pages. Notes to p. 238. Bibl. to p. 244. $19.95 paper.
The most appealing aspects of the book under review are the author's empathy with her subjects and her serious engagement with their concerns; the attempt to get beyond Western stereotypes; the interest in what women themselves want to say; and the presentation of such a controversial topic at all. These are considerable achievements.
In eight chapters, Mahnaz Kousha, a sociologist living in the United States, writes about her interviews with 15 women in Tehran in 1995 and 1997. One chapter sketches the interviewees; two more deal with mother-daughter relationships, one with father-daughter relationships; one is on issues of marriage; one on paid work (titled, for some reason, "Women's Lives, Women's Words"); the next discusses if men are "better off than women; and the last one (again, "Women's Words"), deals with individuation. No clear structure is discernible in the titles or in the content. The Introduction describes Western stereotypes of Iranian women, but neither it nor a short autobiographical chapter ("Starry Nights") furnishes much insight into the author's methodology or theory, or a solid cultural/social background for the women's experiences. Instead, we get sentences like, "These images...have enshrouded reality. A thick white fog has fallen..."(p. 4). Indeed, it is not clear who the intended readership is. Social scientists usually look for more theory, analysis, and presentation of data (even in a postmodern text) than are provided here - there isn't even an index. Non-professional readers might find the book appealing but will get many of their stereotypes about women in Iran confirmed.
I see the shortcomings not so much as the author's fault than as examples of trends in the social sciences generally. I will address five.
1. The appropriation of ethnographic methodologies by various professions has led to "quick ethnographies" based on journalistic data. This book, for example, is based on only 36 hours of interviews. There is little background, virtually no analysis, no summary of themes or shared concerns to help us place these women in a wider context. Instead, we get "explanations" based on unidentified premises and unreflected assumptions. This falls short of good journalism and good science.
2. The tendency of publishers to favor popular non-fiction over straight ethnographies, for example, easily leads to shallow social science-writing. Here, unique but relatively little information is spun into 228 pages containing much fluff. The author's apparent goal to write in a popular style made her avoid bringing either sociology to bear on her data or her presumed knowledge as an Iranian about the society that produced the women. Instead, we get quotes from interviews followed by long restatements of the quotes in different words (e.g., pp. 115, 131).
3. Together with the trend towards quick-read writing runs one towards minimal editing. Only this can explain the disheartening amount of redundancy in this book. …