Synopses & Reviews
An intimate and honest chronicle of the everyday life of Iranian women over the past century
“A lesson about the value of personal freedom and what happens to a nation when its people are denied the right to direct their own destiny. This is a book Americans should read.” Washington Post
The fifteenth of thirty-six children, Sattareh Farman Farmaian was born in Iran in 1921 to a wealthy and powerful shazdeh, or prince, and spent a happy childhood in her fathers Tehran harem. Inspired and empowered by his ardent belief in education, she defied tradition by traveling alone at the age of twenty-three to the United States to study at the University of Southern California. Ten years later, she returned to Tehran and founded the first school of social work in Iran.
Intertwined with Sattarehs personal story is her unique perspective on the Iranian political and social upheaval that have rocked Iran throughout the twentieth century, from the 1953 American-backed coup that toppled democratic premier Mossadegh to the brutal regime of the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeinis fanatic and anti-Western Islamic Republic. In 1979, after two decades of tirelessly serving Irans neediest, Sattareh was arrested as a counterrevolutionary and branded an imperialist by Ayatollah Khomeinis radical students.
Daughter of Persia is the remarkable story of a woman and a nation in the grip of profound change.
About the Author
Sattareh Farman Farmaian immigrated to the United States in 1979. She lives in Los Angeles. Dona Munker is a writer, editor, and teacher. She lives in New York.
Reading Group Guide
1. Among the important emotional threads running through Daughter of Persia is Sattareh Farman Farmaian's lasting veneration for her distant but beloved father, to whom she refers simply as Shazdeh, "the Prince." How did Shazdeh–or Sattis memory of Shazdeh–influence her life and career? What other people struck you as especially important to Satti in her adult life?
2. Did the depiction of Sattis childhood home change your impressions of a "harem compound"? In what ways was Shazdeh's compound a microcosm of Persian life as the author claims existed for thousands of years? Why did Persians feel that having a protector was so critical to survival? Do you think the need for a “protector” is a universal experience or particular to the Persian culture?
3. The incident in which Satti's mother refused to go to the police after being cheated by a beggar was a crucial lesson for Satti in the Persian axiom that one must "never trust anyone outside the family." Are Americans generally taught to trust those outside the family? Are there circumstances in American culture in which it is considered unwise or even unethical to depend on "family"? Do all Western cultures emphasize independence from family?
4. How did Satti's descriptions of individual Persian women from childhood–her mother Khanom, her stepmothers Batul and Fatimeh, Princess Ezzatdoleh, Neggar-Saltaneh (the wedding party hostess), or Shazdeh's strong-willed sister, Najmeh-Saltaneh, the mother of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh–both support and contradict Western stereotypes of traditional Moslem women?
5. If Shazdeh had lived a year or two longer, he would have found Satti a husband. How do you think her life would have turned out if she had been married off by her father? Might she still have been able to fight for social reforms? Do you think she could still have found happiness if she had had a conventional Persian marriage?
6. Satti felt that a priceless lesson of her student years in America, "the land at the end of the earth," was the freedom to speak openly and criticize anyone, even teachers and the government. She believed that if Iranians could learn to speak freely, "we could solve our problems." For this reason, she decided that one day she would return to Iran and teach Persians the value of "constructive criticism." Do you see as much “constructive criticism" in American public life today as Satti did then? Is it possible to solve large-scale social problems without "constructive criticism"?
7. Another of Satti's observations as a student was that "America was a wasteful nation." Satti felt that her American friends threw away clothing and even food they did not want without realizing the luxury in which they lived compared to countries like Iran. Do you think "Americans are wasteful"? In what sense? Do you think Satti should have been more sympathetic to her friends, noting that Americans' circumstances were different than Iranians'?
8. What was your reaction to the 1953 overthrow of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's democratically-elected premier, by supporters of Mohammed Reza Shah, the British intelligence service, and the American CIA? Were you surprised to learn that, although it took more than a quarter of a century for Americans who enjoy freedom of the press to learn of their government's involvement in the plot, Iranians learned the truth within days? Do you think the United States should never become involved in the overthrow of a democratically-elected regime in a foreign country? Or do you think its politically naïve to believe we must never betray the principles of democracy?
9. Satti's "Bulldozers"–the young men and women she recruited and trained to go into South Teheran to clean up its orphanages, mental hospitals, workhouses, and prisons–had to deal with problems that are generally less common in developed countries. How was the social work Satti taught different from social work in the West, and how was it similar? Do American social workers ever have to deal with similar problems here, for instance, in times of natural catastrophe?
10. Satti also taught her Bulldozers that "social worker" in Persian translated into madadkar, "helping person," to make the point that social workers cared not only about themselves and their families but also about people with whom they had nothing to do, or who might belong to a different religion or class, or be unlike them in other ways. Do you think generally Americans are taught to care about those in need, despite their being from a different, race, religion, or class? Do you think the United States has a strong government program, such as Satti was trying to build in Iran, to take care of those less fortunate?
11. In introducing international family planning and birth control to Iran, Satti emphasized that birth control enabled couples to postpone having children until women had recovered from previous childbearing and until families could afford to take care of their children financially. To persuade traditional Persians that family planning was in harmony with Islamic law, she enlisted the support of a prominent ayatollah, who issued a favorable ruling. Did you side with Satti or with her mother, Khanom, who maintained a more conservative stand on birth control? In what ways were Khanoms religious arguments similar to arguments made by other religious faiths against birth control?
12. Satti criticized the Shah's social and educational policies, yet in retrospect she realized that she had not fully understood what impact those policies were having on the students of her own school. Why do you think she was blind to this at the time?
13. By the last months of the Shah's reign, many well-educated, democratic, religiously tolerant Iranians including Satti were convinced that the Ayatollah Khomeini would be a compassionate, democratizing influence on Iran and not a religious fanatic. What led them to feel this way about Khomeini and the changes he was demanding?
14. Satti's arrest by her own students was all the more devastating because no one on her faculty or staff, besides Zabi, attempted to prevent it. While she later learned that the students were motivated by ignorance and a new-found--though undeserved--sense of entitlement, she felt shattered by the behavior of those who refused to get involved. Why do you think no one stepped forward to help her? Have you ever witnessed or been the target of a similar betrayal of loyalty at a critical moment? How did you make sense of it?
15. . Social work has always taught that it is only by solving society's problems through slow, long-term changes in behavior, legislation, and policy that permanent, positive social change comes about. However, this approach means co-operating with the existing system. After her release from detention, Satti wondered in anguish whether she had supported oppression by keeping the school apolitical and not actively speaking out against the government's human rights abuses. Do you think Sattis efforts benefited or ultimately hurt Iran? What would you have done in Satti's position?