What was life like for women in Iran before the Islamic Revolution?

Margarita Rodriguez | BBC Mundo

“Before the revolution, I saw many pictures of my grandmother in a headscarf and my mother in a miniskirt. They were side by side and in harmony”.

Says Rana Rahimpour of the BBC Persian Service. And this is not just about his own family.

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, there was no strict legalized dress code for women as there is now. Now women have to cover their heads and wear long and loose clothing.

“Iran was a liberal country. “Women dressed as they wanted,” he says.

The death of a 22-year-old woman in Iran, who was detained by the morality police tasked with monitoring women’s compliance with these rules, sparked nationwide protests.

Rahimpour was born after the revolution. But as a journalist, along with the experiences of his parents and relatives, he closely followed Iran’s transformation after the Shah’s overthrow.

IranianAttending the Shah’s birthday celebrations at a stadium in the 1970s

This was a transformation in the early years that went beyond clothing.

Iranian journalist Feranak Amidi, who reports on women’s issues in the BBC World Service, said: “There was no separation between men and women from the Revolution. But after 1979 the schools were separated, and unrelated men and women began to be detained when they got together to socialize,” he says.

“When I was a teenager, I was detained while eating pizza with my friends. Before 1979 there were nightclubs, entertainment venues. And people could freely spend time here.”

In pre-revolutionary films, it is seen that women can dress however they want. Some dress in Western style, others are more conservative.

Amidi said, “There were different styles of clothing. Some of them were black chadors. But now it’s not the way the government wants it to be,” he says.

IranianShah’s birthday celebrations

“The women’s movement in Iran started in the late 19th century when women took to the streets during the constitutional revolution,” Esfandiari says in this interview.

Later, different social projects were started, such as opening a school for girls and publishing women’s magazines.

This network was created in the capital, Tehran. Then it started to cover other cities and led to the emergence of the women’s movement.

Women’s clothing in Iran has been on the leadership agenda since the beginning of the 20th century.

“The chador was not officially banned in the country until 1936, during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, father of modern Iran.

“Many years ago, the Iranian leader was encouraging women not to wear the chador. Instead, she was trying to promote the hijab. The sheet was eventually banned. It was a victory for women. But it was also a tragedy. Because their right to choose was taken away from them.”

Many women had to take off the sheets when they went out into the street. They felt humiliated and unprotected.

IranianA street in Tehran in July 1964

However, Esfandiari points out that the father of the last shah made some changes that had positive effects on women.

White Revolution

Mohammad Reza came to power in 1941.

“It was during his reign that the modernization of the country began,” says Amidi.

In 1963, during this process known as the White Revolution, women were given the right to vote and the same political rights as men.

In addition, steps were taken to increase women’s access to education in rural areas.

During this period, the family protection law was passed, which also included the issues of marriage and divorce.

Amidi says this law expands women’s rights:

“The Family Protection Act increased the marriage age for girls from 13 to 18. It also paved the way for women to file for divorce. The number of women men can marry has dropped to one. These were quite progressive steps compared to other countries in the region.”

IranianShopping in Tehran in August 1978

Although the Shah was an autocratic leader, he was a progressive leader and loved Western culture. He implemented a secularization program.

Women were appointed to important positions. “We had women ministers, we had judges,” Rahimpour says.

However, Amidi says that despite the promises of the White Revolution, women have had to make do with traditional roles.

He states that despite being in parliament, women do not actually participate in politics:

“But let’s not forget that this was about half a century ago, and women around the world didn’t have much political power.”

“They had a living presence in society,” says Amidi, noting that Iranian women are starting to take a greater role in public life, however.

Amidi highlights the influence of Mohammad Reza’s wife, Queen Farah Pahlavi, in art and culture.

Indeed, from the 1950s to the ’60s and ’70s, art greatly revived. Iran has entered the international art scene.

Nahid Hagigat Iranian painter Nahid Hagigat

Artistic activities developed largely in parallel with the economic prosperity of the country.

But although Iran has a lot of oil, the vast majority of Iranians could not benefit from this wealth.

Although the Shah and his wife supported the arts, the artists were not indifferent to this reality and to the pressures the regime put on those who came out against it.

In 1971, Mohammad Reza, who had previously declared himself “Shahenshah” (King of Kings), became the richest person in the world and the absolute leader of Iran.

The regime had become increasingly repressive towards its opponents.

“In the previous regime (before the revolution) people had social freedoms,” Rahimpour said. But they had zero political freedoms,” he says.

“This was a huge problem. All the political parties were under the control of the king. There was a surveillance society. There was no freedom of the press. Those involved in any political activism could end up in jail.”

Social unrest flooded the streets, and large-scale protests against the Shah’s regime began in 1978.

Shah of Iran


photo caption,

State dinner at the Palace in Tehran. (From left) Shah of Iran, then US President Richard Nixon, Queen Farah and Pat Nixon.

According to Esfandiari, the gains made by women during the Shah’s reign eroded in the last period of his rule:

“In response to the growing traditionalist voices in society, it has withdrawn its support for women to hold decision-making positions.”

According to Rahimpour, the Islamic Revolution had the support of non-religious Iranians. Many called it “True democracy”:

“There was support from all groups, liberals, communists and religious people.”

Regardless of what they wanted to wear or how religious they were, women became part of the force that brought the Shah down in 1979:

“There were educated women without headscarves, traditional women wearing headscarves, women from the lower and middle classes in the marches that resulted in the revolution,” Esfandiari says:

“All these women were walking shoulder to shoulder in the hope that the revolution would strengthen their economic and social status, and most importantly, their legal status.”

Amidi disagrees that women felt freer before the Islamic Revolution:

“Iran was still a conservative, religious society. But at that time there was a political will to break these traditional and conservative stereotypes and increase the weight of women in society.”



photo caption,

Khomeini supporters

But Amidi points out that this has not been implemented.

According to Rahimpour, there are different opinions about whether women felt more independent and empowered before the Islamic Revolution:

“Religious women will say they feel more comfortable going out after the revolution. But liberal women think differently. Let’s not forget that part of Iranian society is very religious.”

Photographs of women without headscarves in archives do not fully reflect the general mood for women before the revolution.

Perhaps the reason why many women of different ages preferred headscarves and religious attire was that society was much more conservative and religious compared to today.

Many Iranians joined the revolution in hopes of freedom, and their dreams were short-lived, according to Rahimpour:

“After the revolution we realized that many people were uncomfortable with miniskirts and the freedoms they had with men and women. That’s why they joined the revolution.”

“There is no compulsion in religion,” says Rahimpour, noting that many deeply religious people believe that headscarves should be women’s own choice, however.

Iran is now experiencing a new wave of protests over the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody, who was detained for not wearing the hijab properly.

Authorities claim that Mahsa Amini died due to other health problems. His family believes that Amini was beaten to death.

These demonstrations are one of the biggest challenges Iranian leaders have faced in recent years. This is also a new era in mass protests.