By: Sara Atta

Iranian women in Pahlavi regime; isolation or advancement?

May 17, 2023 - 16:39
Women from the Leader's point of view- Part 3

TEHRAN – The Pahlavi regime tried to change the role of Iranian women by using western models, which were not accepted by the Muslim nation of Iran, but the many mistakes of the regime, especially the historical mistake of Reza Shah in banning all Islamic hijab, made the regime unable to revive the real role and status of women in Iran.

At the beginning of the 13th century, the influence of new Western ideas on Muslims caused the formation of new discussions about the status of women in Islamic societies. In the modern western world, due to the strong presence of colonialism in Islamic countries as well as intellectual approaches in these countries, the position of Muslim women was criticized and an attempt was made to make the issue of women a symbol of the success of governments in reforming and modernizing politics. In Iran as well, some people demanded to change the status of women.

During the era of Reza Shah Pahlavi [the last Iranian royal dynasty, ruling for almost 54 years between 1925 and 1979], the fundamental rights of women were reduced to an outward presence in society, and at the end of the Pahlavi era, they became a tool to give prestige to the Iranian society. The presence of women in the legislative assemblies of the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi era [from 1941 to 1979] had only a symbolic aspect. The process of modernism in the Pahlavi era was a contradictory mixture of secularism and westernism. 

Women had a special place in the secular programs and modernization of Iranian society during the Pahlavi period, but their presence and involvement were only superficial. In fact, the Pahlavi regime pursued two main goals by implementing modernist programs regarding women; questioning the traditional and Islamic values of the society and creating more similarities between Iranian and Western society.

On 8 January 1936, Reza Shah issued a decree known as Kashf-e hijab banning all Islamic veils, an edict that was swiftly and forcefully implemented. He banned the hijab and encouraged Iranians to adopt European dress in an effort to promote nation-building in a country with many tribal, regional, religious, and class-based variations in clothing.

To enforce this decree, the police were ordered to physically remove the hijab from any woman who wore it in public. Women who refused were beaten, their headscarves and chadors torn off, and their homes forcibly searched.

It was the policy of Reza Shah to increase women's participation in society as a method of modernization of the country, in accordance with the example of then Turkey. The reform to allow female teachers and students not to veil, as well as allowing female students to study alongside men, were all reforms opposed and criticized by religious people, especially scholars and clerics. 

In one of his speeches on January 9, 2008, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said that the policy was aimed at “eradicating the tremendous power of faith” in Muslim societies.

“One of the most catastrophic activities was the issue of January 8th 1936, which took place during Reza Shah's reign. According to one plan, the enemies of Islam and Iran, enjoying the assistance of the "intellectuals" affiliated with the Pahlavi dynasty, decided to separate the Iranian women from their decency and hijab; they developed this plan in order to eradicate the tremendous power of faith that existed in Muslim societies-owing to the decency of women.”

Although the official sources of the Pahlavi regime presented astonishing statistics of the presence and involvement of women in the social, educational and economic fields, in fact, the women's movement in Iran suffered a noticeable decline during the Pahlavi era.

Social modernization programs in the Pahlavi era weakened the religious and traditional values in society and created an inappropriate atmosphere for the presence of women in society. Despite all legal pressures and obstacles, a large proportion of Iranian women continued to wear hijabs. 

Until Reza Shah's abdication in 1941, many women simply chose not to leave their houses in order to avoid confrontations and a few even committed suicides to avoid removing their hijabs due to the decree. The majority of Iranian women who did not accept the aforementioned policies refused to participate in the political, social and economic arenas, and in this way, the social isolation of these women was provided.

Although under the next ruler Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, wearing the hijab or chador was no longer an offense, and women were able to dress as they wished, the chador became a significant hindrance to climbing the social ladder, as it was considered a badge of backwardness and an indicator of being a member of the lower class. Discrimination against the women wearing the headscarf or chador still occurred, with public institutions actively discouraging their use, and even some restaurants refusing to admit women who wore them. This period is characterized by the dichotomy between a minority who considered wearing the hijab as a sign of backwardness and the majority who did not.

The Pahlavi era should be considered a period of domination of Western cultures. Although some freedoms were given to Iranian women in appearance, the role of beauty and charm of Iranian women in this period was emphasized and efforts were made to make Iranian women like European and Western women.

Ayatollah Khamenei in one of his speeches ruled out the achievements of the Western models in Iran for women, saying, “What Western women achieved, by plummeting into a quagmire of corruption and perversion, was the destruction of the family environment. It was an absolute lie that women could advance in science, politics or social activities only by removing the hijab. Women could do so (advance intellectually and socially) by maintaining their hijab and decency, and we have experienced this fact in our Islamic country...” (Jan 9, 2008)

However, in spite of the Western colonial equations and instructions, which thought that Iranian women would follow the Western proposed models with these unconditional freedoms and removal of the hijab, the women moved ahead of the revolutionaries during the revolution of the late 1970s. The contributions of women to the revolutions and the intentions behind these contributions are complex and layered. The motivations of women for being part of the revolutions were complex and varied among a plethora of religious, political and economic reasons and women participating were from various classes and backgrounds. Activist and religious women and women dissatisfied with the regime were able to unite under the anti-Shah umbrella.

The hijab became a political symbol. The hijab was considered by Pahlavis as a rejection of their modernization policy and thereby of their rule. It became a symbol of opposition to the Pahlavi regime, with many middle-class working women starting to wear it as such. Thousands of women while wearing full hijab participated in religious processions alongside men and expressed their anti-Shah protests.

“…The strong faith of the Iranian nation did not let this happen. In spite of all the strictures on hijab in the past, our Muslim women resisted suppression in various ways, during and after Reza Khan's reign, and during the remaining rule of the evil Pahlavi regime,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. (Jan 9, 2008)

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