From 1941 to 1979, Iran was ruled by King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah. His dictatorship repressed dissent and restricted political freedoms. But he also pushed the country to adopt Western-oriented secular modernization, allowing some degree of cultural freedom. The decades before the 1979 Islamic revolution, under the Shah’s rule, Iran’s economy and educational opportunities expanded. Britain and the US counted Iran as their major ally in the Middle East, and the Shah forcefully industrialized large segments of the country.
However, the Shah’s increasingly authoritarian decrees and his eventual dismissal of a multiparty rule paved the way for infamous revolution. Communists and religious members of society disliked the Shah and his pro-Western government. In 1953, the Shah had to flee Iran after a Western-backed coup to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh failed. A second coup succeeded in overthrowing Mosaddegh, who wanted to nationalize the Iranian oil industry to Britain’s chagrin, and the Shah returned to the country. Like Ataturk in Turkey, Reza Shah undertook a series of reforms aimed at turning Iran into a modern westernized nation. According to the Business Insider, these reforms included the structuring of Iran around a central Persian identity, the often brutal suppression of tribes and their laws in exchange for strong a central government, and the expansion of woman’s rights. Like Ataturk, Reza Shah attempted to make religious observation subservient to the state. Part of Iran’s method of achieving this was through the banning of veils in public. Women were also encouraged to attend school and receive an education. Although Reza Shah’s intentions were to turn Iran into a modern westernized state, his bans on religious garments alienated and frustrated religious conservatives and traditionalists.
The Shah despite the increasing opposition of his laws, managed to create a seemingly cosmopolitan city life. Women and men mixed freely, and educational opportunities were greatly extended. Western clothing and norms also became ingrained into large segments of the Iranian population. Leading the charge for westernization was the Iranian royal family. Under the royal family’s invitations, Iran became a popular destination for celebrities and heads of state. Tehran funded study abroad in Europe for Iranians, and schools and clinics were built throughout the Iranian countryside to care for poorer children as part of the Shah’s “White Revolution.” It wasn’t too long before the revolution started off as a popular movement fueled by the outrage against government extravagance, corruption, brutality, and the suppression of individual rights, before being taken over by Ayatollah Khomeini. Reza Shah fled Iran in January 1979.
Janet Afary of The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that on April 1, following overwhelming support in a national referendum, Khomeini declared Iran an Islamic republic. Elements within the clergy promptly moved to exclude their former left-wing, nationalist, and intellectual allies from any positions of power in the new regime, and a return to conservative social values was enforced. The Family Protection Act (1967; significantly amended in 1975), which provided further guarantees and rights to women in marriage, was declared void, and mosque-based revolutionary bands known as komītehs (Persian: “committees”) patrolled the streets enforcing Islamic codes of dress and behaviour and dispatching impromptu justice to perceived enemies of the revolution. Below are more pictures showing what life was like in Iran before 1979.
Images sources from the Daily Mail UK