A Brief History of the Women’s Rights Movement in Iran (1911-1979)

Photograph: 'Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi visits Saman, Iran' Wikimedia Commons

A Brief History of Iran’s Women’s Rights Movement


The modern women’s rights movement in Iran began in the early 20th century with the emergence of the constitutional monarchy (see: Iranian Constitutional Revolution) in 1911. These formative years of the women’s movement were concentrated mainly on the elevation of consciousness, with the set up of multiple publications and societies. The Patriotic Women’s Organisation was founded in 1922 along with their weekly magazine Nosvan Zatankhah (Patriotic Women), as well as other organisations such as the Women’s Revolutionary Association. Women within these early movements mainly consisted of well-educated, middle-class, wives, sisters and daughters of constitutionalists.

With the ascension of the new Pahlavi dynasty by Reza Shah in 1925 came a period of immense change for Iran. Reza envied the modernisation of states such as Turkey, which under Ataturk saw massive progress during the twenties with its westernised reforming of public and religious institutions, with an eye to modernity and industrialisation.

On the 7th of January 1936 the first official women’s day was introduced and in the same year, women gained admission into Tehran University. In 1932, the second Congress of Women of the East was organized in Tehran, and Iranian women activists met with activists from Lebanon, Egypt, India and Iraq. Although women’s movements were finally being recognised on an official level they were no more than an instrument of the Shahs modernisation/westernisation policies.

The Shah at this point was essentially an absolute monarch with a handpicked parliament and subject only to the European powers of the Soviet Union who had influence in the north and the British Empire who had control of Iran’s oil with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (see: Anglo-Iranian Oil Company). January 8th 1936 saw the most extreme edict pass known as Kashf-e hijab (Unveiling) banning all Islamic veils, a decree that was swiftly implemented with force throughout Iran. Although a progressive step it also garnered controversy and both further alienated religious groups with the state as well as with more religious women and demonstrated that the women’s movement was not taking place democratically but at the whims of a pro-western autocratic head of state.

It wouldn’t be until the abdication of Reza in 1941 at the hands of the USSR and Great Britain (see: Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran) that women’s movements would see a more democratic flourish under the war and post-wartime western controlled Iran. The vacuum of power that was left by Reza Shah gave way to a new struggle between conservatives and modernists; those who wished to see the return of more traditional and religious practices and those who wished to progress the modernisation of the state. The Shah’s suppression of religious clerics through modernist policy making and then the Shah’s subsequent abdication meant that the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) had the responsibility of dealing with internal struggles, thus meaning a temporarily more democratized Iran. The Conservative Clerical Establishment and the newly formed devotees of Islam demanded the return of the veil and more traditionalist practices, the Chador even began to return after Second World War. (see: different types of Islamic veil).

Throughout the 1940’s and 50’s many new women’s political organisations appeared, such as the Democratic Union of Women in 1943 and Women’s League of Supporters of the Declaration of Human Rights in 1956. Relative progress was being made with awareness for women’s suffrage through organisations and publications increasing throughout the decade. The CIA backed coup of 1953, which removed Mohammad Mosaddegh as Prime Minister, marked an end to the independent movements of the post-war period and marked the beginning of the reconciliation of power by the monarchy and increased censorship. From this point on organisations would be strictly monitored so as to assure total compliance with the new regime of Mohammad Reza Shah.

Under the Shah’s rule, the process of modernisation would increase dramatically, starting in 1963 with the White Revolution (see: White Revolution). Women won the right to vote and run for public office which allowed the first female senator in Iran, Mehrangiz Manoocherian, who stayed in office from 1963 to 1971, she also founded the Association of Women Lawyers. By the early 1970’s an estimated six thousand women were conscripted into the literacy and health corps. However, this emancipation and further advancement of women’s rights can be seen as little more than the state’s policies of modernisation coinciding with the goals of women’s rights activists. The monarchy was dragging women into the westernised future whether they were willing or not. Political dissidents were met with swift suppression, SAVAK, the secret police of the Shah arrested thousands of people who were either viewed as spies for the British or communist, or those whose ideas didn’t toe the line of ‘progress’.

There was little actual political fight for women’s rights under the Shah in the 1960’s and 1970’s and even the little that there was heavily monitored. For example, most of the Women’s rights groups at the time were brought under one organisation called the Women’s Organisation of Iran, after being taken over by pro-Shah supporters. The president of this organisation was Princess Ashraf, the Shah’s sister and the vice-president was the Queen’s mother, Farideh Diba. Although this organisation dealt with women’s issues and had institutes all over Iran it was heavily censored on what it could actually do on a policy-making level.

The supreme board of the organisation consisted of one woman and 9 men. It’s also important to remember that policies often only applied to women from the upper and middle classes, whilst there were few chances for women who were educated, there was little hope to those women who wanted to rise above their social class and to those who lived in more urban areas outside of Tehran.

As a result of creating a more western based society, the Shah created both opportunities for women and objectification. Indeed, the image of the ideal women was expressed in magazines. Fashion icons of the day, like Googoosh, were splashed across billboards particularly in urban centres where the populace was exposed to the concept of women as sex objects through mass media. The Shah’s wife, Empress Farah, was represented as a model woman, “As a woman, she was beautiful, feminine and elegant; as a wife, she was loyal, subservient and caring”.

As Iran’s wealth rose from increased oil exports more money was put into the suppression of fringe groups and the further modernisation of the state. The Family Protection Law of 1968 abolished extrajudicial divorce, greatly limited polygamy, and established special Family Courts for dealing with matters relating to the new personal status legislation, although a step forward for women’s rights in Tehran, especially being pushed by female senators who only six years before could not even hold the position or push legislation in the Majles.

The Shah’s pro-women policies only sought to hurt the women’s movement and when the revolution finally came, people associated with women’s organisations and enfranchisement were viewed as pro-Shah as well, ” “The shah’s regime had been so closely linked to women’s rights through the implementation of the family protection law that demands for women’s rights were seen as signs of support for the Shah“. Indeed many of the reforms that the Shah enacted, failed to serve women in any discernable way. Indeed, E. Sanasarian has said, “many of the reforms… remain only skin deep, and have not yet penetrated Moslem society as a whole. It is one thing to give women rights on paper, but it is a very different thing to make illiterate village women aware of their rights or to persuade them to exercise them“. Women would play a big part in the revolution of 1979 on the grounds of not enacting reforms that benefitted them. Although the Shah had enacted reforms, the stigma against women leaving the home was great, and traditional gender roles could not be so easily broken and the reforms not so easily enforced.

During the Iranian Revolution women would display their dissatisfaction and at last take the movement of feminism and women’s rights into their own hands, in a democracy, a republic, women could finally, or so they hoped, work towards their own emancipation.


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FranklyMrShankly 2 Articles
Daniel Harper is a recent graduate from Aberystwyth University. Having spent half a year teaching in South America and being engrossed in the politics and culture of Latin America and Europe he carries a personal perspective to each article he writes. With a deep facsination in women's rights and feminisim in the Middle-East and around the world, Daniel takes Journalistic integrity seriously and reviews and researches each topic with great care and seriousness.

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