Points of View, American Stories

Veiling and the State in Iran, 1930s to 1979

About This Resource

Breaking the hold of traditions about women’s attire sometimes included vigorous, even violent efforts in postcolonial Muslim-majority states. In relatively secular countries such as Turkey and pre-revolutionary Iran, public wearing of the veil was banned, while Saudi Arabia and postrevolutionary Iran have made it compulsory. Veiling has recently become a legal issue in some European countries with growing Muslim populations. When Reza Shah Pahlavi came to power in 1921, one of his modernization goals was to encourage the education of women, but he also demanded that women give up the veil and the chador, the wide cloak that women wore in public. He instructed the police to enforce the ban. After the 1979 revolution overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, what women wore in public again became an issue, though in this case the new Islamic Republic of Iran insisted that they return to more traditional forms of dress. Marjane Satrapi gives a first-person account of the upheaval in mores related to women’s public attire in her  graphic novel Persepolis, one of the titles in the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf series.

The photograph shows Reza Shah Pahlavi, his wife, and their daughters on January, 8, 1936, attending a feast celebrating the legal ban on wearing the Islamic veil.


The Age-Old Modesty of the Veil: Banning the Veil in Iran (1930s)

By Sattareh Farman Farmaian

When my mother had learned that she was to lose the age-old modesty of her veil, she was beside herself. She and all traditional people regarded Reza's order as the worst thing he had yet done—worse than his attacking the rights of the clergy; worse even than his confiscations and murders. Shazdeh [her father] realized that he did not dare disobey.... He sent to the Avenue Lalezar for hats for all his wives in the compound and told them that the next day they were to put them on and ride with him in the open droshky [carriage]. To my mother, it was exactly as if he had insisted that she parade naked in the street. Only her respect for his wisdom and her fears for his safety could have enabled her to submit to such degradation.... The next day [my mother], weeping with rage and humiliation, sequestered herself in her bedroom...to put on the hat...she wept as she struggled furtively to hide her beautiful masses of waist-length black hair under the inadequate protection of a small French cloche. There was nothing my stepmother could say to console her.


Excerpt from The Fortune Catcher

A novel by Susanne Pari

It was one of Reza Shah’s equestrian police who bounded his horse onto the sidewalk and reached down to yank my mother’s chador from around her. My mother screamed and put her hands to her bare head. I looked up at this paseban [policeman] atop his horse; the afternoon sun shone behind him, making him a shadow, hiding his features from me. He lifted his arm and I thought he would strike me, but instead he threw my mother's chador into the narrow jube [gutter] and watched the rushing water take it away. My mother clutched at her body, crossing her arms over her breasts as if she were naked in the cold. Not since her ninth birthday had she been without her chador in front of men outside her immediate family. Now her flowered shift fluttered in the wind. Her cheeks were pale and wet with tears of shame.

The paseban spoke to her as if she could hear him, but I knew from her empty stare that she had taken herself somewhere else. He reminded her that the chador had been abolished, by order of Reza Shah the new and modern king. He reached for me, but I stepped back. I would not let him take anything from me, not let him touch me. I believe it was the hatred in my eyes that gave him pause, for I have used that look many times since then and I have never lost a battle with it. ...

I draped my chador over my mother, and she held it fast about her body and face. She sobbed into the cloth, and I felt a burning in my heart for her. Once at home in her bedroom, she began to pound at her chest, to pull at her braids, to cry at the terrible sin of her exposure. I held her against my bosom and tried to comfort her; she seemed so small now and so beautiful as the candlelight bounced upon her hennaed hair. She calmed and had me promise I would not tell anyone of this horrible incident, that it would shame her too much. I promised. Finally, she fell asleep, but only after I heard her vow to God that she would never leave the house again.

She became very devout. And very quiet. She was not like my other mother; she did not take interest in the same thing, in cooking her special sugar-almond candy or in her embroidery or in tickling her grandsons' bellies or even in having her friends for lunch or tea as she always had. She took longer to say her prayers; she said them slowly, stretching out the Arabic words until they sounded like lyrics to a song....

The doctor said it was the pneumonia that killed her, but I will always think of Reza Shah as her murderer and my mother’s death as another casualty in his march away from the laws of God. And the British. They were responsible for my mother's death. It was their ideas that they sprinkled like seeds into our new king’s mind, ideas that would grow into monstrous trees under which the whole country was made to sit and live. He wanted to be like them, was taken in by their pomposity, wanted Iran to mirror the West. Stupid man! And then the others came: the French, the Germans, the Russians, and, finally, the Americans. Occupying us. Telling us how to live. Telling us that bread and cheese and tea were unhealthy for breakfast, telling us to eat chickens’ eggs and fried bread with a cloying syrup. Convincing us that our clothing was wrong, that the separation of girls and boys in school was wrong, that men should wear strips of cloth down the fronts of their shirts, that a woman’s beauty belonged to everyone to see—her legs exposed, even her shoulders—so men could stare at her, violate her privacy.

Ah, the West. Not only did they steal our oil, they stole our traditions. And now, thanks to Allah and to the blessed Khomeini, they are gone.


Reese, Lyn. “The Age-Old Modesty of the Veil.” In Women in the Muslim World: Personalities and Perspectives from the Past Berkeley, CA: Women in World History, 1998 (pp. 71–72).
Pari, Susanne. The Fortune Catcher New York: Warner Books, 1997 (pp. 28-30). Image credit: Iranian Historical Photographs Gallery, http://Iran.fouman.com. 

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #96: Veiling and the State in Iran, 1930s to 1979", May 17, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/96.


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