Iran Before the Revolution

Passing of an Iranian actress was good time as any to reflect on regress of women’s rights in the Middle East. 


Forouzan’s death last month was as her last thirty-seven years had been: quiet and unremarked. Before that, however, she was one of the biggest stars of the Persian cinema. For a brief period in the 1970s, voluptuous Forouzan (whose name meant bright light) represented a liberated Arab womanhood, which has all been extinguished since at least in the Middle East.

Her death brought to fore various magazine covers in which she appeared — and other contemporary Persian magazines where Western and local models were frequently portrayed showing a bit of skin. Sophia Loren smiled wearing just a fur coat from one cover. The famed Henry Clarke posed several models at Iranian mosques in 1969 (an activity which could have gotten him into deep trouble just a decade later). One week, Forouzan appeared on the cover of Weekly Ettelaat with the headline: “Forouzan and the latest fashion; Will people of Tehran approve it?” (above).


Iran before the Revolution was hardly a tolerant liberal democracy, but in many ways it was more relaxed socially. A woman cabinet minister was first appointed in 1968, and just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, women made up a third of university graduates. The Revolution rolled back these small accomplishments: hijab was introduced, and women were removed from the judiciary (Islam posits that women are unqualified to be judges). Because women’s role was to be at home solely, government–run day care centers were shut down, making it difficult for women to lead professional lives. In a telling brutality, the aforementioned first woman to serve in the cabinet was executed. (Only in 2009 and 2015 that Iran appointed its first female cabinet minister and ambassador since the 1979 revolution respectively). 

Forouzan herself was banned from acting again — anyway, there wasn’t much need for actresses anymore as all women were covered under hijab, including on the silver screen. Although in reality, Iranian women do not need to be covered under hijab at home, the movie censors force actresses to wear hijabs for both indoor and outdoor scenes. In a crowning absurdity, women in Iranian films wear hijabs even when they sleep in bed.


Alas, Iran was not the only country in the region where women’s rights have regressed since the 1970s. In his grand retelling of the pivotal events 1979 ushered, Strange Rebels, Christian Caryl remembers seeing a postcard of a glamorous Afghani model posing on a grass-lawn in a dress of “1970s psychedelia and ethnic chic”. He writes:

“It was easy to dismiss the cigarette-smoking model as an outlier, a solipsistic stand-in for a superficial program of Westernization with no organic connection to the surrounding society. But this is lazy. The Afghanistan she stood for was real. She may have belonged to a minority, but it was unquestionably a growing minority that many wanted to join… This Westernizing, secular, hedonistic Afghanistan was not a phantom; it represented a genuine dream for many Afghans.”

The same could have been said of  Forouzan and her Iran.

Jean Gaumy, Iran


Jean Gaumy began his career as a writer and photographer. His exposes on French healthcare and prison systems (he was the first photojournalist to be allowed inside a French prison) led to reforms. Today, he is better known for his photo of Iran’s chandored female militia practicing firing.

Gaumy visited Iran six or seven times over a four-year period. As he recalled:

“For me it was an opportunity to discover the true meaning of what Iran was, to be in a hot news place and really find out about it. I had listened to friends and colleagues at home, all of whom had an opinion on Iran, so my head was buzzing with received information, but when I got out there, I knew I would have to find out the real story for myself. Abbas told me not to believe anything I read in the newspapers about Iran and he was perfectly right. I found it very exciting, discovering an entirely new and different way of life.”

On his first visit, he became the first western photographer to be granted access to the Iranian training camp for female Basij militia on the outskirts of Tehran. It was in 1986, at the height of Iran-Iraq War, and the photos were ayatollahs’ way of saying even our women were prepared to fight and die for us. The war was not going swimmingly for the Islamic Republic; after the initial decisive  victories in 1981-82, Iran had united the United States and the Soviet Union against itself. Alarmed by the prospects of a victorious Iran fomenting Islamic Revolution across Middle East and Central Asia, the Soviet Union, the Gulf States and the NATO began openly arming the Iraqis. The war would drag on for another six years.

Basij militia — whose voluntary members are promised with martyrdom — still survives. During the war, they were sent before the army as a human wave to clear minefields and shield the army from the enemy’s fire. These days, it serves at a de facto religious police of the Islamic Republic, enforcing hijab laws and sex segregation.


British Embassy in Iran Seized

As Iranian students storm the British embassies in Tehran, historical comparisons are made to 1979 (the seizure of the US embassy there) and to 1980 (when the Iran embassy in London was seized by Iraqi terrorists and rescued by SAS). IP takes a longer view.

Hatred of Britain in Iran has deep roots. Ever since William Knox D’Arcy was granted a concession by the Shah of Persia to search for oil in 1901, the Persians resented the fact that oil profits went only into the coffers of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the mighty conglomerate that counted among its paid lobbyists young Winston Churchill.

In April 1951, the Majlis (parliament) of Iran under the nationalist Mohammed Mossadeq nationalized the oil industry in Iran, and kicked out the then Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Britain’s response was to stage a coup against Mossadeq, and that it finally achieved with the help of the CIA in August 1953.

The AIOC returned to Iran, as a plurality owner (40%) of a new international consortium involving five American companies (40%), Royal Dutch Shell and Compagnie Française des Pétroles (now Total) (20%). The AIOC became the British Petroleum in 1954 when the above picture was taken. The companies continued to operate in Iran until 1979, when the new Islamic regime again nationalized the oil industry without compensation, bringing to an end the BP’s 70-year presence in Iran.

Shortly after the U.S. embassy was seized, and its own embassy was occupied, Britain closed its embassy in Tehran in 1980 — the beginning of the eight-year diplomatic hiatus. In 1986, the relations hit nadir as Iran pointedly nominated Hussein Malouk, who took part in in the 1979 student takeover of the U.S. embassy as Iranian chargé d’affaires in London. HMG refused to accept Mr. Malouk. In 1989, the diplomatic relations resumed briefly before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Anglo-Indian author Salman Rushdie. In the 2000s, the terse diplomatic dance continued. In 2004 and 2007, the Islamic Republic briefly arrested groups of British soldiers for straying into its waters from Iraq. Salman Rushdie’s knighthood and the Green Revolution further exacerbated the relations.

But, no matter how unsalvageable that relationship is, this blog has always viewed the diplomatic immunity as sacrosanct and the host country as the power responsible for protection, security and well-being of envoys and diplomats. By turning the blind eye to this raid, and by tacitly condoning and perhaps even encouraging actions of this angry mob, the Islamic Republic has proven itself to be an unreliable, duplicitous, and crass entity.

Numbing Transition from Life to Death

After Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, the nation’s 4 million Sunni Muslim Kurds rejected his rules and his religious beliefs and demended independence. Khomeini sent in his Revolutionary Guards, who slaughtered thousands of Kurds using mock trials.

On August 27th, 1979, in Sanadaj, nine Kurdish rebels and two former police officers were tried and sentenced to death. Their execution by firing squad was documented in startling detail by the above photograph, published in Ettela’at, a Tehran newspaper. A United Press International staffer in Tehran saw the photo and went to Ettela’at to obtain the photo. He then transmitted it via wire to UPI’s European office. On August 29th, various international newspapers including the New York Times put the photo on their frontpages. For security reasons, the name of the staffer was never revealed.

The photographer’s name had also remained unknown. The editor of the Ettela’at was afraid of government reprisals and didn’t mention the name of the photographer. Predictably enough, the Revolutionary Guards later invaded the newspaper’s office and confiscated the photos. They didn’t shut the newspaper because it was the oldest paper in the country, and damage done by such a shut-down would’ve been much worse.

The photo, named Firing Squad in Iran or more poetically, “the Numbing Transition from Life to Death” was the only anonymous winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the 90-year history of the award. In 2006, an Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi revealed that he was the photographer and claimed the award. The irony was that Razmi had been the official photographer of Iranian Presidents since 1997. See all the photos he took that fateful day here.

Iran Hostage Crisis

Day 4

On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and began to consolidated power. When President Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah to visit America for cancer treatment in October 1979, radicals in Iran seized the American embassy on November 4, fearing a repeat of 1953, when the US and the UK deposed a previous Iranian government and put the Shah in his place. Fifty-three people were taken as hostages.

For many, the most famous pictures of the hostage crisis–which lasted 444 days–were taken on its very first day. Many photographers were a demonstration nearby and they rushed onto the scene just in time to take the memorable images of blindfolded communication officer William Belk (topmost) and footage of another blindfolded communication officer Jerry Meile led away by the militants. Seeing how damaging these pictures are to the morale of the American public, the militants would parade the blindfolded and handcuffed hostages for the cameras for the next few days to humiliate Washington.

After much dithering, Jimmy Carter decided to send a rescue operation, which he had to abort when helicopters malfunctioned, and one crashed into a transport plane while taking off. Walter Cronkite would measure its hostage crisis by added a count of days to his famous sign-off. The hostage crisis along with the deepening economic crisis, cost Carter his reelection bid. After the election, Carter tried harder than before to get hostages released, but the Iranians made a point of releasing them just minutes after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. The 444-day crisis was over, but not America’s long national nightmare with Iran.

See this excellent paper on media impact during the hostage crisis: