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.


Controversy over the Mohammed cartoons and Draw Mohammed Day has given the impression that Islam is entirely against prohibiting the depiction of Prophet Mohammed. Unlike the Sunnis, the Shiites are accustomed to depictions of Mohammed and since the late 1980s, posters of young languid Mohammad with his shoulders bare in an effeminate pose were popular in Iran as a form of curiosity. On a casual walk in Paris, Pierre and Micheline Centlivres, two Swiss anthropologists fascinated by the Islamic art, noticed a poster which seemed to be the inspiration behind the Mohammed posters. (Before they thought it was inspired by a Caravaggio painting).

The original was taken in 1905/6 by two Orientalist photographers, Rudolf Franz Lehnert (1878-1948) and Ernst Landrock (1878-1966). First circulated as a postcard around 1920, this photo was simply named Mohammed after Lehnert’s Egyptian aide who posed in it. However, it is unclear how and when this image, made in Tunisia, arrived to Iran. Some Iranian posters came with a caption that this was a copy of a portrait done by one Bahîrâ, a Christian monk who met in Syria a young man who would later become the future Prophet of Islam. By crediting the image to a Christian and predating it to the time before Mohammed became the Prophet, the manufacturers of the image exonerate themselves from any wrongdoing.

However, it may be an ironic footnote to the story. With Europe yearning for the fantasies and seductions of the Orient, Lehnert and Landrock took many photos of prepubescent and pubescent boys and girls in various stages of being undressed. Suggestive nature of the above photo bags the question whether the postcards were distributed for homoerotic or at least for sensual purposes.

— see Etudes photographiques n°17, nov 2005 for the article for Pierre and Micheline Centlivres.