The period leading up to Iran's Islamic Revolution was a time of major upheaval and reform. The pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was determined to drag the country into the 20th-century, and photographs of 1970s Tehran give the outward appearance that it was little different from Washington or New York. But there was increasing turmoil and dissent. The Shah's White Revolution program of modernization was welcomed by affluent, educated city society but it largely failed among the country's predominantly rural population. An economic boom created a widening income gap between the wealthy and the poor, while moves toward a more secular society angered religious traditionalists. Opposition to the increasingly authoritarian monarchy was brutally crushed.
Pahlavi brought great reforms for women, who could now cast off the chador veil and were encouraged to wear western dress. They were granted the right to vote, education was opened up to them, and an increasing number joined the work force. The Family Protection Act gave them greater rights such as allowing divorce and banning marriage under the age of 15. In more traditional villages, however, the new laws were rarely enforced. While the banning of the veil was seen as liberation by educated females, rural women increasingly retreated to their homes, used to being hidden behind the garment.
Iran remained a deeply religious nation of predominantly Shiite Muslims but the shah’s reforms encouraged an increasingly secular society. These reforms were welcomed by those who felt oppressed by religious dictates, but were resoundingly rejected by the more traditional elements of Iran, who saw them as a threat to Islamic cultural values and identity. They led to a chasm between the monarchy and powerful Muslim clerics -- among them the popular Ayatollah Khomeini -- and would eventually lead to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Iranians enjoyed the luxury of new colleges, universities and libraries under the shah. Education was encouraged for the entire population. Secondary schools were free for all and financial support was extended to university students. An increasing number of boys and girls were sent to school, though females continued to have more limited access to higher education. The Literacy Corps was established to reduce illiteracy in rural areas, though reading and writing rates continued to be low in the villages.
Nationalization of the oil industry, wresting it from British control, was a major boost to Iran’s economy, with greater job prospects for many, including women. Other reforms included the sale of state-owned enterprises to private interests and profit sharing in industry. Middle class Iranians could afford to buy their own apartment and travel abroad. But the oil wealth was unevenly distributed, and led to discontent among the nation's poorest, who were increasingly marginalized. By the late 1970s the economy began to struggle with rapid inflation and disaffected workers in both the public and private sector went on strike.
Much of Iran still relied on agriculture. Land reforms redistributed properties to small farmers. While land owners raked in profits from sales, many sharecroppers failed to subsist on their own crops, let alone make a profit. Thus, the reforms often failed to improve life for those they intended to help. Trade with the West, which was curtailed after the revolution because of sanctions, was a boost to the economy. But some stall owners in the bazaars, the traditional focal point of Iranian life, complained that it unfairly took business away from local producers.
Freedom of Speech
The shah’s determination to showcase an increasingly liberal and modern front to the world was not matched by freedom of speech. Politically, he installed a succession of loyalist prime ministers. There was widespread censorship of the press, and the Savak security and intelligence organization became notorious for crushing dissent among political opponents. The crackdown on communists and Islamists led to many being imprisoned and tortured. Students began to take to the streets in protest.
By mid-December, 1978, hundreds of thousands of people, led by religious leaders, came out in anti-government demonstrations. Weeks later -- on Jan. 16 1979 -- the Shah fled the country. Khomeini returned from exile that February and replaced the secular government with a theocracy ruled by Islamic religious leaders. In November, young supporters of Khomeini, angered by U.S. support of the Shah, stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 hostages. All were eventually released 14 months later, but a failed rescue operation led to the death of eight U.S. servicemen.
- Iran Chamber Society: Iranian Society
- Iran Chamber Society: History of Iran
- Iran Chamber Society: History of Iran White Revolution
- Culture of Iran: Relationships, Iranian Experience, a Brief History
- Culture of Iran: a Brief History
- Iran: The Coming of the Revolution
- Countries and Their Cultures: Iranian, Persian
- The New York Times: 1979 Iran’s Islamic Revolution
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