There are a variety of perspective on women’s role in revolutionary Iran, but most agree that they played a large part in revolting against the Shah and bringing down the Pahlavi government. In Dr. Ansia Khaz Ali’s Conflict Forums report Iranian Women after the Islamic Revolution (found here) she characterizes women’s participation as rebellion against the Shah’s oppressive sexualization of women, which she views as a violation of women’s rights.
Starting with Shah Reza Khan’s ban on the hijab in 1935 and his order for authorities to forcibly remove chadors from women wearing them in the streets, Ali documents the history of modernization in Iran as the government forcing Western concepts of sexual objectification on women. Aside from the physical assault that resulted from the order, Ali sites the ban on the hijab as oppressive to women because many chose to stay indoors rather than go outside unveiled and were therefore basically under house arrest until 1941 when the Shah’s son Reza Pahlavi took the throne. Pahlavi lifted the ban on the hijab and made it optional for women to wear, stating that women would “give them up gradually” as modernization of Iranian society continued. Ali contends that the Shah was successful in his endeavor to westernize women by carrying out extensive propaganda campaigns that sexualized women in advertizements and films and made it difficult for women who still wore the hijab to obtain higher education. According to Ali, the Shah was concentrating on the “visual aspect” of the unveiling of women which “did not consider their human identity or their particular needs and circumstances.” Thus, when signs of the revolution first started to show in the 1960s, women started wearing the hijab in public as an active sign of resistance to westernized sexual oppression.
Ali lends a very interesting perspective on the role of women in Islamic Iran that is rarely found in Western discourse. To her, the hijab allows women to be equal with men in society because the sexual objectification that is connected with women in the West is erased by the veil. Thus, in this perspective, sexualization of women and the female form is oppressive because it makes women distinct from men and distinguishes them as objects of their attention rather than as equals. She continues to explain in her paper that after the revolution, women were free to go out into society and the work place free of discrimination and sexual exploitation which is key to their enjoyment to human rights. This logic is very interesting when considering the opposite view that women are oppressed by hijab because it forces women to conceal themselves and distinguishes them from men. In essence, it almost seems as if both are arguing the same thing: that it is a violation of women’s rights to purposefully distinguish women as different from men either by enforcing the hijab or banning it. Ali, of course, if far from the only scholar who has written on this subject however, and it is evident from the mass veil protests after the revolution that not all women agreed that enforcing hijab as law was essential to upholding their human rights. I will expand on this concept further with the views of different authors who touch upon the role of women in the Islamic Revolution.