Regression and Innovation of the Iranian Revolution




The purpose of this paper will be to examine the subsequent changes and effects attributed to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The major topics will center on the transition from the secular monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlavi to the Islamic republic spear-headed by Ayatolla Khomeini. This violent transition of power produced many dramatic changes in the social and political structure of Iran, some of which included drafting a constitution based entirely on Sharia (Islamic code of law) and reverting back to traditional Islamic values and roles for both men and women. The alterations surrounding this turbulent shift of leadership and power had a marked affect on the society and political standing of Iran in the eyes of many other Middle Eastern and African countries. The eviction of the U.S. from Iran triggered a wave of common feelings of rebellion and hatred against America throughout the Middle East. This paper will focus primarily on the Iranian Revolution viewed as a vehement reaction to the invasive influence of the United States, the beginning of new flood of rejection of western values throughout the Middle East, and the regression of social boundaries in Iran.

The multitude of changes put in place during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has been the subject of continual debate and controversy. The initial outpouring of support for the revolution against the Shah quickly shifted and discontent soon burgeoned against Khomeini and the leaders of the new republic . Because of the dramatic contrast between the substantial influence of the U.S. during the time of the Shah and the ultra-conservative changes made by Khomeini in favor of traditional Islamic values, it is evident that the Iranian Revolution was prompted by rebellion against the invasive nature of the western world; however, the changes that took place during 1979 had mixed results, elevating Iran in the eyes of many Middle Eastern and African nations but causing it to regress socially.

It is clear from the hate generated towards the United States and the subsequent systematic alteration of Iran to become a traditional, orthodox Islamic country that the Iranian Revolution was in part a backlash to the invasive, interfering actions of the United States. Though Iran was never officially colonized, it was treated like a colony by both Britain and the U.S. In fact, the U.S. was highly involved in Iran many years before the revolution took place. In 1953, the United States assisted Britain in Iran with a Coup D’état, which became known as Operation Ajax. The goal behind the coup was to return the profit of Iran’s oil fields back to Britain, after the Prime Minster of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq, had decided that Persia should benefit more directly from its own plentiful supply of oil. The coup succeeded, and the U.S. and Britain placed Shah Reza Pahlavi in the prime position of power. The U.S.’s direct involvement with the coup shows America’s deep involvement in Iran many years before the revolution, yet only for personal gain through influence in the government and through control of Iran’s oil supply. Following the 1953 coup, the U.S. remained immersed in Iran and the actions of Reza Shah. The Shah was strongly influenced by the United States and depended on foreign intervention to keep his position when threatened. The United States often took advantage of this power and pressured the Shah to liberalize Iran. As a result, Khomeini and the Islamic traditionalists in support of the revolution saw the U.S. at fault for many of the disliked western innovations formulated by Reza Shah . The U.S. was seen in connection with all things relating to the Shah: the unwanted westernization and the loss of classic Islamic morals . The meddlesome actions of the United States had forced Iran to move in a supposedly modern direction it was not comfortable with for the sole purpose of the U.S. profiting from influence in the Iranian government. Thus the hatred directed towards the Shah was also pointed at America. The strong incorporation of the west by Reza Shah created a need to find an Iranian identity separate from that of the U.S., and the Iranian people leapt at the opportunity that the revolution opened for this.

During and following the revolution, evidence of contempt and abhorrence for the United States and its western ways was abundant throughout Iran. Tehran Airport boasted slogans proclaiming, “Death to America, down with Imperialism…! America is our number-one enemy!” The US embassy was taken over by Iranian students and was commonly known as “the nest of spies.” Not having a beard, whistling in public, and shaking hands with people of the opposite sex were all considered western and therefore, were forbidden . The retributions of America’s forced western influence on the Shah in Iran were visible in the daily protests against the U.S. and in the motivation and success of the revolution. America became an obsession . Anger against the western, invasive nature of the United States evolved into one of the focal points that spurred the revolution.

However negatively the Iranian Revolution may be viewed, it gained Iran a new respect in the eyes of many other Middle Eastern and African countries and stimulated those nations to follow a similar pattern of action. Rejection of western culture (provoked by the actions of the 1979 revolution) was seen in nations such as Egypt, Tunis, and Algiers. In all of these countries there was an increase in women wearing veils, men having beards, and visitation to mosques, in attempt to strengthen Islamic principles . In Pakistan the U.S. embassy was burned, and in Mecca there was an attempted seizing of the mosque by Muslim traditionalist extremists . Though there were no apparent leaders of these rebellions apart from Khomeini, revolt against supposed western dominance rose up on all sides induced by the actions of the Iranian Revolution . As Flora Lewis stated in her 1979 New York Times article, “America is now the symbol of such dark suspicions.” Nationalist campaigns in many countries had previously been based around western ideas. However, this was discovered to be unfulfilling for the Islamic nature of these states and a desire to find an individual path and a cultural identity sprang up. The actions of Iran inspired a new religious fervor throughout the Middle East that instilled a desire in Islamic nations to re-establish fundamental principles not based on western ideals. A pervasive desire for change swept through the Middle East. The movement to revert back to time-honored laws and morals evolved into a major force. There was a definite “…rejection of what is felt to be alien and a search for renewed strength from inside.” Nearly all Middle Eastern countries were bothered by the idea of western superiority. Similar to Iran’s disposal of the Shah, many Middle Eastern nations ejected leaders because they were too connected with the West and had drifted far from traditional Islamic principles. The revolution gave Iran a new respect in the eyes of its neighbors and spread the will for change to other Islamic countries.

Following the revolution in Iran, social boundaries, such as what was considered permissible interaction between men and women regressed to become somewhat archaic. This was especially visible in the increasingly strict censorship of society. Cultural and social boundaries shrunk to contain only that which furthered Islamic values. In accordance with this, anything that was considered western or that promoted something not acceptable in Islam was forbidden. Such extreme restriction was apparent even in the educational world. At Tehran University, all courses were tailored to fit Islamic law. Brontë was never used in literature classes because she was believed to condone adultery in her work. The word “wine” was removed from Hemingway’s novels before they were taught . With many such seemingly minor alterations, the post-revolution government of Iran established tight control and dominance over the population starting in the classroom. Regression of social boundaries emerged in other more obvious arenas as well. Men and women were segregated in public; all music was banned. The confines of society shrunk to hold only that which encouraged and supported traditional Islamic law.

Not only did social conduct become stricter in order to follow Islamic guidelines, but following the revolution, the scope of women’s rights was lessened significantly. Women’s rights under the Shah were not advanced, but they shrank further under Khomeini’s influence. The Shah’s westernizing changes, apart from angering much of Iran, also had an impact on women’s rights. Reza Shah outlawed the veil entirely, and in 1952 women received the right to vote. The Shah also modified the divorced laws so men did not have absolute power and raised the marriage age for women. Yet despite these westernizing innovations, women were still placed at a disadvantage to men under the Shah. Giving women the vote had little effect, as the government appointed most major officials and citizens rarely had a voice in the administration. Also, though the Shah opened up Tehran University to women, permission was required from a woman’s parents before she could attend, and it was not often given.

During the turbulence and dramatic transition of the Iranian Revolution, women’s rights shifted from mediocre to minimal. However, this was mainly a function of the renewed focus of Sharia under which women are generally placed below men. Khomeini undid many of the revisions previously made by the Shah regarding the liberty of women. Polygamy and child marriage were made legal, and women lost the right of divorce and child custody . The atmosphere for workingwomen became more limited as well. Azar Nafisi, a professor at the University of Tehran during the revolution, describes in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran the limitations placed on her as a female teacher. Following the revolution, her actions were closely controlled and limited, her visitors monitored, and she was refused long over-due tenure. However, when she wished to leave her post, the University refused to accept her resignation for two years . This dramatic reduction of freedoms demonstrates the stricture of women following the revolution, including women who held occupations alongside men (such as Nafisi.)

Without a doubt the change that was felt most acutely by women following the revolution was the forced veiling. There had been many attempts to make the veil required since the beginning of the revolution, but the law was not actually enacted until 1981, several years after the Shah’s exile. The initial unveiling initiated by Reza Shah had been a symbol of modernization; under the new regime, making the veil necessary was seen as a reassertion of power . Many women protested against making the veil obligatory; women from all areas, from housewives to intellectuals, were present at the demonstrations against it . “It was shocking,” says Laleh Karimi (who was in school in Iran at the time) of the mandate for headscarves. Though the required covering of hair may seem like a minor adjustment, its effects were felt strongly in the women of Iran. For those who had worn veils voluntarily (when it was allowed) as a symbol of faith, making it compulsory removed all meaning from the gesture. Ironically, there was no longer any feeling of spiritual reassertion after Khomeini instituted laws requiring the veil for women, though that had been his goal . The requisite of the veil was a limiting change for women because it instituted a forced and untrue sense of religious devoutness, while removing any faith-based significance the action of the veil might once have had. It also was a visible mark on women to set them apart from and below men, as there was no required equivalent of the veil for Iranian males.

The Iranian Revolution was a turbulent time of great transition; these alterations had both positive and negative effects. The Iranian Revolution was triggered by the intrusive actions of the United States in Iran, but the changes implemented during the revolution had mixed results, elevating Iran’s standing in the eyes of many other Middle Eastern and African countries but causing it to regress socially. The Iranian Revolution can be viewed in both a positive and negative light. On the one hand it accomplished the necessary change of liberating Iran from U.S. influence and dependency. Yet when viewed from a western perspective, the revolution caused the country to regress to a pre-twentieth century social system. It will be intriguing to see the direction that Iran takes within the next few years, whether it continues in its orthodox Islamic system or gradually shifts into modernization again, this time without the help of the United States.


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