Iranian Revolutions in the 20th Century: rupture and continuity in women’s rights and demands

[Introductory words]: I am very honoured to talk at this conference about the challenges and achievements of Iranian women between two Revolutions in the 20th century that had tremendous impacts on their lives and status and that transformed gender relations in Iranian society.

From the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to the 1979 Revolution, Iranian society went through social and economic transformations, with significant consequences on women’s rights and demands. In this presentation, I will examine how these Revolutions mobilized women and how women’s participation in these major ruptures modified gender relations.

Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911)

The evolution of women’s rights is often linked to improvements in national and international policies of a country, or to the country’s interest in promoting women’s rights. Iran is not an exception. During the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, which lasted until 1911, women were involved in politics and were present on the Iranian public scene where they played a significant role.

Let us first look at the onset and progress of this Revolution in Iranian society:

The upheavals that started in 1906 were the first attempts to democratize the country. This was the beginning of a movement known as the “Constitutional Revolution”, a movement considered to be the first organized movement requiring a reform of the justice system, and more generally of the political system, with the aim of the legal and political recognition of the individual. Some of the clergy urged their followers to question the despotic power of the Qajar kings who had been in power since 1785.

Following protests in the society, especially the merchants of the Bazar, who were an important economic power in the country, and the clergy, King Mozaffereddin Shah Qajar, was forced to sign the establishment of the Constitution. Shortly afterwards, the Parliament was founded and Persia became a parliamentary monarchy, endowed with a Constitution. But following the intervention of Russia and Great Britain in 1907, Iran was divided into two zones of influence: the north for Russia and the south for Great Britain.

Finally, in December 1911, when the Parliament refused Russian intervention in the affairs of the country, Soviet troops occupied Tehran, and the Constitution was suspended again.

I have to mention here that the Constitutional Movement did not succeeded in replacing monarchical despotism with constitutional democracy. Moreover, neither the laws nor the State have been secularized, the clergy preserving its influence over the State.

Women’s participation in the Constitutional Revolution

With the advent of the Constitutional Movement, which marked the beginning of modernity in Iranian society, wives, sisters and family members of revolutionaries formed women’s secret associations to discuss about their rights. According to Azadeh Kian, the precocity of the Iranian women’s movement compared to the colonized countries in the region can be explained precisely by the fact that Iran was never colonized. In contrast to the colonized countries, where policies focused on nationalist objectives and where independent feminist organizations were discouraged, Iranian women activists identified themselves with the national/constitutional movement while they openly claimed their rights as women and citizens.

Women were limited in their actions but their modes of action and participation in the movement showed great variety. In the tense context of the growing influence of British and Russian economic and geopolitical interests, many women took a clear position. For example, after the signature of the Constitution, they pledged to boycott the importation of foreign goods, and raised funds for the establishment of the first National Bank. Consequently, they sold their jewelry to finance this bank, and also participated in the protests.

Although they were very active and took initiatives to contribute to the political activities, they were excluded from political space by religious leaders and by many male revolutionaries. Their presence troubled Iranian patriarchal society. They demanded the right to vote, but it was denied.

Creation of associations and schools after the Constitutional Revolution

Women also requested the access to education, easier divorce procedures, the abolition of early marriage, polygyny, and the ban of violence against them. These claims were a starting point in the establishment of the women’s movement. They were present in the public sphere by founding schools, women’s associations and publishing magazines.

Women’s associations

After the first women’s association founded in 1899, during the Constitutional Revolution a new radical women’s movement emerged, made up of semi-clandestine councils called women’s associations. Among the most important are [Association for the Liberation of Women [Anjoman-e horriyat-e zanân] and The Secret Union of Women [Anjoman serri-e zanân]. These associations play an important role in collecting funds for the foundation of schools, hospitals and orphanages.

Women’s education

In the absence of full citizenship, they placed the question of education at the heart of their action. At the beginning of the Constitutional Movement in 1906, the first school Doushizegân [Mesdemoiselles] for Muslim girls was founded by a woman. This action caused a lot of turmoil in the bazaar of Tehran and between the merchants and the clergy. A year later in 1907, the school Nâmous, one of the pioneers in girls’ education was founded by Touba Azmoudeh in Tehran. Between 1906 and 1910, fifty schools were opened in Tehran; all of them were financed by private funds. In 1918, Sedigheh Dolatabadi, an active member of several women’s associations and a publisher, founded the first school for girls in Isfahan. Under the pressure of the clergy, this school was obliged to close its doors three months later.

Women’s publications during Constitutional Revolution

The emergence of the women’s movement in Iran can be especially seen through women’s associations and publications that sprang up during the Constitutional Revolution until 1939, when the State limited and centralized women’s activities through the establishment of State feminism.

The first female magazine, “Dânesh” [Knowledge], was published in 1910 by a woman doctor, Ms Kahâl. It dealt with subjects such as education, raising children and managing the household, without touching political issues. In 1920, the first women’s magazine bearing the word “women” in its title, The Language of Women [Zabân-e Zanân], was published by Sedigheh Dolatabadi in Isfahan. This magazine also dealt with political issues and paid particular attention to socialism and social democracy. It was published only until the end of the same year.

Women’s publications provided a forum for women to exchange and express their demands.

First Pahlavi: Reza Shah’s reign

While the country was occupied by the Russians and the British, Reza Shah took power following a coup in 1925 and founded the Pahlavi Dynasty. He began modernizing Iran by building roads and railroads, reforming the justice system and limiting the influence of the Shiite clergy and more importantly changing women’s situation. He focused on education and following the establishment of Tehran University in 1934, twelve women began studying at that university in 1936.

Institutionalization of the women’s movement

By the end of the 1920s, a women’s movement was being created, more recognized and supervised. Iranians organized meetings and participated in women’s meetings abroad. The first conference of Muslim women was held in Damascus, Syria, in 1929, where Iranian women participated.

Later, in 1932, an Eastern Women’s Congress was held in Tehran with the support of the Government. Women participated from countries such as India, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. Important topics such as women’s right to vote, education and polygyny were discussed.

The first step towards the institutionalization of the women’s movement was taken through the creation of Center for Iranian Women [Kanoun-e zanan-e iran] in 1935, at the initiative of the State. Despite the State’s control of women’s activities, this was indeed the first time they had been legitimized. The main campaign carried out by this Center was against the veil. They actually prepared the ground for the veiling ban, which was applied in 1936. Although the creation of this Center marked the beginning of activities under the control of the State and the end of women’s independent activities, it nevertheless provided a more secure framework for the movement undertaken by women.

Reza Shah’s period is the beginning of the formation of a discussion and negotiation forum between the State, women and religion which was in permanent negotiation to advance women’s rights in society. The dialogue between these three discourses, the discourse of modernization, the discourse of the clergy and the feminine discourse, which continued through the whole Pahlavi era, encountered difficulties, painful moments marked by violence, moments of challenge, failure and victory. These discourses had to surrender or accept limits in a power relationship. While women’s demands had to adjust to the institutional requirements of the State, the State was also obliged to take these demands into account.

Veiling ban and its impact in 1936

Reza Shah’s concerns about the modernization of Iran led him to make a decision for which he was criticized. Women’s bodies had to be unveiled so that the regime could display and celebrate their progress in Iran. Indeed, Reza Shah’s wife and daughters attended the graduation ceremony at the Faculty of Education of Women Teachers in 1936 in Tehran unveiled. With this ceremony, the ban on the veil was established and women were no longer allowed to go out veiled in public places. Though well-received by the wealthy middle-class and educated women, this law was not appreciated by traditional families, who refused it. Imposed by gendarmes in public places, the application of the law eventually prevented many women from the middle class and the working class from leaving the house.

In fact, Reza Shah had decided to ban the veil, not because he believed in women’s freedom, but because he had decided politically to modernize Iran and women’s status was considered as the barometer of modernity. Some scholars, such as the historian Nikki Keddie, argue that despite certain contradictory effects of Reza Shah’s forced unveiling, it allowed women to appropriate education; but unveiled women have become the symbol of subjugation to the West.

Consequences of Reza Shah’s period on women

Reza Shah’s period was the beginning of the establishment of State feminism and control of the independent women’s activities and associations. During the same period, female education and the veiling ban were two very important transformations. Yet, apart from the Marriage Act in 1931, their legal position did not change. Thus, linking education to women’s unveiling deprived many girls of going to school. Many traditional families prevented their daughters from studying. Thus, it was mainly upper-class women who benefited from these developments. However, I have to say that at the time, women’s access to education and waged labor were expanded, which resulted in the serious redefinition of women’s role in society.

Second Pahlavi and women

With Reza Shah’s abdication and the accession to power of Mohamad Reza Shah in 1941, more efforts were made to institutionalize the women’s movement. Mohammad Reza Shah’s desire to modernize the country based on the western model forced him to consider women’s integration into public life, an approach that had already begun in his father’s period. His institutional reforms corresponded to ideas that had long been omnipresent in Iranian society. Thus, many urban middle-class women welcomed these reforms and were strongly involved in this process.

Women’s right to vote

The clergy and the merchants, who are a big lobby of economic power in Iran, contested women’s suffrage. Waves of protest rose and in the city of Qom, which is a very religious city, the pro-clergymen showed their anger against the regime and, following the clash with the police, several people were wounded or killed.

But Mohamed Reza Shah put an end to this status of “second-class citizen”, and women were legally entitled to vote in 1963. Subsequently, four women were elected to the Parliament and two women to the Senate in the same year. In 1968, a woman, Farrokh Rouparsa, was appointed as the Minister of Education. The public administration started to recruit women in increasing numbers: 55,000 women were working for the State in March 1967.

Women’s presence, even a marginal one within the State apparatus, tried to influence decisions on measures concerning women and entered into negotiations and dialogues with the State. Active women’s mission within the State was not only defined in terms of the promotion of women’s interests, but also presenting and negotiating women’s demands and expectations. As soon as they were present, even in small numbers, they claimed rights for all women. This presence induced an unprecedented discourse in Iranian society.

Family Protection Law 1967

With regard to the modernization of the family, it was through the ratification of the Family Protection Law in 1967 that women obtained some rights in the field of divorce, polygyny and the custody of children. This Code marked some progresses towards more equality: limits to polygyny; divorce became more difficult and the spouses had to go through the court to divorce their wives.

After the ratification of the Family Law, the corridors of the Ministry of Justice were filled with women asking for divorce; they were three times more numerous than men. On the other hand, in the following years, there was a decline in the number of divorces, probably because men could no longer divorce whenever they wanted.

These laws coincided with the claims for emancipation of middle-class women. Whatever the government’s objective was, the Family Law had positive consequences for middle-class women who demanded its enforcement.

With the rise in the age of marriage, women had the opportunity to study and work. They were able to put conditions on the marriage contract, to seek divorce, and, with the abolition of penalties for abortion, to be masters of their own bodies.

Although the patriarchal basis of the family and male-female relations remained almost unchanged, these laws were nevertheless considered as a means of moving towards greater equality between the sexes. A court existed in cases of family problems; women could also file complaints in front of the court, outside the religious jurisprudence. It was a particularly important but complex paradoxical phenomenon.

Women’s organizations during the Second Pahlavi

When Mohamad Reza Shah took power in 1941, many independent women’s associations were founded and were active until the creation of the High Council of Iranian Women’s Associations [Shorây-e âli-e jameiyathây-e zanân-e irân] which brought together eighteen organizations under the presidency of Ashraf Pahlavi (Shah’s twin sister). With the foundation of this Council, women’s associations lost their independence.

From 1958 to the 1979 Revolution, Ashraf Pahlavi became an important figure in the field of women’s emancipation. She brought together several women’s organizations that already existed and founded the WOI (Women’s Organization of Iran) in January 1966. Its activity also consisted in creating daycare centers, setting up sewing workshops and literacy classes, and writing and publishing studies on women’s status and their rights to be disseminated among women of modest means. It created several committees in various fields of health, education and social rights.

End of the Second Pahlavi

During 1960-1970, Iran became rich thanks to its oil, which allowed the Shah to undertake a policy of economic and social development. However, he faced a serious social and political crisis. Significant changes were emerging: the middle class and the working class had increased and the country was moving from a rural society to anurban society. Mohamad Reza Shah’s reforms provoked increasingly vigorous oppositions. The 1979 Revolution was not very far away though.

However, it is essential to remember that the modernization of Iranian society had led to changes in legislation in favor of women, whose socio-political consequences were important and contradictory. New rights helped to prepare a more active presence of women in Iranian society, although in many cases it was a change from one type of socio-political “domination” to another. A political and social agenda was much more at stake than the concern for women’s emancipation.

  • The consequences of modernization on middle-class urban women were diverse. They had managed to integrate into The country’s economy and open many doors that had previously been closed to them.
  • women had been engaged in professional and political activities.
  • During 1960-1970s, there had been an increase in the gap between the ideal patriarchal order and the contradictory demands of a society that encouraged them to remain mothers and wives while studying and working, which doubled pressure on women on behal

Radical change in the discourse on women: 1979 Revolution

The post-revolutionary period saw a radical change in the discourse on women, which is a rupture and continuity. Social actors, including women, aspired to political and social change. There had of course been political and social changes, but not in favor of women’s rights.

Women of all social classes participated actively in the 1979 Revolution. However, after the Revolution, they realized that even their achievements had been abolished. Just two weeks after the victory of the Revolution, on 26 February 1979, the Family Protection Law, which was the only legal framework in favor of women, was repealed. Then, on 3 March, women were banned to practice the profession of judge. Finally, on 6 March 1979, women were required to wear the veil, which provoked massive protests by women on 8 March of the same year. For the second time, Iranian women played an important role in the Revolution; but as in the Constitutional Revolution, not only did they gain nothing, but also their gains from previous years were lost.

The public space of after the Revolution was highly ideologized and polarized, which greatly influenced the women’s movement. It was at this moment that the foundations of Islamic feminism were being built, but a few years later, and thanks to the increase in women’s education, women from the middle and religious classes claimed to be feminists and Islamic.


Women are facing challenges in today Iran that are rooted in the long history of a country where, since the 19th century, they have had to confront political and religious power in order to obtain a minimum amount of rights. Periods of withdrawal have allowed them to gain ground, but the path is long and their most basic rights are always ignored and endangered. However, today’s Iranian women have acquired unprecedented political maturity. Despite moments of rupture, loss and renunciation, we can say that today’s Iranian women are more than ever aware of their rights.

Indeed without important elements of continuity and common boundaries, such a colossal shift would be impossible for any society. Reforms within the framework of the State feminism of the Pahlavi era made possible a growing feminine presence and the emergence of an egalitarian discourse in the Iranian public sphere. The State feminism of the Pahlavi regime was not merely propaganda, as the historian Michael Amin insists: “With its power over Iranian society, the Iranian State gave real benefits to those who accepted its synthesis of modern Iranian femininity and punishment for those who did not accept it”. Even though only a certain category of women benefited from these changes, State policies opened up new spaces for all women.

The period between two revolutions plays a major role in the reform, continuity and strengthening of the women’s movement in Iran today. Without this continuity and without common borders, the current movement of Iranian women would not have been possible. They were present in the public space and the more they participated in the political, social and economic transformation of society, the more gender relations were transformed.

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