Iranian and Afghan women: then and now

June 23, 2015 • 8:45 am

Reader John W. sent me the photo below, showing women in Kabul in 1970 and the present, clearly meant to underscore the religously-induced difference in dress.


But of course those photos could be cherry-picked.  Then I remembered that, at her talk in Vancouver, Maryam Namazie, discussing the burqa, also said that since her youth, women in her Iranian homeland have been increasingly swathed and covered according to the dictates of Islam.

So I simply did a few Google Image searches, and show in each case the first four rows of photos. I make no claim that these photos are a random sample of women (that’s not the way Google Image works), but I think they’re still telling.  Click on the links to go to the full search. You can enlarge all photos by clicking on them (twice, with a few moments in between each click, to eliminate the book icons).

Tehran, women, 1970 (there are more photos here). The revolution that overthrew the Shah and eventually installed Ayatollah Khomeini occurred in 1979.

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Tehran, women, 2000:

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Kabul, women, 1970 (note that there’s one duplicate of the first photo from Iran). The Taliban took control of the country in 1996 and imposed sharia law.

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Kabul, women, 2000:

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Kabul, women, 2010:

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What does this say about the claim that women in these countries wear the burqa, niqab, and hijab out of choice rather than cultural decrees?

37 thoughts on “Iranian and Afghan women: then and now

  1. Yes, in Iran the hijab and other head coverings were actually *forbidden* from the mid-1930s until the 1979 revolution. Millions of women who had *never* worn them were obliged, in mid-life, to put them on, and have never been allowed to take them off in public since.

  2. That’s interesting. In the case of Iran, I want to claim that we are partially responsible: by propping up dictatorial regimes, we made the revolution possible or at least more appealing to those who might otherwise have not chosen to follow it. We pushed Iranians to befriend the enemy of their enemy.

    But Afghanistan provides a counterpoint, since during this same time period we did the exact opposite in that country; we supported local rebels against the status quo.

    I completely agree that religion is the factor here, but overall, I draw another important lesson from these comparisons. Carly Simon’s oldie but goodie: I shouldn’t be so vain to think this change is about us (or our foreign policy).

  3. Reza, the Shah’s pa, banned the niqab and hijab in 1936. Araz Nafisi, ‘Reading Lolita in Teheran’ is good on this: the post-1979 immuring of women. And the reaction of educated women to it.

    I always wonder about these 1970s Afghan women pics. Maybe they merely represent a small segment of Kabul life. And women’s existence in the rural areas later dominated by the warlords more walled-in. I could be wrong.

    Bear in mind that from the 50s on the USSR, France and the US were vying to provide ever greater amounts of investment in Afghanistan.

    And by 1965, the Muslim Brotherhood was so outraged by Kabul that it distributed its first Islamist leaflet at the University: inspired, btw, by University of Cairo academics.

    Allele akhbar. x

  4. Jerry,
    Please review the last set of “Kabul, women, 2015” photos. They appear to be identical to the set from 2000 but frame-shifted which discredits this important piece.

  5. This is thoroughly depressing. For each step forward the West has taken, they seem to have taken two backwards.

    1. Don’t worry- if Europe continues to welcome Muslim immigrants and grant them the “special” status that they think they deserve, they’ll soon be taking steps “backwards”, too (this process has already begun).

  6. We can condemn our own policies easily in hindsight and point out the errors of our ways until the cows come home but the pictures do indicate some good that was being done in these countries regarding improvements for half the population. The Iranian people saw other improvements in education and standards of living as well.

    I was in the service in 1968 and personally saw lots of Iranian military being trained as pilots and mechanics at U.S. air basis and met many of their students getting educations at U.S. colleges in the early 70s. I hope the oppression of religion does not turn the clock back permanently and suspect the people of those countries will overcome this oppression. Once they have seen a better life it becomes less acceptable to go back to this picture today.

  7. I’m sure I’m not alone here in having thought of the Iranian revolution as a good thing when it was happening. I couldn’t have done anything either way, yet I still feel shame for that.

    1. No you’re not alone, Ken. Remember the month or two before Khomeini flew in and hijacked the revolution, the anti-monarchy, anti-imperialist demos were inspiringly massive.

      Just goes to show you need some sort of decent leadership to point it in the right direction. The Tudeh (Communist) Party supported Khomeini in the first few months as he shut down newspapers, imburqaed women and alleged that he was anti-imperialist. It was because of that last lie that Tudeh stayed its criticism and rejection of the mullahs.

      Lots of ordinary Tudeh supporters were murdered by the Ayatollah’s thugs, but their leadership’s role was dumb and shameful.

  8. One can find more examples of this happening in multiple muslim majority countries at the blogs of exmna – Ex Muslims of North America. Even countries that have not had Islamist takeovers such as Lebanon have become more conservative. The blogs dig into why. Tehran and Beirut were refreshingly liberal in the 60’s. I really enjoyed watching some of the sexy sultry music videos out of 60’s Beirut posted at Exmna.

  9. Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski thought that a religious revival in Afghanistan was the best way to fight the Soviets. It worked!

  10. I do not agree with the so called progress of the west and the degradation of Iran n Afghanistan…… That is a totally different topic…. N I have absolutely no comments on the religions as such, as I strongly believe that every religion propagates the basic goodwill amongst people…. Although, it’s the so called ambassadors of Godthat impose stupid superstitious nonsense on ppl….

    In my opinion

    Women, are beautiful when they are free.. Independent….. Bold…

    Not like this

  11. The comment that follows clearly glosses over all sorts of issues (selection bias in the photos, western sexism, etc) but…

    …the first thing that struck me was how happy the women looked in the older photos. There were just so many smiling faces. Certainly compared to the photo selection for Kabul, women, 1970.

    Now, in terms of Muslim societies where covering women is common, especially with the
    Niqab and Burka, perhaps the women under those garments are happy and smiling just as much.

    But what a difference it makes to be able to SEE the happiness in a woman’s face!

  12. Is it true that Islam dictates full body coverage of women? I thought that was a cultural not a religious requirement. The Qu’ran insists that women should dress conservatively.

    I recently flew with Emirates from Paris to Perth and the female flight attendants (Middle eastern in appearance and presumably Muslim on a United Arab Emirates flight) were dressed like any other flight attendant of any other airline – perhaps a little dowdy, but nothing striking.

    1. Ditto for the flight attendants on Etihad Airlines (Abu Dhabi based).

      I’m saddened by the decline of individual freedom in Iran (and in Iraq, I suspect). I think it’s just due to the fact that if you create massive instability in society, the extremists take over. Dictators love a credible ‘enemy’, it allows them to crush dissent and freedom dies with it.


  13. In 2000 I had the opportunity to visit Iran for ten days.

    One of my memories is on the way out sitting in business class, women dressed chadors would go into the bathroom and come out from the cocoon emerging as ladies in jeans and other full western regalia. Of course this is a small subsection and biased selection of the population.

    The other thing I recall was all the street signs and driving instructions were written in both Farsi and English.

    1. Rom,

      Your observations seem to be confirming my impression that dress requirements are cultural not religious. If they were religious, and a believing Muslim woman broke them, then presumably she’d be risking damnation in a fictional afterlife. Cultural norms, however, can and are easily broken as shown by the dizzying changes in dress modesty in western countries.

      1. My impression was that people were bending in the wind of a hard right Islamic government.

        So even then the dress requirements were religious government not necessarily of a religious people.

  14. Oh, they “choose” to wear them, all right: they’ve decided that they’d rather wear them than be beaten, whipped, stoned to death, or imprisoned by misogynistic religious fanatics! See? They have a CHOICE!

  15. How can the apologists fo Islam claim it “liberates” Women , when the word itself means “submission”

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