How Iranian women would dress if the theocracy disappeared

February 16, 2016 • 9:00 am

A while back I posted results of a Google Image search for “women Kabul 1970” and “women Tehran 1970” and compared the images with those from 2000 (Kabul) and 2010 (Tehran). The results were striking: in the 1970s women in both nations dressed as they wanted, with hair, legs, and arms exposed to the open air. Now, in these theocratic countries, women are put in sacks and veils. Did their desires of what to wear change that much in 30-40 years, or was it religious structures that came with religious governments? (Have a look at the photos.)

In December I also put up some largely unknown photos by Hengameh Golestan, a woman photographer who documented a huge protest by women against the headscarf in Tehran in 1979—right after the revolution started dictating women’s dress.

And remember “Stealthy freedoms of Iranian women,” a Facebook page (no longer extant, I think, but replaced by #MyStealthyFreedom), in which women bravely (and illegally) ditched their mandatory hijabs, positively luxuriating in letting their hair flow free? (There are some wonderful posts at the active link.) How can anyone maintain that the women in Iran and Afghanistan are veiled because they want to be? If those countries weren’t theocracies, those hijabs would vanish in a second.

Now, at the site Atchuup, there are some amazing photos of Iranian magazine ads from the 1970s showing how clothing was advertised to women in the 1970s. Here are a few samples; can you imagine this now? The point is not whether Iranian women actually dressed these ways, though if you look at photos from the 1970s you’ll see that they weren’t veiled or put in sacks. There are two points: first, that it was okay to advertise this kind of clothing in magazines:





. . . and second, that it was okay to look like this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 8.54.06 AM

Iran, 1970 (2)

For more photos, go here.

Is there anybody obtuse enough to think that if Iran or Afghanistan had a secular government, and if the hold of conservative Islam was loosened, many women wouldn’t, within a generation, look like those shown in the two photos above? And you know what that means: their present veiling and bagging is not of their own choice, but comes from the strictures of faith.

h/t: Peter

47 thoughts on “How Iranian women would dress if the theocracy disappeared

  1. And, in a burst of irony, at this very moment, there is a regressive feminist having her porta-safe space violated by the thighs and cleavage pictured above.

  2. The ladies of both Iran and Afghanistan are very attractive and have nice legs. Which is probably the exact comment the mullahs wished to avoid.

    They fail to understand that the legs do not disappear when they are covered.

  3. “Is there anybody obtuse enough to think…”

    We know there are, or at least there are some who are unwilling to call it out. I heard one person the other day suggest that many feminists are reluctant to call this out because it makes their first world problem seem trivial. It’s easier to just support it, and claim it is in fact a matter of choice.

  4. Thanks for keeping on this, Jerry. It’s so important. The fate of the world literally hangs on whether women are freed and empowered to control their own bodies, and when women are forced to dress in virtual prisons of cloth, it’s clear we’re nowhere near that goal. Women here who claim they’re showing “solidarity” with Muslim women by voluntarily putting themselves in clothing prison just infuriate me.

    1. +1.

      Also infuriating are those women who say we in the West have nothing to complain about because women in places such as those Jerry highlighted have it so much worse.

      Does this mean that we’re just supposed to mark time and put up with the current situation until Saudi Arabia catches up with us re women’s rights? I’ve got a better idea – how aboutewe all make an effort to provide a good example of equality of treatment and opportunity.

  5. No, it SURELY couldn’t be due to religion- must be some sort of reaction to colonial oppression by the West; the evil colonizers were no doubt forcing these poor women to dress like whores- Ha!

    It’s interesting to note that, when such artificial restrictions on what parts of a woman’s body can be acceptably viewed are put in place, the end result is that it actually “sexualizes” those parts MORE- I believe this plays a role in the “rape-epidemic” in Europe by mostly Muslim immigrants, as they are sexually aroused by seeing the “forbidden” sight of a woman in normal Western wear. The “ownership” of, and the urge to “control” women by men plays a part, as well- “No other man can even SEE what I own.”

    There is a parallel in Victorian society in England, where the very word, “leg” was considered obscene (if you had to say it, “limb” was the proper term) and even table legs had “skirts” to cover them; the sight of a woman’s uncovered ankle was considered scandalous. Meanwhile the rampant sexual debauchery of the wealthy and the proliferation of houses of prostitution illustrated the utter hypocrisy of the times.

    1. I have an Korean friend who sells valves to the oil industry. Obviously he has many clients in the Middle East. The last time we spoke he was laughing about the very strong preference his clients have for dragging unnecessarily large contingents of functionaries to Korea to conduct business. Given the option of he and an assistant going to them, it’s not even a contest.

      They don’t, incidentally, go there for the weather or the BBQ.

    2. It wasn’t due to colonialism.

      Many middle eastern countries were secularizing in the middle of the 20th century. But this was during the height of the Cold War and they were secularizing in a way the USA couldn’t allow: Communism.

      The US government supported the anti-communist (i.e. religious/conservative) factions in these countries, and those anti-communist parties succeeded with the US’s help, ushering the religious governments we see today.

      So no, it wasn’t colonialism. It was McCarthyism: The same animus that led to the Korea and Vietnam conflicts. (And movies like Rambo III where our all American hero Rambo is fighting alongside mujaheddin against the Russians in Afghanistan!)

      1. I don’t think there was a strong communist movement in the Mideast, or that the US policy had any significant role (with the exception of Iran).
        After WWII and the fall of colonialism, and especially with the rise of multiculturalism, Western societies stopped being models of success triggering emulation.
        Small wonder that Western countries are now full of women who willingly wear headscarves and even burqas, to show their superiority.

      2. Or simply secularizing in a way that couldn’t be allowed: in their own way. “Communism” was often a pretext. (As was “imperialism” on the part of the other “great powers”, needless to say.)

  6. Way back in the late 70s I was a TA at OK State. For reasons unknown we had an awful lot of Persian students. The guys were pretty much uniformly obnoxiously arrogant, but the gals were pretty nice. And they were all in western dress.

    NOTE: This was in no way a random sample of Iranian society. They had to be upper / middle-upper class.

    1. See Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ for a fascinating memoir (approved by the Hitch) of the gradual Khomeiniist embagging of Iranian women after the 1979 revolution (supported in true Stalinist 2-stage-revolution-theory by the Iranian Communist Party).

      Nafisi earned her PhD at Oklahoma University: dunno if that is the same as yours, Woof, but she was at a US University before 1979.

  7. The February edition of National Geographic (my subscription is not expired) contains an interesting article, The Changing Face of Saudi Women.
    There is no choice in Saudi Arabia, but many I suspect who would like it.

  8. The point, as far as I am concerned, is that women in these countries don’t have a choice. They are not people in their own right, but the property of men. This is the attitude that has to change whatever their religion, or lack thereof.

    Things are better in the West, but there are still big problems. Ted Cruz announced the other day that Hillary Clinton needs to be spanked like his 5-year-old daughter. There was almost no comment in the media about this – like women, children are considered possessions. Smacking them is illegal here in NZ, but we’re one of the few, and if there was a referendum I guarantee a majority would want to ditch the law.

    And don’t get me started on those revolting Purity Balls.

    A woman should have the right to control her own body in all circumstances. (And that includes her fertility too!)

    1. Heather.
      I did not hear that outrageous comment from Ted Cruz, but coming from him it does not surprise me.
      Why in the case of a referendum in NZ do you think the majority would want to ditch the law prohibiting the spanking of children?
      I find it very difficult to imagine that NZs would wish to return to smacking their children. Or does it go on now but illegally?
      I am interested in your reasoning.

      1. Most parent have slapped their children in a moment of anger or utter indignation. And nobody wants to think of child protection services taking the child away in such a case.

        1. It wasn’t/isn’t an ‘anti-smacking law’ as such, and nobody’s going to take away a child as a result of one smack.

          Smacking a child is, technically, assault (always was). As is prodding someone with your finger. What the bill did was take away the statutory defence of “reasonable force” for parents.

          How often do the police charge a person with assault for smacking a child? Very rarely. They rarely did before the amendment was passed and they rarely have since. A smack will not get you arrested. Using a leather belt on your kid probably will.

          So I think a lot of the indignation over parents ‘not being able to discipline their children’ is over-hyped.

          More than you wanted to know:


          1. You know, there was a time when husbands were never charged for assaulting their wives. Not our business, people used to say. The only lesson vulnerable children learn is that violence is the only way to sort out an issue.

      2. The law has been there for a long time, but about ten years ago it was amended. Until then, no-one really knew about the law. The amendment removed a “reasonable force” defence loophole. It was portrayed by a then MP as the anti-smacking law, when in fact it was already illegal. There was a lot of fear mongering that said things like good parents would be criminalized for things like snatching their child back from running out into the road, and that impression has stuck. Of course, as with any minor crime, the Police do have some prosecutorial discretion, so an obvious one-off is unlikely to be prosecuted, as always.

        Although there are less of them here, we do have some religious groups, similar to the US Southern Baptists, who think children should be smacked. (All mainstream religions have come out in support of the law.)

        All the public opinion polling since the law change has been strongly in opposition to the law. Whenever I get into a discussion with someone about it, it’s clear they have no understanding of the law. They all fear being arrested for forcibly restraining their child/grandchild etc.

        There are some prominent people who speak against the law also, who are very influential.

      3. Can’t speak for NZ, but I suspect that it’s the ‘my child my choice’ attitude. I’ve also heard people say they were smacked and they turned out all right. I’ve never smacked my children and they have never smacked theirs – and they have turned out all right. It’s disgraceful when you consider that smacked is a euphemism for hit in anger and punched with a fist teaches children that fear trumps reason.

  9. These pictures of Iranian women taken in pre-revolution Iran raises several questions of which I do not know the answer. Prior to the revolution, was most of the Iranian population secular in everyday life or was the majority religious and chafed at the sight of “western decadence”? If the former, then the revolution was actually a coup where a minority of zealots suppressed the majority. If the latter then the western perception of Iran as shaped by these pictures was misleading. Or, perhaps, the overwhelming majority of Iranians (including the secularists) supported the overthrow of the Shah, but the secularists had no idea what was coming as the theocrats took control and transformed a popular revolution into a coup. In any case, the Iranian Revolution is but another example of the fact that violent revolutions often morph into avenues totally unexpected by many of its supporters.

    The nature of the American Revolution has long been debated by historians. Was it essentially conservative or radical? Part of the problem is that the words “conservative” and “radical” can mean different things to different people. Without writing an extended essay, I would say that it was basically conservative because the people who precipitated the revolution (the economic and social elite in the colonies) controlled the course of the revolution from its inception through its aftermath (the ratification of the Constitution). In addition, there was little internal social upheaval as compared to subsequent revolutions. True, the Tories suffered, but there were no mass executions as was the case, for example, in the French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions.

    Another thing that this post has raised in my mind is that the United States is currently under threat of a theocratic coup. I fear that Cruz or Rubio would establish Christianity as the de facto state religion of this country. I think that those people who are tempted to vote for them, but are primarily secular, are not aware of the danger. Trump, as dangerous as he is, at least would maintain a secular government.

    So, my takeaway from this post is that revolutions often take unexpected and unwelcome turns. People need to be aware of this. Bernie Sander’s call for a political revolution and its implications concern me much less than the possibility of a right-wing theocratic coup because everything he proposes could only be enacted through democratic processes.

    1. Since you brought it up, I think it necessary to make a different point. The American Revolution was surely a radical movement and maybe it looked conservative because it was a slow motion revolution – But radical as any that ever happened.

      The idea that this few British colonies could defeat Great Britain was radical enough. Later when the war portion was over and a very few individuals saw what was taking place with a useless confederation they demanded a huge effort to save this group of colonies. We can thank George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay specifically for this second half of the revolution. Without them, there would have been no Philadelphia and no Constitution to create anything.

      We could call the anti-federalist the conservatives if you like – that would be the Jefferson crowd at a later date but calling Hamilton and Washington conservative would likely get the graves spinning very soon.

      1. It doesn’t really matter what the majority of Iranians felt about the “decadence” of their dress- the real issue is that, so far as to my knowledge, women weren’t FORCED to wear Western-style clothing, nor were they beaten (or worse) or imprisoned if they did.
        In a way, it’s a good thing we don’t live in a real democracy for, as a friend of mine likes to say, “The masses are often asses.”

        1. I agree with your comments but I think you’re addressing the one above mine.

          True democracy generally speaking tends to lead to chaos often and it does not protect the minority at all. It is hardly possible for 2 or 3 hundred million to stop and take a vote on everything. Even 100 people who make up our Senate do not believe in democracy in their make up or their actions – they are far from it. The founders of this country did not even us the word and considered it a poor idea.

    2. On the Iranian revolution issue you raise, my understanding is that opposition to the Shah coalesced behind the Islamists because they were seen as the only viable alternative at the time. I think that many of those in the opposition did not expect post-Shah Iran to become the theocracy that it did — and that even the Islamists were taken by surprise by the student revolutionaries’ attack on the American embassy and taking of its diplomatic staff hostage.

      As to your point regarding this year’s presidential election, as much as I would detests seeing Cruz or Rubio (or Trump) elected president, I don’t believe any of them could lead the country into an actual theocracy. As much as they might want to, and even if they had the support of a Republican majority in both houses of congress, there are too many checks and balances, too much precedent, and a written constitution containing a First Amendment prohibiting it, for any president to lead us into an established religion. Plus, on balance, the American population is becoming more secular, less religious (or, rather, 80% of the population is, while the other 20% is becoming more deeply fundamentalist).

      1. I don’t think Cruz or Rubio could or would establish Christianity as the official religion of the country. What I think could happen is that either one in conjunction with a compliant Republican Congress would so favor Christianity in terms of social policy that the nation would be a de facto, although not de jure, Christian nation, even if the majority of the country would oppose such actions. This danger would be enhanced if ultimately a Cruz or Rubio get to appoint the next justice of the Supreme Court.

        By the way, here is what the author Stephen King thinks about Cruz.

        “He told the Daily Beast: ‘I actually think Trump, in the end, would be more electable than Cruz because Cruz is a fundamentalist Christian and it would almost be like electing the analog of an Imam — someone whose first guiding principle would be the scripture, rather than the Constitution.'”

        This is one of the reasons I have repeatedly argued that Cruz and Rubio are more dangerous than Trump. If they lose the nomination to Trump I would breathe easier, although the specter of Trump as president is hardly anything to be happy about.

        1. I agree with you and Mr. King that Cruz and Rubio would be more dangerous. Either one would come to office with a desire (and, probably, a base-level competency) for remaking government according to his ideology.

          Trump, on the other hand, is caught up in a celebrity lark. He is the most profoundly unserious candidate ever to take a serious run at the American presidency (in my lifetime, at least). He makes a clown like Ross Perot look like an elder statesman.

          1. I agree, I think Trump is probably having the time of his life–wondering how on earth he’s gotten this far, but delighted to be here.

    3. No matter what Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio say, there is zero chance that either could turn the U.S. into a de facto Christian state no matter how hard they tried. Laws that are clearly in violation of the Constitution are almost impossible to pass and even if one is passed the Supreme Court would never let a law making any religion the state religion stand. We are in danger of religion having too much influence, especially when politicians like those two believe U.S. law must conform with their God’s law, but the more they might try to enforce such an idea the less they would get any legislation passed. Cruz has yet to sponsor any legislation that became U.S. law anyway. At best either one of those as president would serve as obstructionists preventing any laws from being passed that they disagreed with. We have had many very religious presidents and the most that ever happens is we have to listen to too much crap about god for 4 or 8 years. It takes a very low opinion of the American people and our lawmakers to think a president can get such a radical agenda into law. Most conservatives who I speak to are disgusted by the choice they are being given and the majority are accepting Trump because he at least sees what the issues are that irk the American people most and he has solutions, albeit sometimes laughably simple solutions, to those problems that are either straightforward and logical or so ridiculous that we have no worries about them becoming policy. I think it’s too bad that we don’t have a true conservative running as a Republican and neither do we have a true liberal running for the Democrats. I don’t remember Hillary sponsoring any legislation that became law and Bernie Sanders has never turned an idea into a bill that became a law. Bernie is no liberal; he is a socialist and Hillary is so pragmatic that she acts more like a conservative when she can lie her way into being believed. A true conservative know that Freedom of Religion certainly includes freedom from religion and a true liberal knows the U.S. is not a socialist country, but Republicans and Democrats have forgotten the nature of conservatism and liberalism. Every presidential candidate we currently have is completely removed from and unaware of the issues important to the American people and not one of them has solutions worth listening to.

    4. I don’t know much about the history of Iran either, but I got the impression the revolution got a lot of mileage out of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. (Also power vacua.)

  10. Women used to wesr normal clothing and go to school or work in Naji Bulla’s Afghanistan. But the CIA built an organization called the mujahideen (most famous alumnus Osama bin Laden) and fixed that little problem.

  11. If women in these countries must be embagged, the men should be also. Equality of bagging. Aren’t there potential dangers for women in lusting after all these unbagged male countrymen? Maybe what’s really happening here is that these strange men prefer to imagine the women as beautiful rather than being faced with the reality that some are and some aren’t according to their standards. Maybe universal nudity is the answer. The truth will set you free.

  12. I’ve seen those photos before, and I feel so sad for the intelligent and well-educated (as they were) Iranians and Iraqis (of both sexes).

    Speaking now as an unregenerate male, I like seeing women stylishly dressed. (Oh all right, mostly *young* women stylishly dressed, I admit. Older women are welcome to dress stylishly too). I don’t like looking at black sacks.

    So this is what baffles me. Assuming that Muslim males are even more unregenerate than I am, why *don’t* they want to look at well-dressed women? Or if they do, why do they put up with all this burqa shit?

    ‘Religion’ doesn’t explain all of it. I think something about power structures in societies has a lot to do with it. Currently the authoritarians are in the ascendancy.


    1. “Assuming that Muslim males are even more unregenerate than I am, why *don’t* they want to look at well-dressed women? Or if they do, why do they put up with all this burqa shit?”

      Because they are either virgins who believe if they become sexually aroused by looking at a woman’s ankle they will spend eternity in hell or they think that as Muslim men it is their job to keep their women in line so they don’t spend eternity in hell. Each member of their society is also a member of their “moral police” which keeps women in line so they remain separate from western culture, but more importantly, so women don’t serve as temptresses who keep Muslim men from moving forward spiritually. Because sex is dirty to them just as it is to the religious right. As far as I’m concerned, sex being dirty is how we know we are doing it right.

  13. Women should have the freedom to dress how they like without any strictures, they should have the same opportunities as anyone else and if they do the same work they should get the same Pay. As for the followers of Mo, they do not practice what they preach, oh what a surprise.

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