Middle East

Iranian women - before and after the Islamic Revolution

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought seismic changes to Iran, not least for women. One area that has come under scrutiny is the way women dress and wear their hair - the old Shah, in the 1930s, banned the veil and ordered police to forcibly remove headscarves. But in the early 1980s, the new Islamic authorities imposed a mandatory dress code that required all women to wear the hijab.

Here are some images showing what life was like for Iranian women before the institution of clerical rule, and how it has changed since.

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Before the revolution

Female students perform a test in the chemistry lab of Tehran University in 1977 Image copyright A. Abbas / Magnum Photos
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Studying at Tehran University in 1977: While many women were already in higher education at the time of the revolution, the subsequent years saw a marked increase in the number attending university. This was in part because the authorities managed to convince conservative families living in rural areas to allow their daughters to study away from home.

"They tried to stop women from attending university, but there was such a backlash they had to allow them to return," says Baroness Haleh Afshar, a professor of women's studies at the University of York who grew up in Iran in the 1960s.

"Some educated people left Iran, and the authorities realised in order to run the country they needed to educate both men and women."

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Women shoe shopping in Tehran in 1976 Image copyright Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
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Window shopping in Tehran in 1976: Before the revolution, the hijab was already widely worn but many women also chose to don Western-style clothes, including tight-fitting jeans, miniskirts and short-sleeved tops. "The shoes haven't changed - and the passion for shoes is in all of us! Women in Iran are no different from women the world over, and going shopping is just a means for women to get away from every day stress," says Prof Afshar.

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A group of men and women sit having a picnic in Tehran in 1976 Image copyright Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
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Friday picnic in Tehran in 1976: Families and friends tend to get together on Fridays, which are weekend days in Iran. "Picnics are an important part of Iranian culture and are very popular amongst the middle classes. This has not changed since the revolution. The difference is, nowadays, men and women sitting together are much more self-aware and show more restraint in their interactions," says Prof Afshar.

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Two women greet each other inside a hair salon in Tehran in 1976 Image copyright A. Abbas / Magnum Photos
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Hair salon in Tehran in 1977: "This is a scene you would no longer expect to see in Iran - but even after the Islamic Revolution, hairdressers continued to exist," says Prof Afshar. "Nowadays you wouldn't see a man inside the hairdressers - and women would know to cover up their hair as soon as they walked out the door. Some people may also operate secret salons in their own homes where men and women can mix."

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Bodyguards intervene when a young Iranian woman wants to talk to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who is visiting, with Queen Farah, the press centre of the Persepolis celebration in 1971 Image copyright Magnum Photos
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Bodyguards surround the shah in 1971: A young woman approaches Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (far right) at a huge party marking the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy - the extravagance of the event was widely condemned by his left-wing and clerical opponents. "By this time, the shah was already very much disliked and some believe this image of excess and indulgence may have contributed to events leading up to the revolution eight years later," Prof Afshar explains.

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Stylish student walks in the snow in Tehran in 1976 Image copyright Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
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Walking down a snowy street in Tehran in 1976: "You cannot stop women walking in the streets of Iran, but you wouldn't see this today - her earrings and make up so clearly on show," Prof Afshar says. "There is this concept of 'decency' in Iran - so nowadays women walking in the streets are likely to wear a coat down to her knees and a scarf."

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After the revolution

Women protesting against the veil in March 1979 Image copyright Getty Images
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Women rally against the hijab in 1979: Soon after taking power, Iran's new Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decreed that all women had to wear the veil - regardless of religion or nationality. On 8 March - International Women's Day - thousands of women from all walks of life turned out to protest against the law.

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Heavily veiled Iranian women, one whose modern sunglasses reflect slogans and the Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait, demonstrate outside of the US Embassy, 29 November 1979. Image copyright Getty Images
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Protest outside the US embassy in Tehran in 1979: Revolutionary students took dozens of US embassy staff hostage while thousands of anti-US demonstrators surrounded the compound.

"At this time it was normal to see different types of people allied in their absolute hatred of America in Iran," says Prof Afshar. "The Americans and the British have a long history in Iran of attempting to both influence and take over oil in Iran, so this deep-rooted mistrust of the US and UK goes back a long way."

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A mullah in a white turban, holding his little daughter in black chador in his arms, talks to a man, while accompanied by his wife, also in black chador with a net mask covering her face, as they head towards Friday prayers at Tehran university, 1 February 1980 Image copyright Getty Images
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Family heads to Friday prayers in 1980: "Friday prayers are a time for people who are believers or supporters of the Islamic authorities who don't want to be labelled as dissidents to go out and get together - it's a moment of solidarity," says Prof Afshar. "But they are still very much within the male domain. The woman would not be allowed into the same room as the men - they would sit in a separate area for prayer, away from the men."

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Two women wearing black chadors look at wedding dresses through glass windows in 1986 Image copyright Jean Gaumy / Magnum Photos
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Wedding dress shopping in Tehran in 1986: "The wedding dresses on display are all western - Iranian women will essentially wear what they want as long as it's behind closed doors," Prof Afshar explains. "Weddings and parties are supposed to be segregated, so it doesn't matter what you wear if there are only female guests present. But there are mixed-sex parties that do still go on - some people hire bouncers to watch the door, others pay the local police to turn a blind eye."

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Iranian women in veils walk outside a shopping centre in Tehran on 2 June 2005 Image copyright BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
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Walking in Tehran in 2005: Not all women in Iran opt to wear the black chador, a cloak that covers the body from head to toe and only leaves the face exposed. Many prefer to wear loosely fitted headscarves and coats. "The real question is how far back do you push your scarf? Women have their own small acts of resistance and often try as far as possible to push their scarves back," says Prof Afshar.

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Women paddle in the sea fully-clothed while a man in swimming pants rests on the sand on 10 July 2005 Image copyright Getty Images
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Caspian Sea beach in 2005: Iranian women are forbidden from bathing in public wearing swimsuits. "Men and women aren't supposed to swim together - but they find ways around this by renting boats to take them far out into the sea, where they can swim side-by-side," says Prof Afshar.

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Dozens of women in black shadows with their back to the camera, expect for one little girl held in her mothers arms in a colourful headscarf in April 2006 Image copyright Getty Images
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Pro-hijab rally in Tehran in 2006: More than 25 years after the revolution, women backing the hardliners in the establishment staged their own rallies to protest against what they saw as the authorities' failure to enforce the compulsory hijab law. Here, the women are all dressed in black chadors with the exception of a little girl.

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Iranian women in veils watch a football match from a nearby shopping mall in Tehran on 10 October 2008 Image copyright BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
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Watching football from a Tehran shopping centre in 2008: Though women were never officially banned from watching men's football matches in Iran, they are often refused entry to stadiums and some of those who have tried have been detained. Before the revolution, women were allowed to attend sporting events.

All pictures copyright.

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