The 1979 Iranian Revolution’s Effect on Women


Most ancient civilizations were typically male-dominated, and women only played menial roles and were mostly confined to their households. The 1979’s Iranian Revolution is one of the most significant women’s movements, which aimed at liberating them from the chains of male chauvinism (Alimagham 14). During the late 19th century, there were some major socio-economic changes worldwide, aiming to fight for various causes. The Iranian Revolution has been called the most iconic event of the 20th century, and it played a pivotal role in the advancement of women’s grievances (Foroozandeh 76). This event is significant in Iranian history as it gives the context of the current women’s movements in the region. The 1979 Iranian revolution was instrumental in the fight for women’s rights, which realized increased participation of women in social and political affairs, an achievement the impact of which has faded, especially under the current Islamic Iran.

The Problem

A more explicit women’s movement was witnessed after the rise of Reza Shah to power. The Iranian struggle with modernism and modernity formed the context for the 1979 revolution. In the years leading to the revolution, there was a strong presence of Western visitors to Iran and other parts of the Middle East, and thus, modernity usually focused on the accouterments of the West (Gamez 33). Shah’s reign emphasized the importance of making Iran a modern state. During this time, women found an opportunity to vocalize their interests and goals in the context of modernism. In the early 1900s, women’s feminism and modernity goals focused on access to education (Foroozandeh 81). Around this time, the Iranian public education system neglected the female Iranian population, although the privileged girls were educated privately. A few active women started to push for equality in education, and many private schools for girls began to be established.

The situation of the Iranian women can be framed by the women’s movements in the West. In Europe and Iran, women were under the rule of men, although their struggle for equality was not exactly similar to the Western Revolution (Gamez 97). Women in these two regions fought for the rights they felt they deserved, including political positions, education, labor, and financial independence. The 20th century came as the opportune moment for women in all parts of the world to eliminate the inequalities at their expense in society, but there was a lack of cross-national coordination and cohesion for a common goal (Foroozandeh 74). The global wave of women’s rights seeking to break the confining roles’ barriers spread across many parts of the world, and it reached Iran in the mid-19th century leading to the 1979’s Revolution.

The goal of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was to remove the Shah from power, and this objective was achieved swiftly and effectively, and the country soon started with a new political system. Women played an integral part in the Revolution and participated in many ways, which visually symbolized the rebellion against Western doctrines introduced and allowed to thrive in Iran by Pahlavi and M.R. Shah (Gamez 112). Although many people were involved in the Revolution, Iran became an Islamic republic after the movement. Women’s position went beyond the resurgence of the veil and questioned how they would be part of Islam and the rest of the world in the 20th century.

How the Problem Shaped the Region

In the late 1970s, citizens no longer refrained from showing their discontent under the rule of M.R. Shah. Many complaints were raised, including overt secularism, torture, repression, and western imperialism (Foroozandeh 82). The ruler, Shah, was solely blamed for the unbearable living conditions in Iran. Much of his efforts were redirected to westernizing Iran, an obsession which caused outrage in the country, leading to his removal from power. Ayatollah Khomeini was at the forefront in the Iranian Revolution as his efforts to push for the rise against Shah gained momentum in the 1960s, which caused his exile from the country in 1964 (Kadivar 98). Khomeini’s vocal ability had made him adored and respected in all sectors, including among university students, who also protested the rule of the Shah.

However, women’s rights were forgotten, and much emphasis was laid on the political side of overthrowing the Shah. Since the Revolution was not a homogenous movement with a single objective, after the deposition of the Shah was achieved, the fragile revolutionary forces collapsed (Hovsepian-Bearce 117). For revolutions to attain their goals, they must be quick and drastic as opposed to moderate and slow. Under the Shah, women had gained significant social and legal ground, but the ruler’s deposition from power disadvantaged women, and they were forced to unite under the banners of the anti-Shah and the anti-imperialism mottos. Nevertheless, surviving under these two categories gave women a chance to be equal to their male counterparts (Foroozandeh 89). This opportunity allowed women to voice their discontent through speeches, papers, and protests.

The veil became a significant symbol for women during and after the Revolution. Many of them took to the streets to protest for their rights. It was not clear why women were so determined to remove the Shah, yet he was the one who had prepared the groundwork for their equality by modernizing Iran (Alimagham 19). One way of justifying this dilemma is that women did not know Iran would become an Islamic republic after the Shah’s fall. Although the revolutionary forces, including women, were united in their cause, they were divided in politics. According to Hughes, Ayatollah Khomeini, who spearheaded the events leading to the Revolution, had not declared his interest in the leadership position (31). He left the terms open to any interpretation and hid his intentions, as he had done when defining the goals of the Revolution. According to Maloney, had he clearly defined the movement’s true aims, a smaller number of people would have participated, and only a few women would be among them (Iran’s Political Economy since the Revolution 118). Therefore, allowing women to fight for their rights was a simpler way of making them rise against the regime that had helped them shine.

The rights of women were adversely affected by the end of March 1979. Most of their legal triumphs under the Shah were repealed by Ayatollah Khomeini (Maloney, The Iranian Revolution at Forty 122). Previously, women were allowed to initiate and protest a divorce as provided under the Family Protection Law. Another issue that women’s rights suffered included their ineligibility to become judges. Moreover, women were segregated in beaches, education, and sports, and had a smaller chance in many aspects compared to men. The worst disadvantage came when the use of flogging and stoning of women for adultery was reinstated. Most of the freedoms they women enjoyed under the Shah had begun to be eliminated, and they started to be more restricted in the society (Bitarafan et al. 8). The new Islamic Republic of Iran under Khomeini disregarded the equality clause, which had inspired women to participate in the Revolution. Khomeini skillfully edited the 1978 promises he had made ahead of the Revolution, and women were no longer able to raise their issues in any effective manner (Hughes 36). For example, in the 1979 referendum, people were only allowed to vote yes or no to an Islamic republic instead of deciding on another government’s desired form, such as a democracy or a social state. Therefore, the rights of women were disregarded after the installation of the Islamic state rules.

Following this period of political censorship, women continued to suffer, although they had actively participated in the Revolution. The results of the referendum were that 98% of the Iranians wanted an Islamic republic, and Khomeini became the supreme leader after the passage of the new constitution (Hovsepian-Bearce 39). Women were not united in their intentions to join the Revolution, and they were unsurprisingly divided on the outcomes of the movement. With Iran becoming an Islamic state, the hijab was introduced as a symbol of piety and modesty, a move that some female activists were against (Sheikhzadegan and Meier 109). Thus, after the conclusion of the Revolution, women became more divided than before.

The Koran became the primary reference whenever women’s rights were involved, as opposed to the 1979 Revolution’s promises. One of the reasons for participating in the movement was choosing in their dressing, interaction, and participation in social and political affairs (Sheikhzadegan and Meier 109). However, they watched as their hopes for freedom of choice in occupation and dressing dwindled. Most women protested against Khomeini’s veiling decree, but they failed in their efforts because some became vigilantes, turning against themselves and becoming more divided in their cause (Bitarafan et al. 11). After the Shah’s overthrow, the opportunities of women became more limited, especially under Khomeini’s Islamic rule (Hovsepian-Bearce 109). Therefore, under the former ruler, they openly held government positions and enjoyed numerous freedoms, but this sample space was reduced to being homemakers and mothers, following the Koran.

For the success of women’s movements, there is a need for revolution leaders to specify the goals of their efforts. A failure to provide a layout of the desired outcomes adversely affects the movement. In the Iranian Revolution’s case, the women should have withdrawn from the protests until their position in society after the Revolution’s success is clearly outlined by the leaders of the Revolution. It came out that women were involved in turning against a regime which allowed them much freedom under the Shah, only to lose their privileges after the Revolution.


In summary, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a significant event in the history of women’s rights. At the beginning of the movement, women were consolidated and were inspired by the blackmail of Khomeini’s skillful treachery into taking part in the Revolution. Before the Revolution, the Shah was more liberal and allowed women to enjoy many privileges under his rule. However, the schemer, Khomeini, secretly knew that deposing him was one of the Revolution’s objectives in order to install Islamic rules. In 1978, the movement’s leader lured women into participating through many fake promises on equality. After Khomeini had achieved the selfish goal of capturing power through the Revolution, he turned against women and stripped them of all the privileges they enjoyed under the Shah. Under Islamic Iran, women became more divided than before the Revolution. Thus, although women expected much from this consolidated movement in which they had actively participated, they would shocked when their rights would further be infringed on by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Works Cited

Alimagham, Pouya. Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings. Cambridge U P, 2020.

Bitarafan, Mohammad, et al. “Controversy Over the Concept ‘Freedom’ During the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906– 09).” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-13.

Foroozandeh, M. Jalal: A Story of the Iranian Revolution. iUniverse, 2015.

Gamez, Patrick. “The place of the Iranian Revolution in the History of Truth: Foucault on Neoliberalism, Spirituality and Enlightenment.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 45, no. 1, 2018, pp. 96-124.

Hovsepian-Bearce, Yvette. The Political Ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini: Out of the Mouth of the Supreme Leader of Iran. Routledge, 2015.

Hughes, Stephen E. The Rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution. Outskirts P, 2015.

Kadivar, Cyrus. Farewell Shiraz: An Iranian Memoir of Revolution and Exile. The American U in Cairo P, 2017.

Maloney, Suzanne. Iran’s Political Economy since the Revolution. Cambridge U P, 2015.

Maloney, Suzanne. The Iranian Revolution at Forty. Brookings Institution Press, 2020.

Sheikhzadegan, Amir, and Astrid Meier (Eds.). Beyond the Islamic Revolution: Perceptions of Modernity and Tradition in Iran before and after 1979. De Gruyter.

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