Notwithstanding the recent diplomatic thaw between the US and Iran, most people in the West, if asked to envisage the Islamic Republic, would likely see in their mind’s eye a country of angry religious fundamentalists, full of oppressed women swathed in black robes.
While that picture has some elements of truth, what is perhaps not so well-known in the West is that for much of the 20th century, Iran was a secular regime in which women wandered the streets of Tehran in miniskirts. This, from a country where state television currently forbids showing musicians in the act of playing instruments, as it is supposedly damaging to public morals.
This is not to say that Iran was an ideal country; far from it. The Shah of Iran was unpopular and autocratic, using the country’s oil revenues to fund his lavish lifestyle. Political dissent was not tolerated. Great swathes of the country remained poor, conservative, and illiterate – in fact, one of the current regime’s greatest achievements has been in raising literacy standards so that literacy for women aged 15-24 now stands at 97.70%, as opposed to 42.33% before the 1979 Revolution.
Yet notwithstanding these caveats, Iranian society (especially in urban areas) became modernised and westernised to an extent unimaginable today. Echoing the spirit of Ataturk’s modernising reforms in Turkey after World War One, the Iranian shahs were determined to turn Iran into a nationalistic, militaristic, secular and westernised country by hook or by crook. To that end, women were actually forbidden to wear the veil in 1936, were granted suffrage in 1963, and attained high positions in government and the judiciary.
Below, I have collected a number of Iranian photographs dating from the 1930s to 1970s which capture something of the spirit of this brave new world.