Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Anti-Veiling Initiative: Feminist Overture or Authoritarian Imperialism?

At various points between 1925 and 1941,  Iran’s authoritarian leader Reza Shah Pahlavi utilized state force in an attempt to transform Iran into a nation that was palatable to the West(Eastwood, 308-312).  To achieve this he enacted a series of reforms, including gendered social initiatives aimed towards ‘liberating’ Iranians, namely women. In reality, these reforms, which affected individuals in deeply personal and sometimes violent ways, were a reflection of Reza Shah’s vulnerability to orientalist stereotypes regarding Iran as well as his authoritarianism. 

The Shah’s hearty embrace of western modernity was a direct reaction to the damaged state he had received from his Qajar predecessors who had transformed Iran into a “semi-colonial” state through a series of mortifying military excursions (Seghi, 40).  As a result, Persian elites absorbed ideologies dictating that a healthy and therefore ‘modern’ Iran could be achieved only through emphasising Western political ideals.  Iran’s socio-economic fragility combined with modernist values popular among societal elites like the Pahlavis provided the root of the Shah’s insecurities regarding Iran’s status in relation to the Western world. Because of his insecurity, he pursued a nationalist, authoritarian political policy rooted in mimicking “the material advances of the West [through] a breakdown of the traditional power of religion and a growing tendency towards secularism” (Seghi, 61).With westernized social and economic policies, he built a state whose power rested on “a strong army and repression” ,but not democratic political values (ibid). 

Reza Shah’s state feminism project, which Camron Michel Amin referred to as the  “Women’s Awakening” relied on westernized notions that a ‘modern’ woman was “educated, unveiled and secured in monogamous matrimony” (Amin, 351). As part of these reforms, the Shah criminalized wearing chador in 1936.  In addition, women were coerced into wearing European style clothing to aid their ‘emancipation’ (Eastwood, 308-312).The chador prohibition, evolving as a slow process, was a poignant aspect of the Pahlavi regime’s authoritarian legislation which sanctioned citizen’s personal practices for the sake of progress and weaponized euro-centric notions of modernity for political gain. According to the Shah’s Minister of Education, by abandoning Persian clothing, which was “a refuge for traditionalism” and conforming to European sartorial norms, Iranians “would definitely capitulate to the advance of Western civilization” and  better participate in “[their] march towards modern progress” (Chehabi, 225). Additionally, these reforms served to weaken the nation’s powerful ulama, who aligned itself with “radical” anti-monarchical elements and  encouraged women to wear the chador (Seghi, 41-3)As a result, women “became the battlefield and booty of the harsh and sometimes bloody struggle between the secularists…and the religious authorities”(Hoodfar, 8). “The Women’s Awakening” offered  some overture towards equality but it’s patriarchal authoritarian roots were obvious. Tellingly, the Shah prohibited independent feminist organization forcing all advocacy for women’s rights to take place within the government controlled Women’s center, supporting the idea that Reza Shah’s state ‘feminism’ was merely a male head of state’s attempt to force Western understandings of gender on Persian women  (Seghi, 57) (Amin, 354). Mirroring European ideals of femininity, the Pahlavi regime attempted to create a perfect Iranian woman who could “enter society alongside men through “teaching, nursing and office work”,labor deemed appropropriate by Western gender norms (Amin, 359-60). The Shah’s belief that veiling was oppressive demonstrated his embrace of “the static colonial image of the oppressed veiled Muslim woman”  based in his notion that Iranian culture was inferior to European culture (Hoodfar, 3). According to Reza Shah’s Minister of Education, by abandoning Persian clothing, which “seemed to serve as a refuge for traditionalism” and conforming to the state’s ideals by donning European styles, Iranians would better participate in “[their] march towards modern progress” (Chehabi, 225).  

The sartorial aspect of Reza Shah’s reforms meant modernization efforts centered on women’s bodies. The government provided it’s male employees with loans to purchase new clothing for their wives. Men who declined to bring their unveiled wives to official events were placed on unpaid leaves of absence (Chehabi, 219). Sometimes, wives who refused were often replaced by “temporary wives” who accompanied officials to public functions in ‘proper’ attire, literally serving as political props for the state (Eastwood, 308-312).

While the Shah portrayed his veiling prohibition as a way to liberate women, many were horrified by the legislation, with one primary account noting: “When my mother learned that she was to lose the modesty of her veil, she was beside herself. She and all traditional people regarded Reza’s order as the worst thing he had yet done” (Chehabi, 220). The state’s chador ban affected individuals in intimate ways, acutely disrupting the lives of lower class, pious women as opposed to more elite women for whom “the veil became a marker of backwardness” (Chehabi,211).  Oftentimes, elite women gained more societal privilege for their loyalty to the regime(Amin, 351-2). “Women of the lower classes [raised] with the notion that to lift a woman’s veil is a woman’s worst sin and disgrace” who did not conform to the regime’s demands were punished (Chehabi, 220).  Police forces charged with enforcing the Shah’s rules “frequently assaulted women physically and tore off their scarves or chadors” (Chehabi,220).  Men who advocated against the regime’s anti-veiling directives became the object of the state’s crackdown on dissent.  On Friday, July 13th 1935 military forces stormed a meeting of Gowharshard mosque to disrupt a meeting of pro-veiling activists, shooting some demonstrators (Chehabi,217). When people from the surrounding town came to protest the next day, government troops attacked the mosque “end[ing] the whole affair amidst much bloodshed”  (ibid). 

Despite the professed feminist ideals of the “Women’s Awakening”, Reza Shah Pahlavi’s modernizing reforms consisted of placing Euro-centric values regarding gender upon Iranians through a distinctly dictatorial framework. Instead of ‘liberating’ Iranian women, the state destroyed fledgling feminist groups while forcing them to comply with a male head of states’s ideals surrounding surrounding womanhood at the threat of violence, waging a war of ideology against those who refused to comply with the regime’s imported, self hating notions of modernity.


Amin, Camron Michael. “Propaganda and Remembrance: Gender, Education, and “The Women’s Awakening” of 1936.”  In Iranian Studies 32, no. 3 (1999): 351-86. 

Chehabi, Houchang E. “Staging the Emperor’s New Clothes: Dress Codes and Nation-Building under Reza Shah.” Iranian Studies 26, no. 3/4 (1993): 209-29.

Hoodfar, Homa. “The veil in their minds and on their heads: the persistance of colonial images of Muslim women”. In Resources for Feminist Research;Toronto 22 (1992): 5-18

Sedghi, Hamideh. Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press. 2007

Unknown (photographer). (mid 1970s). Untitled[Women Parliamentarians of Iran in front of the gate of the Iranian Parliament, Photograph]. Retrieved October 3rd, 2019 from

Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “Reza Shah’s Dress Reforms in Iran.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Central and Southwest Asia, edited by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 308–312. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010. Accessed October 03, 2019. 

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