Who became the leader of Iran in 1979?

The revolution of February 1979 was a revolt of the society against the state. In some of its basic characteristics, the revolution did not conform to the usual norms of Western revolutions, because the state did not represent just an ordinary dictatorship but an absolute and arbitrary system that lacked political legitimacy and a social base virtually across the whole of the society.

This became a puzzle to some in the West, resulting in their disappointment and disillusionment within the first few years of the revolution’s triumph. For them, as much as for a growing number of modern Iranians who themselves had swelled the street crowds shouting pro-Khomeini slogans, the revolution became “enigmatic,” “bizarre,” and “unthinkable.”

In the words of one Western scholar, the revolution was “deviant” because it established an Islamic republic and also since “according to social-scientific explanations for revolution, it should not have happened at all, or when it did.” That is why large numbers of disillusioned Iranians began to add their voice to the Shah and the small remnants of his regime in putting forward conspiracy theories — chiefly and plainly that America (and / or Britain) had been behind the revolution in order to stop the shah pushing for higher oil prices. It was even said that the West had been afraid that economic development under the Shah would soon rob it of its markets.

Before the fall of the Shah’s regime, this “puzzle” of the Iranian Revolution was somewhat closed to the eyes of Western observers. All the signs had been there, but they were largely eclipsed by the massive peaceful processions, the solidarity and virtual unanimity of the society to overthrow the state, and the blood sacrifice. They were eclipsed also by the phenomenon of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, every one of whose words was received as divine inspiration by the great majority of Iranians — modern as well as traditional.

It is certainly possible to make sense of Iranian revolutions by utilizing the tools and methods of the same social sciences that have been used in explaining Western revolutions. However, explanations of Iranian revolutions that are based on the application of such tools and methods to Western history inevitably result in confusion, contradiction, and bewilderment. As Karl Popper once noted, there is no such thing as History; there are histories. The most obvious point of contrast is that in Western revolutions, the societies in question were divided, and it was the underprivileged classes that revolted against the privileged classes, who were most represented by the state. In both the traditional and the modern Iranian revolutions, however, the whole society — rich and poor — revolted against the state.

From the Western perspective, it would certainly make no sense for some of the richest classes of the society to finance and organize the movement, while a few of the others either sit on the fence or believe that it was America’s doing and could not be helped. Similarly, it would make no sense by Western criteria for the entire state apparatus (except the military, which quit in the end) to go on an indefinite general strike, providing the most potent weapon for the success of the revolution. Nor would it make sense for almost the entire intellectual community and modern educated groups to rally behind Khomeini and his call for Islamic government.

The 1979 revolution was a characteristically Iranian revolution — a revolution by the whole society against the state in which various ideologies were represented, the most dominant being those with Islamic tendencies (Islamist, Marxist-Islamic and democratic-Islamic) and Marxist-Leninist tendencies (Fada’i, Tudeh, Maoist, Trotskyist, and others). The conflict within the groups with Islamic and Marxist-Leninist tendencies was probably no less intense than that between the two tendencies taken together. Yet they were all united in the overriding objective of bringing down the shah and overthrowing the state. More effectively, the mass of the population who were not strictly ideological according to any of these tendencies — and of whom the modern middle classes were qualitatively the most important — were solidly behind the single objective of removing the Shah. Any suggestion of a compromise was tantamount to treason. Moreover, if any settlement had been reached short of the overthrow of the monarchy, legends would have grown as to how the liberal bourgeoisie had stabbed the revolution in the back on the order of their “foreign [i.e. American and British] masters.”

The most widespread and commonly held slogan that united the various revolutionary parties and their supporters regardless of party and program was “Let him [the Shah] go and let there be flood afterwards” (In beravad va har cheh mikhahad beshavad). Many changed their minds in the following years, but nothing was likely to make them see things differently at the time. Thirty years later, Ebrahim Yazdi, a leading assistant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Paris and later Foreign Minister in the post-revolutionary provisional government, was reported in Washington as speaking “candidly of how his revolutionary generation had failed to see past the short-term goal of removing the Shah...”

Those who lost their lives in various towns and cities throughout the revolution certainly played a major part in the process. But the outcome would have been significantly different if the commercial and financial classes, which had reaped such great benefits from the oil bonanza, had not financed the revolution; or especially if the National Iranian Oil Company employees, high and low civil servants, judges, lawyers, university professors, intellectuals, journalists, school teachers, students, etc., had not joined in a general strike; or if the masses of young and old, modern and traditional, men and women, had not manned the huge street columns; or if the military had united and resolved to crush the movement.

The revolutions of 1906-1909 and 1977-1979 look poles apart in many respects. Yet they were quite similar with regard to some of their basic characteristics, which may also help explain many of the divergences between them. Both were revolts of the society against the state. Merchants, traders, intellectuals, and urban masses played a vital role in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1909, but so did leading ‘ulama’ and powerful landlords, such that without their active support the triumph of 1909 would have been difficult to envisage — making it look as if “the church” and “the feudal-aristocratic class” were leading a “bourgeois democratic revolution”! In that revolution, too, various political movements and agendas were represented, but they were all united in the aim of overthrowing the arbitrary state (and ultimately Muhammad ‘Ali Shah), which stood for traditionalism, so that most of the religious forces also rallied behind the modernist cause, albeit haphazardly.

Many of the traditional forces backing the Constitutional Revolution regretted it after the event, as did many of the modernists who participated in the revolution of February 1979, when the outcome ran contrary to their own best hopes and wishes. But no argument would have made them withdraw their support before the collapse of the respective regimes. There were those in both revolutions who saw that total revolutionary triumph would make some, perhaps many, of the revolutionaries regret the results afterwards, but very few of them dared to step forward. Sheikh Fazlollah in the earlier case and Shahpur Bakhtiar in the later are noteworthy examples. But they were both doomed because they had no social base, or in other words, they were seen as having joined the side of the state, however hard they denied it. In a revolt against an arbitrary state, whoever wants anything short of its removal is branded a traitor. That is the logic of the slogan “Let him go and let there be flood afterwards!”

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This interview has been edited from the version originally recorded for Dialogue, the Woodrow Wilson Center's radio program. It was conducted by Dialogue host and producer, George Liston Seay.

Haleh Esfandiari left Iran in 1978, on the eve of the Islamic revolution. Fourteen years later, she returned to investigate the revolution's impact on the lives of Iranian women. Her book Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution, published by the Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, focuses on interviews with professional women whose careers were either begun or redefined under the Islamic Republic. These interviews reveal how greatly the Islamic regime's women's agenda differed from the agendas of the women involved in the Islamic revolution and illustrate how Iranian women have attempted to live and work in a system that has so dramatically subverted their rights.

In Iran, Esfandiari worked as a journalist and served as an official of the Women's Organization of Iran. Since then, she has taught Persian language at Princeton University and was a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center, where most of Reconstructed Lives was written.

GS: The situation of women in Iran as portrayed in Reconstructed Lives provides an arresting story of the plight and strength of Iran's women and of the society they inhabit.

HE: The women's movement in Iran started in the late nineteenth century when women came out in the streets during the constitutional revolution; yet after the revolution, they were sent back inside their homes. But not everybody went. A number of women from educated backgrounds remained in the society and began to set up schools for girls, for example, and publish women's journals. These women began a network between Tehran and the provinces, which gradually led to the development of the women's movement.

GS: I do not think it is widely known that Iranian women were that active in their own behalf that early on in this century.

HE: Perhaps because of the general lack of communication between the West and the Middle East, westerners have not been aware of the women's movement in Iran. And it has been a gradual development. The veil was not officially abolished in Iran until 1936, during the era of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the father of modern Iran, and although it had taken everybody outside Iran by surprise, this did not occur in a vacuum. Several years earlier, the shah had been encouraging women to appear in public without the veil or to wear an ordinary scarf rather than the traditional long veil. When the veil was finally abolished officially, it was certainly a victory for women but a tragedy, too, because the right to choose was taken away from women, just as it was during the Islamic Republic when the veil was officially reintroduced in 1979.

GS: You have made a striking point about democracy, about liberty. Choice was lost, and choice is essential to liberty.

HE: My own grandmother refused to leave the house from the day the veil was abolished until Reza Shah left the country. She preferred to stay home. She belonged to an upper class so she had the means and the facilities to stay home and not go out. But ordinary Iranian women who did not have that choice were forced to abandon the veil and go in the streets feeling humiliated and exposed.

GS: Your point is that if Shah Reza had acted more subtly, he would not have set one camp of women against another.

HE: And men against women. But one should also give him credit for other things he did for women. The first university in Iran was set up under him, and from the beginning, males and females had access to that university. And there were minor changes in family law under him that acknowledge the rights of women. These minor changes set the tone for the future.

GS: Most future changes came under the rule of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, shah from 1941 to 1979 and the man who most vividly comes to mind when Americans think of "the shah of Iran." How much is this shah responsible for the progress of women in Iran? This is also the period in which we began to see an increase in fundamentalist opposition to those liberties?

HE: In the first twenty years of his reign, he really did not at all deal with women's issues. At the same time, there were more women's organizations making their demands public. The country was beginning to turn out larger numbers of educated women than ever before, and these women wanted a change in their legal rights and fuller participation in decisions affecting Iran. Beginning in the sixties, once the shah consolidated his own power, he felt that, for his international standing, it was important to project a progressive image of women in Iran. Women immediately grabbed that opportunity and started pushing for their rights. In 1963, women were given the right to vote and to be elected to parliament, and in the subsequent election, four women were voted into parliament and two to the senate.

GS: In anticipation of the 1979 revolution, women did support Khomeini, and many of them expected that their progress would continue.

HE: The 1979 revolution brought out the masses of Iranian women who were demonstrating for the abolition of the monarchy and for an Islamic republic. They believed that an Islamic republic would give them total equality, removing all existing obstacles for participation of women in the affairs of the state. But in the excitement of that revolution, nobody paid much attention to what Ayatollah Khomeini was saying in Paris. He said women will have a role in the society but within an Islamic framework. Nobody bothered in those days to ask, "What is the Islamic framework?"

GS: You have been quoted as saying that since 1979, the Islamic--or fundamentalist--government's policies toward women have been in "disarray." Is that too strong?

HE: No, that is correct. Over the last seventeen years, the government has been forced to rescind every single law it passed regarding women's rights. The Family Protection Law was suspended immediately after the revolutionaries came to power in 1979. That meant that men once again could divorce their wives and just notify them by mail. Child custody was taken away from women. Men could marry more than one permanent wife and as many temporary wives as they wanted. Men could stop their wives from going out in the street, from working. The progress that women had made during the shah's reign destabilized toward the end. In reaction to the increasingly vocal traditional elements in the society, the shah dramatically stepped back from his support for increased women's involvement in decision-making positions. So women were the first sacrificial lambs of the prerevolutionary movement.

GS: Is it fair to think of this backlash as a harbinger of the complete revocation of women's rights after the revolution?

HE: There was a tendency in Iran leading up to the 1979 revolution for people to take refuge in religion against what many perceived as assaults from the West. In the streets of Tehran in front of cinema houses there were billboards of women in bathing suits. At the seaside, women and men swam together. Some women wore bikinis. Iran is an Islamic country, and this form of westernization was just too much. As a result, a number of the younger generation of women, in particular, began to suggest a return to traditional Islamic dress and to the separation of boys and girls at the universities.

GS: Westernization was advancing too rapidly, too aggressively, and social Iran and religious Iran were upset even as political Iran was pushing the advancement. Yet there has been an increasing need for more educated people in Iran, especially during the war with Iraq.

HE: Yes. The war lasted eight years, and Iran required skilled women to come out and get the jobs done that men were no longer around to do.

GS: The candid voices in your book indicate the unwillingness of Iranian women to retreat. For example, one woman says, "I was a university professor. I was not at all involved in political activities. I watched the excitement of my colleagues, men and women, and I remember the demonstrations, the marches, the gatherings, the discussions on the streets and in the homes. We were all waiting for something to happen."

HE: I remember those days in Iran, too; the revolution created a sense of participation among men and women from all classes. In the marches that led to the revolution, there were professional women without scarves and women from traditional backgrounds wearing the traditional black veil; there were women from lower- and middle-class families with their children. All these women walked shoulder to shoulder, hoping that the revolution would bring for them an improvement in their economic status and an improvement in their social status and most of all an improvement in their legal status.

GS: I was struck by the impressive numbers of professional women among your interview subjects--doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists--and also by what many of them describe as the reality of the revolution.

HE: The women themselves refer to those first years after the revolution as an earthquake. Their husbands--most of whom had lost their jobs--were in a state of depression, and it was left to women to pull the family together: to go out, to get a job, a new job or to continue with their profession despite all the humiliation they were facing.

GS: During the course of the revolution, as women's power was being restricted, men thought they were inheriting it. But the message seems to be how absolute power corrupts. One of the women in the book is quoted as saying, "Since the revolution, men's standing has shrunk in the eyes of women."

HE: This is a typical sentiment among women. Women were brought up in a traditional Islamic society where the man of the house had the ultimate say. Therefore after the revolution, women expected a continuity of the same kind of protection they got from their men before the revolution. But what they were faced with were a bunch of men who withdrew, who had become frightened and depressed after losing their jobs. Women simply took on the roles of man and woman in the home, and the men abdicated their traditional role to them.

GS: Please comment on the election in Iran of Mohammed Khatemi.

HE: Mr. Khatemi would not have been elected president had it not been for the women's vote and the vote of the younger generation, who came out to vote in full force. Women are expecting a lot of changes. They expect female appointments as deputy ministers. They expect a much larger say in the affairs of the state. They expect a drastic improvement in legal rights. They expect an easement on social restriction and harassment, which they face constantly. Women are a vocal group in Iran today. I think Mr. Khatemi will hear what they have to say.

GS: But how do these women reconcile their faith in Islam with their needs and desires as active voices in an Islamic country? Does fundamentalism make a place for these women?

HE: Islam leaves a lot of room for a modern interpretation. Recently women in Iran have become counselors to judges in family courts. There are female Islamists and modern Islamic scholars working on modern interpretations of Islam. In Iran in particular, there are many women familiar with Islamic law and who are introducing a modern interpretation of Islam to the rest of the Islamic world. So the answer to your question is, yes, there is a place--of women's own making--for women in Islam and even in fundamentalism.