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Chardors, Pepsi, and the Great Satan: A History of Modern Iran

April 19, 2000

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If the women want to wear a long sheet-like chador in this blazing heat, why stop them?
Iran is beautiful, the people are nice, but there's not much nightlife. No bars, no raves, and alcohol is illegal. Women have to cover their heads and may only display their hands and face in public. Even the movie theaters show only Iranian movies, or the occasional foreign movie deemed fit for public viewing. People's social lives revolve around their family, and take place in the home. It's pleasant, but it's definitely not how I'm used to living.

Our translator Karoosh, a.k.a Louie, lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years. How different it must have been for him when he moved to California.
     "What was it like for you when you first went to L.A, Louie?" Monica asked one day. "Were you just in complete and total shock?"
     "No," he told us completely seriously. "They were pretty much the same back then, L.A. and Tehran, except the language. That was before the Revolution."

Whoah! That was only twenty-one years ago. What happened to make such a big change?

To understand modern Iran and the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which created the Islamic Republic, you have to know what life was like before 1979. I'll try to keep it brief, if you'll promise to stick with me. Let's start at the end of WWI.

At that time, the Ghajar dynasty, a ruling family of Turkish descent, was in control, but was strongly influenced by Britain. Even though Iran was never colonized, Western powers did whatever they could to influence them...some things never change!

But the Iranians didn't like that the British had so much power in their government, and soon after the war the Ghajars were overthrown in a coup d'état by a Persian man named Reza Khan Pahlevi. Even though he wasn't a puppet to the British, he believed that modernization and westernization were the keys to success.

Remember Ataturk from our time in Turkey? Both he and Shah Reza Khan ruled over poor, underdeveloped countries after WWI, and both of them looked to the West as a model of development, and also of culture. Just as Ataturk outlawed the men's traditional hat called the Fez, Reza Khan outlawed traditional Persian clothing, including the chador. He also made it illegal to take pictures of camels, because he considered them a sign of backwards-ness!

How confusing! The Islamic Revolution in 1979 changed the law from making it illegal for women to wear the chador, to making it illegal for women NOT to wear the chador. Geez, was this a fashion revolution? Why is women's clothing so important to the government of a country?

As we've seen from the art and tilework, the amazing architecture, the historic sites and the music, Persians have a rich culture, and they're very proud. The chador, and other outlawed clothing, is a big part of the culture, and their religious beliefs. Even if it wasn't a foreign power, such as the British, the people did not like being told what they could and could not wear. I mean, it's not my style, but if they want to wear a big black sheet in the hot, blazing sun, what right does the government have to force them to change?

Anyway, during WWII, Reza Kahn kept Iran neutral. But being neutral doesn't mean that the warring countries ignored them. Instead, Britain and Russia divided Iran up into what they called "spheres of influence," a popular post-colonial euphemism of the time which meant, "we stick our nose into the business of other countries and tell them it's for their own good." Most of the Middle East, during this time, was divided into these "spheres of influence" by the colonial powers.

One main goal of the British was to keep the Axis powers out of Iran. So when Reza Kahn got a little too friendly with Germany, he was "influenced" right out of the country by the British in 1941. He was replaced by his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, who was comfortably in the pocket of the British.

The US also wanted in on the action, and, in 1953, the CIA staged a coup to overthrow the Iranian premiere Mohammed Mosadeq. The reason the US didn't like Mosadeq was that he wanted to nationalize the oil companies in Iraq. Before then, most of the oil made money for oil companies from the West, and didn't help the Iranian people.

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The rapid attempt at westernization continued under Shah Mohammed Reza, but Iran was very different from Turkey and the Pahlavi dynasty was not as successful as their neighbor Ataturk. Iran's population was mostly rural, separated by huge deserts, and very conservative. Another big difference is that Iran has lots of oil, which, of course, means lots of money. Between 1963 and the time of the Revolution, the average per capita income of the country rose from 200 dollars a year to 1000 dollars per year, one of the sharpest increases in per capita income in history. But, the money wasn't distributed evenly. The Pahlevis and their buddies got richer and richer, while the poor Iranians stayed poor.


Coup d'état - an illegal change in government
euphemism - to substitute a mild expression for one more harsh
sabotage - undermining a cause, sometimes through violence

Needless to say, the people weren't happy watching their government get rich, and being told what they could and could not wear, and having no say at all in how their country was being run. And they really didn't like the power that Britain and the United States had over their internal affairs. But what could they do? Mohammed Reza had the support of the Western powers, including Britain and America, who cared more about maintaining influence over an oil rich Middle Eastern country than about promoting democracy.

Soon, the people started to protest the government. They felt that the Pahlevis were selling out to the Western powers, their culture was being belittled, and their natural resources squandered. Because 98% of the population is Shi'ite Muslim, the Muslim clergy became leaders in the revolution. One man, high up in the clergy (an "Ayatollah") from the town of Khomein, was particularly vocal in criticizing the Government. The Ayatollah Khomeini, which means Ayatollah from Khomein, was exiled from the country in 1963, and didn't return until after the Revolution.

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I was surprised to find Coca-Cola here.  Doesn't the
Unrest began, there were strikes and government works were sabotaged. In 1978, hundreds of protesters were gunned down in Tehran by the Pahlevi government, much like the massacre in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989. This time, the United States began to pull back their support of the Pahlevis. Still, the US came to represent all the meddling outsiders, the challenge to their culture, and the capitalist system that was making the rich richer and keeping the poor poor . America became the symbol of all they were struggling against, and was referred to as "The Great Satan."

I barely remember when the Islamic Revolution happened in 1979, because I was only seven years old. But I do know that, in America, it was highly misunderstood, and the new government was looked on as a menace and an enemy. Being here, learning about it, and seeing the proud people of "Islamic Republic of Iran" firsthand helps me understand what happened and why. Here's a recent quote I read from Robert Kaplan's book, "The Ends of the Earth". It comes from a man who supported the Revolution, which clearly shows the mentality behind it:

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Lots of kids have Leonardo DiCaprio t-shirts here.  Viva la Revolucion?
"The chador is only a symbol. At Teheran University, where my daughter studies, where the students once demonstrated against the Shah, the male and female students must sit on separate sides of the classroom. But between classes, what happens? They mingle together. Our culture is moving back into the normalized center, that is true. But this would have been impossible had the revolution not allowed us to be ourselves in the first place. The revolution gave us back our self-respect. Of course, there were human rights excesses. But in the days of the worst excesses, we were still more Persian than at any time during the Shah's reign."

Clearly, these days, the Revolutionary intensity has died down. Reformists control the Presidency and the Parliament, and Americans like us are able to visit the country. But an even clearer sign is the little bits of American consumerism and culture that leak through, even though, technically, there is a trade embargo between the two countries. I can find Coke and Pepsi here, most people know American movies, and I see Nike and Tommy Hillfiger on the boys in Tehran. Despite the chadors, Iran is not so different, after all.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Brian - Persepolis: Sacked, Hacked, and Packed
Monica - Visit to Kashan: At HOME at the Khan-é Broujerdi
Monica - Visit to Kashan: At SCHOOL at the Madrasé-yé Agha Bozorg
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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