The War of Symbols in Iran.

            In the aftermath of the Era of the French Revolution and Napoleon (1789-1815), defenders of the established order tried to work out a philosophical rationale for Conservatism.  They argued that societies are “organic” (like an orange), rather than “mechanical” (like a clock).[1]  They develop over long periods of time according to specific historical experiences.  Each society is different, even if there exist broad similarities in some areas.  People in one era could not just remake their society according to some plan for the betterment of all mankind which had just arrived in the mail from the Jesuits or the Freemasons or the son of some imprisoned banker in Nigeria.  Thus, Great Britain had become a constitutional monarchy through hundreds of years of incremental change.  Russia had become an autocracy through hundreds of years of different incremental change.  Change didn’t stop, so societies would creep along toward the future, altering by incremental change.[2] 

            This theory might be tested in contemporary Iran.  In the early 1920s, a Persian soldier named Reza Khan (1878-1944, r. 1925-1941) won the backing of the British for the overthrow of the Persian Shah.  He modeled himself on his modernizing neighbor in Turkey, Mustapha Kemal “Ataturk.” Shah Reza built roads, railroads, factories, and schools; he struggled with a conservative clergy; he banned the photographing of camels; and he sought to encourage both Westernization in dress and the relative emancipation of women.  The latter two came together in his effort to ban the chador.  Neither one appealed to the conservative mainstream.  Still, he was ruling over an agrarian and rural society in which tribes and the clergy were very powerful.  The shrewd old bugger never pushed change so far or fast as to trigger the same sort of revolution by which he had overthrown the previous shah.[3] 

            His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980, r. 1941-1979) drove ahead maniacally with Westernization and modernization.  Conservative Islam rallied many of his rural, working class, and clerical opponents, with the hijab as a visible symbol of opposition.  In 1979, revolution toppled the Shah.  The new Islamic Republic required that women cover their hair.  The long war with a secular Iraq (1979-1989) then consolidated the veil as a patriotic symbol. 

            Now, thirty years have passed.  Iran has continued along its path from rural to urban.  Women have gained much more access to both education and careers, albeit within a framework of conservative Islamic belief.  Young people, especially young women, are thinking in a different way than did their mothers and grandmothers.[4]  Yet the old order remains in place.  It has not made incremental adjustments.  The morality police continue to patrol the streets, hunting evil-doers without enough bobby-pins.  The government is made up of old men.  They are both tightly bound to their youths and incompetent to handle many normal tasks. 

            Now it has come to street demonstrations, violence from the forces of order, and accusations of foreign meddling.  The hijab was popular when Iranians wanted to resist change being forced on them.  Now it’s the symbol of resistance to change that many Iranians desire. 


[1] Hence the origins of the expression “queer [which meant “odd” in those days and was not a term of abuse] as a clockwork orange.”  From which came Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962). 

[2] Joseph de Maistre, The Divine Origins of Constitutions (1810). 

[3] Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1937) recounts a motoring excursion with friends in Persia and Afghanistan. 

[4] Amanda Taub, “Hijab Protests in Iran Expose Deep Divide In Visions of Future,” NYT, 7 October 2022.