I have been reading the fascinating study on Iran by Nikki R. Keddie, "Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution", Yale University Press, 2006. In it she outlines the dramatic modernizing policy of Iranian ruler Reza Shah (r. 1914-1941). In her chapter on Reza Shah, she describes a fairly autocratic leader who made great strides in improving certain aspects of Iran (notably in military capacity, public education, and transportation infrastructure) by adopting Western style reforms. While there seem to be obvious winners and losers in this process, with the former being landlords, industrialists, the class of civil servants and military officers, and to a lesser degree women in general; with the latter being the ulama (Muslim legal/religious scholars), peasants, trade unionists, socialists, and proletariat.

While Keddie provides a very thorough explanation of Reza Shah reforms on a macro level, her focus on the larger history of Iran leaves more in-depth questions unanswered. I am interested as to what the general population of Iran thought of the reforms. One particularly interesting clue comes from a lengthy quotation in Keddie's work from a professor in International Relations and History, Houchang Chehabi:

The forced unveiling of women...was, among all of Reza Shah's modernization policies, the one that contributed to most of his unpopularity among ordinary Iranians...while meant to unify the nation by eliminating visible class, status, and regional distinctions, in fact deepened another cleavage in Iranian society, i.e., that between westernizers...and the rest of society, which resented an intrusion in their private lives.

In many ways this sounds similar to a common compliant in the modern middle east, in which the justifiable outrage many feel over their exploitation at the hands of Western powers is most vocally expressed through real & perceived incursions into day-to-day life and customs. This seems to fit with this example as Iran had a long history of being exploited by the west, particularly by Great Britain and Russia. I'd be interested in knowing if this was indeed the most common complaint of the Iranian people at the time and if the aforementioned analysis is valid. Also, what were other reactions Iranians had at the time to the policies of Reza Shah?

  • 4
    excellent and well thought out question, unfortunately I have no answer for you, haha.
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 22:01
  • 1
    You also need to take into account the rise of Pro-Islamic parties and forces during the later 1950's and 1960's which generated speakers such as Ayatollah Khomeni. The anti-Muslim policies, such as the unveiling, were what brought "Western thoughts and ideals" in as a force to change the country and it resulted in the eventual revolution in the 1970's to stop it. Or so my Islamic history teacher, who is Iranian, used to say. Follow Khomeni's history from his exile and that should give you ideas, but I don't have sources to recommend.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 10:13
  • @MichaelF, I agree. From what I can tell Reza Shah promoted not only specific western technology and societal customs, but he also placed a large emphasis on pre-Islamic Iran (particularly the glory days of the Sassanid). I imagine this wasn't too popular given the rise of pan-Islamic and pan-Arabic sentiment, but I don't think either sentiment was terribly influential in Iran at the time (particularly the latter). Despite the Shah's centralization efforts, much of Iran was still very tribal and lacked much communications/transportation infrastructure outside of that in use by the west. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 12:25
  • 2
    @MichaelF, Your point is valid, but I think there is a misunderstanding. I am specifically looking to Iranian reactions during the rule of Reza Shah himself (1914-1941). Especially since many of the Shah's extensive reforms date as early as 1920's. While Khomeni's influence in the 60's and 70's definitely speak to the ability of the ulama to rally popular support against western influences (possibly derived from dissatisfaction initially curried by Raza Shah's reforms), it doesn't necessarily explain the initial reaction or evolution of Iranian politics in the intervening half century. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 20:17
  • 1
    @Anixx, I looked over my post and saw that I made a mistake in my wording. I made the edit to point out that it appeared there was obvious winners and losers (from an outside perspective). This may not have been apparent at the time of Reza Shah (and I'm guessing if this was the case it wasn't until the 60's and 70's did these concerns became apparent). Also, from what I can tell most of Reza Shah's attempts to eliminate class differences were similar to the Western techniques for doing so which only addressed trivial surface issues like dress. Commented May 4, 2012 at 19:21

1 Answer 1


I found two excellent articles on this question one in the 27th volume of Middle Eastern Studies vol. 27, no. 1, pg. 35-45 entitled "Iranian Nationalism and Reza Shah" by M. Reza Ghods, and the other in the journal Iranian Studies, volume 26 no. 3-4, by the Iranian expert Houchang E. Chehabi entitled "Staging the Emperor's New Clothes: Dress Codes and Nation-Building under Reza Shah". The first of these sources starts with an overview of the Shah's public support during his reign:

"The Iranian public's discontent with Reza Shah at the time of his abdication in 1941 has been widely recognized. In fact, the Shah's eventual unpopularity has done to obscure an understanding of his initial support...probably because of Iranian nationalist subsequent disillusionment with the monarch, the role of nationalistic ideology in the first Pahlavi rule's accession to power has generally been neglected."[Ghods, 1991, p.35]

Apparently, the Shah's initial support came from his appeal to nationalists who appreciated his strong and centralized leadership. In Iran at the time, nationalist sentiment was influential among virtually every sector of Iranian society, as most Iranians (outside of a handful of reformers) were outraged by the exploitation they were subjected to by foreign powers, namely Britain and Russia. Yet despite this common factor, most of Iran still was divided by warring tribes. It was Reza Shah's ability to unite Iran, and to develop a strengthened and centralized government/military power, which apparently won the Shah a great deal of power and public support,

"This suppression of tribes was received gratefully by most politically aware Iranians. Even those opposed to Reza [Shah]'s dictatorship (including both Mudarres and Mossadegh) applauded this policy as a major contribution to the nation's internal security. Clearly, however, the manner in which the tribes were suppressed through the military, which Reza [Shah] controlled also added substantially the military leader's own power."[Ghods, 1991, p.35]

The second article is far more illustrative as to why Reza Shah's popularity declined so markedly near the end of his rule. The Shah's reign grew increasingly autocratic as his administration gained power, and to the ulama's opposition to a Turkish republic. Ironically enough, the ulama's opposition of the Turkish republic would ultimately give the Shah the power necessary to push through Turkish style reforms.

Reza Shah was very impressed by, envious of, the modernizing Turkish republic. One of the ways he attempted to emulate their success was by imposing a western-style dress code which was designed to reduce class and gender barriers. Chehbai explains the further utility of western dress in the mind of the Shah and other modernist reformers,

"State building had to entail nation-building,which was begun in light of the Jacobin tadition of equating unity with uniformity...But Turks and Iranians had to "form a new people" in a different historical context. International emancipation could best be achieved by showing the Europeans that one was worthy of their company in the society of nations, and what better way to prove this than to become physically like them?"[Chehabi, 1993, p.223]

Apparently, the westernized dress policy of Reza Shah was handled in a very ham-handed way, and the forced de-veiling of women was particularly harmful to the public's view of the Shah. The Shah was very strict in the enforcement of this policy and while there was a marked increase in the education of women, many women were outraged by this policy. Some of the more traditional women would not leave their homes. This also incensed the ulama who were repulsed in not only religious terms, but saw this as a direct challenge of their traditional authority.

Essentially, the popular support won by the Shah by stabilizing the country by providing internal security and a more modernized economy was to a large extent undone by a series of westernizing reforms which undercut his legitimacy. These actions laid the groundwork for future demonstrations and an alliance between the ulama, the bazaari, and the peasants.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.