Cultural-colonization, Reza Khan Pahlavi, and the banning of hijab

On January 8 1936, Reza Khan Pahlavi banned hijab for Iranian women. The following Op-Ed article, published by Khamenei.ir, attempts to look at this issue from a colonial point of view.

‘Divide and Rule’, the (in)famous strategy that we have heard many times. A more clarifying version would be: ‘Divide (your enemy’s society) and (in this way, by making him preoccupied with himself, disintegrated, and distracted) Rule over him.’ As is well known, this is a colonial policy to mortify a society in order to exploit its valuable belongings. The issue of division and provoking disunion is usually, via a reductionist approach, discussed only in the realm of politics. But is that really the case, or is our outlook over-politicized?

As the above short proposition enjoys an unlimited domain, it should be pointed out that division as a colonial strategy is not restricted to a specific field and is applicable to many subjects. To put the above proposition in another way, it can be rewritten as ‘Divide (whatever you can) and Rule’. Therefore, upon analyzing the notion of colonial division, the possibility of creating division in non-political issues should also be included and never overlooked. For example, one might explore the past or the present and look for the efforts and strategies of colonialism to provoke division in areas such as culture or cultural identity. Paying attention to this area can raise the question of what is the crucial value of culture and cultural identity in a society in which the implementation of divisive politics can be important and desirable for the political approach of colonialism. In fact, culture is a kind of semantic system that builds a society. This semantic system shapes the behavior of people and the relationships among them, based on which a society is built. Such relationships between human beings are so important that they form the core of social capital. This social and communal capital is fundamental to a society and has been frequently referred to as one of the most essential ways to survive serious predicaments.

Now it is time to return to the issue of division as a colonial strategy and locate it within cultural and social relations. Accordingly, when a colonialist, in line with its divisive policy, negatively affects or deteriorates the social relations between the members of a society, we can say that the country has made a fundamental and radical move against the target society. Here, we can ask that, in a society, where is the most important part in which social relations and bonds are vital? The academia? In market between supplier and demander? Among military forces? Between political groups? Between people and government?

The answer lies in none of the above. The most important relationship in a society is the one between a man and a woman. Basically, if the bond between the two sexes is not forged properly, no family will be started properly anywhere as a basis to establish a well-built society. It comes as no surprise that the colonialist, along with its divisive policy and using its power of sociological analytical insight, concentrates on increasing tension and the breakdown of man-woman relationship. This break is so important and powerful that if it is created, it can spontaneously and continuously cause tension and disharmony from generation to generation.

A number of orientalists and the media affiliated with colonialism, when tasked with concealing and purifying the colonial practices and discourse, refer to colonial practices in relation to the sexes, and in particular women, as a mission to civilize or to fight for the rights of women in the colonized society. Such surprising claims are nothing but a colorful mask. An example is the attempt to change and deform the national clothing and dress codes of the people by ways such as making the female population semi-naked in countries where hijab (veiling) is valued. The key question, here, is that what is the relationship between women's semi-nudity and women's rights or social progress? If science and social responsibility are emphasized as moving forces of change and progress in a society, what is the relationship between them and women's bare hair or legs?

Logically, there is no interrelationship. Looking back reveals that many women with hijabs (Islamic clothing) have attained high academic degrees and social status (of course, it is clear that writers in the field of fantasy or political surrealism can interpret civilized and indigenous veiling as a tool for establishing and maintaining man-over-woman domination). Hence, another motive must be sought for this colonial practice. This act of colonialism is a cultural act and since it affects the woman-man relations, it should be viewed from this angle. In this way and taking into consideration the above propositions would lead us to the main behavior of colonialism which is division. The most effective and fundamental method to provoke division is cultural division taking place between male and female relations in a society. It can be concluded that the semi-nudity of women and making them struggle against the values ​​of a culture that was formerly accepted by both men and women causes disturbance in social relations and arises a kind of futile ever-lasting challenge to the clothing norms.

This controversy, for which there are tragic scenes throughout history, has a crucial function for colonialism, i.e. shifting a valuable deal of energy and social attention to the controversy over a planned conflict. In this way, clothing norms or semi-nudity becomes the main issue for the colonized society, deviating the focus from the colonialist-imperialist hands.

As an example, on January 8, 1936, Reza Khan Pahlavi, installed by British colonial rule, enacted a law that barred Iranian Muslim women from wearing headscarves or Chadors outside their homes[1]. As a result, many women stayed at home because of their interest in their culture. Others who go out on the streets in hijab while preserving their religious-cultural identity were attacked by police and therefore considered them as social enemies. Some who came to terms with this mandatory unveiling plan found themselves in conflict with and distanced from the value-adhering group of society. The result of this were widening gaps among the citizens, social strife and, naturally, the emergence and burden of division in the society. During these challenges, a number of events occurred that separated a part of the society from another throughout the following years and created national hatred. An astonishing event in this regard was the case of the Goharshad Mosque that took place in August 1935, when a backlash against the westernizing and secularist policies of Reza Shah Pahlavi erupted in Imam Reza (pbuh) shrine in Mashhad, Iran. In this bloody incident, more than a thousand people, who protested against the anti-cultural policies of the British-installed Shah, such as the Mandatory change of clothes and promotion of semi-nudity, and went on strike in the mosque, were brutally killed by Reza Khan's forces.[2]

This anti-social and anti-cultural strategy was not unique to Iran. Reading the history of Algeria, Turkey, Afghanistan, Morocco, Egypt, etc., each shows the covert and overt attempts of colonialism to disrupt cultural tendencies in these societies and other non-Islamic societies. The study of the colonial media also proves that the colonial policy of provoking division is still in place and pursued vigorously. All this, of course, is for one thing: divide the people of a society so that their power does not hinder colonial demands.



[1] Majd, Mohammad Gholi (2001). Great Britain and Reza Shah: The Plunder of Iran, 1921–1941, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, pp. 209–213, 217–218, ISBN 9780813021119.

[2] Hovsepian-Bearce, Yvette (2015). The Political Ideology of Ayatollah Khamenei: Out of the Mouth of the Supreme Leader of Iran. Routledge. p. 44. ISBN 9781317605829. Retrieved 15 January 2019.


  • Hijab
  • Hijab in Iran
  • Pahlavi regime
  • Reza Khan