The woman in the center of the photograph, which was taken in the 1950s, is Ashraf Pahlavi, an Iranian princess who died recently in Monte Carlo. She was 96.
The attractive women beside her are also members of the Iranian royal family. Empress Soraya is on the left and Princess Shams, Ashraf’s elder sister, is on the right. Soraya would later briefly become a film actress in Europe; Shams was a devout convert to Catholicism.
Princess Ashraf was the twin sister of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who in 1979 was removed from the peacock throne during Iran’s Islamic revolution, which brought the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini back from his exile in France. Her son was murdered in Paris by Shiite assassins shortly thereafter. In her own exile she defended the old Pahlavi regime in Iran and her controversial role in it: “It’s passed, now, only memories. But there were fifty years of grandeur, of glory.”
Prior to the revolution that dethroned her brother, Ashraf was both a significant political actor in her own country and a minor celebrity in the West. As a young girl she was among the first Iranians publicly to abandon the veil, following the example of her mother, and as an adult she was active in the cause of women’s rights. She played a crucial role in the overthrow in 1953 of Mohammed Mossadeq, Iran’s leftist prime minister. She served in various capacities as an Iranian delegate to the United Nations. In his autobiography Hassan Arfa, an important member of the Iranian military, tells of her various charitable activities and the enthusiastic reception she often received from the public. She even entered western pop art as the subject of a celebrity portrait by Andy Warhol, drawn in the same style as his famous portrait of Elizabeth Taylor.
I found the first photograph on the website of the neoconservative columnist Mark Steyn, who sees the princess as “a reminder of a lost time”:
In the Teheran of the Forties and Fifties, she showed her hair, wore earrings, went bare-armed and flashed discreet cleavage — just like women in France and Germany. There are no women in Iran today who dare to dress as Princess Ashraf did seventy years ago. What makes you think it will go any differently in Cologne or Vienna or Stockholm?
Steyn’s point, of course, is that importing Muslims into western nations means also importing Muslim ideas about proper female dress. Those ideas can have physical consequences, since many Muslim men believe that they are entitled to sexually harass or even rape women who do not share the fashion preferences of medieval Islam. To an angry Muslim, normal female clothing in the West can announce a woman’s moral eligibility for mistreatment. In areas of Europe heavily enriched by Third World immigration some non-Muslim women disguise themselves with hijabs or other Islamic paraphernalia to reduce the likelihood that they will suffer sexual abuse at the violent hands of Europe’s most recent Muslim invaders. Should the invasion continue, it would be reasonable to predict a post-European future where all the women of Cologne and Stockholm dress like the women of Riyadh.
The photograph could also serve as an illustration of another of Steyn’s frequent observations: the surprising resurgence of fundamentalist Islam, which once seemed destined to become a relic of the past. None of the three women could have predicted that veiling would again become compulsory in Iran, or that the body-length chador would survive into the twenty-first century. Both the chador and the hijab had been briefly banned in the 1930s by Ashraf’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who once beat a cleric who complained that his wife had uncovered her face during a pilgrimage. The Pahlavi dynasty believed it had defeated the Shiite clerical class and saw the spread of non-traditional clothing for women as visible evidence of its political victory. The chador and the hijab were officially deprecated as vestiges of the old Iran, which would soon pass away. In their elegant, westernized appearance Princess Ashraf and her royal companions seemed reliable harbingers of their nation’s future.
The dust-jacket blurb for Hassan Arfa’s Under Five Shahs, published in 1964, is a similar reminder of the same lost time:
When General Arfa was born in 1885, his country, Iran, was a medieval state. Today it holds a progressive place in the modern world. The General has been actively concerned with this evolution; and his autobiography, therefore, is unusual and highly pertinent since he gives a picture from the inside of the rapid growth of Iran.
In 1964 General Arfa would have seemed a modern figure to most readers of his book, just as the dust jacket presented him, and the Pahlavi monarchy he supported would have seemed an example of the upward movement of modernization, which in the Middle East is often tantamount to westernization. “The rapid growth of Iran” would have been understood in the 1960s as the departure of Iran from its medieval Shiite past and its embrace instead of western models of economic and social development. Retrograde Iranians would have to be dragged kicking and struggling into modernity, but eventually their future would come and their kicking and struggling would end. Or so most observers then assumed.
In different ways Hassan Arfa’s autobiography and the photograph carried the same meaning: elite Iranian women resembled in their dress stylish western women in Europe and the United States because Iran was a modernizing nation led by a progressive monarch determined, like his father before him, to bring his people into the twentieth century. Clothing was a serious matter, since it conveyed a political lesson about Iran’s future. As Arfa explained, the Pahlavi monarchy believed that “the moral influence of discarding national in favor of European dress” would lead Iranians to “identify themselves with those of other countries and realize that as there was no fundamental difference between them and Europeans and Americans, there was no reason why they could not achieve the same advance in every kind of work as these nations had done.”
From our vantage point in the present the photograph has become not a harbinger of our era’s modern Iran but a prediction of a future that never arrived, though it once seemed inevitable that it would. The wave of the future quickly changed its direction.
Only two decades separate the photograph from Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran. A much different state arose as a result of the popular movement he inspired and the referendum that endorsed his vision of an Islamic republic, with him as its supreme leader. Whether you think the Islamic theocracy that actually did arrive is an improvement over the modernizing Pahlavi Iran that it destroyed will depend on your perspective. Most Iranians likely think it is better, though it seems worse to me. Iran, for example, now leads the world in executions by stoning, a punishment sanctioned by Muslim tradition.
Islamist Iranians believe they can preserve their strict Shiite faith and many of its traditional cultural practices, while also using modern technology and enlarging their modern economy. They want the material prosperity of modern occidentals, and they also want to retain the beliefs of medieval Muslims, which is their prerogative. “Our customs are none of your business,” Khomeini told journalist Oriana Fallaci during her dramatic interview in 1979.
Since Khomeini was perhaps the most important Muslim leader in the twentieth century, his strange religious opinions have become useful weapons for opponents of the massive importation of Muslims into the West, a policy which has made the customs and beliefs of Muslims not their exclusive business but our business as well. If, for example, a Muslim man happens to copulate with a cow, he must, the ayatollah advised, be certain not to consume its milk, since his bestiality will have rendered the milk impure. It is not the sort of practical religious problem that we could imagine the women in the photograph pondering, but the spiritual father of the Iranian future that began in 1979 did discuss it, along with other equally primitive topics. Most of Iran’s observant Muslims still value his advice and revere his life, and it is they who govern Iran’s present.
For the sake of balance I will add, in keeping with the theme of female attire, that one of the pressing social questions in some western nations is whether men who enjoy dressing up as women should be allowed to relieve themselves in women’s restrooms, to prevent them from feeling traumatized by any official denial of their self-ascribed womanhood. It is unlikely that such questions are ever debated among religious Iranians in their Islamic state. They could, if we tried to embarrass them by citing Ayatollah Khomeini’s primitive opinions, point out that many features of the modern West portend for us a steadily degrading future. Although religious Iranians may often be strange and backward, in some respects western decline has made their culture better than ours.
General Arfa tells of happy supporters of the Pahlavi dynasty gathering spring flowers in the woods to present to the beloved sister of their shah. It is an attractive picture, which no doubt was partly true. Yet many other Iranians hated Princess Ashraf. They saw her not as a sign of Iran’s admirable entry into modernity but rather as evidence of westernizing modernity’s incompatibility with traditional Islam. She was a prominent example of what Iranian radicals in the 1970s called “westoxification.” She dressed as a western woman, which for traditional Muslims meant that she dressed as a harlot. She campaigned for causes that are inconsistent with Islam, and one of her sisters was a literal apostate from it. She consumed alcohol, gambled at European casinos, and enjoyed spending her money, some of it acquired through political corruption. The AP obituary reports that her “glamorous life epitomized the excesses of her brother’s rule.” It also epitomized, from the perspective of observant Muslims, the cultural distance of their present from the austere dictates of Islam’s founder. The future they wanted was much different from the future she represented.
Cultural change can occur quickly, as David Duke once reminded us. Although it often seems that the current downward trajectory of the West is irreversible, the downward trajectory of Pahlavi Iran, seen through the eyes of a conservative Shiite in the 1950s, could have seemed irreversible as well. Yet the future in Iran belonged to the anti-western Islamic radicals who hated Princess Ashraf Pahlavi and the modernizing Iran her brother governed. An old photo of three westernized Iranian women now looks oddly un-Iranian because three decades ago most Iranians saw growing westernization not as a promise of a better tomorrow but as a lethal threat to their cultural identity.
History’s direction is never inevitable. If a population hates its imminent future enough, it can prevent that future from occurring.