Last month I told one of my readers I would chronicle women in Islam from the mid-20th century to the present.

It is deplorable that people under the age of 35 will not have known anything other than the Muslim women’s attire we see today.

For them and for readers who have forgotten the swift trajectory from the modern to the mediaeval, below are links to illuminating photographs from several Muslim countries.

It is painful to read that an increasing number of American Christians are moving in the same direction — backward — with regard to women’s opportunities and attire. I read of arranged marriages, daughters deprived of university, veiled women at church and wives who buy burkinis. These people — not sect members, by the way — isolate themselves and associate only with their own kind because the rest of us, frankly, just aren’t good enough!

Stop the madness!

Now without further ado: Muslim women not so long ago. I have not reproduced most of the pictures because I do not know how long it took those who published them to locate them. Therefore, please click on the links to see how life has changed within a short space of time.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan Online has a concise but excellent history of governments from the late 1880s to the present.

Briefly, by the end of the 19th century, women were allowed to inherit property. The first school for girls, which included an English curriculum, opened by 1919. In the 1920s, the government discouraged women from wearing a veil. King Amanullah Khan stated publicly, much to the consternation of fundamentalist tribal leaders:

Religion does not require women to veil their hands, feet and faces or enjoin any special type of veil. Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual.

The next king, Mohammad Nadir Shah, acquiesced to these tribal leaders. However, by 1933, Mohammad Zahir Shah began a 40-year reign and brought in many reforms for women: Western attire adopted by the ruling family, the opportunity to work in professions and the right to vote. Various restrictions were also enacted against child brides and dowries. The first Miss Afghanistan was crowned in 1972; although there was no swimsuit competition, there was an evening gown pageant.

The following links show how women dressed during Mohammad Zahir Shah’s rule. MessyNessy’s ‘Lost in Time: Groovy Afghanistan’ features a selection of photos. Note in particular the first one of Afghan women in the 1940s. They are all in Western dress and only one wears a veil. The next picture features women from Kabul representative of the 1960s and 1970s. Again, only one has a gauzy headscarf. The rest, in mid-knee length skirts, could fit in anywhere. These photographs come from a Facebook page, publicly available, called ‘Once Upon A Time In Afghanistan’. I encourage — exhort — everyone reading this to view it. See how contemporary everything was in Afghan society.

Afghanistan was also open to tourists. Bill Podlich has a selection of photographs from his visit, with family, to the country in the late 1960s. Photo 7 shows secondary school girls; whilst they wear loose veils, except for one, the caption states they were not allowed to wear full chador when attending school. They were also encouraged to attend university. Photo 26 shows a mixed class of men and women — only one of whom wears a scarf — at the Higher Teachers College in Kabul. The next photo shows primary school pupils and their teachers in the playground. All are wearing Western attire.

Egypt

The American journalist and author Phyllis Chesler has a fascinating collection of photographs of Cairo University graduates through the decades. The Class of 1959 were all in Western attire. The same was true in 1978. However, in 1995, one-third of the women of that graduating class wore veils. By 2004, most of the women covered their heads.

During the Arab Spring of 2011, Chesler examined the photos coming from Egypt (emphases mine):

Yes, there are some female faces in the Cairo mob scenes, but understandably, they are in the minority.

While there are some—very few—female faces that are bare-faced and bareheaded, most women are wearing serious hijab: Pulled low and tight on their foreheads, tied under their chins, covering their necks, draping down to their shoulders.

Oh for the days of Anwar Sadat, whose wife Jihan and daughters Jihan and Lobna wore Western attire. Scroll to the bottom of his biography to see the family photo.

In the 1960s, a few Egyptian women from well-placed families were allowed to participate in foreign-exchange programmes. One of them was Nazek Fahmy, who spent time in Moline, Illinois, with the Parsons family before touring the United States with other foreign students. My thanks to cyberfriend Dr Gregory Jackson who has documented his schooldays and class reunions in the marvellous Moline Memories, a must-read for anyone interested in life in the 1960s.

Miss Fahmy’s 1965 visit appeared in the local paper. She is on the far left in this photo — note the shorts!

She told the newspaper reporter that she had graduated from the American College for Girls in Egypt. Her younger brother was attending a French school there. Things were very cosmopolitan then.

As for women’s attire, she said that those who lived in town wore Western fashions (emphasis in the original):

Only the peasants wear native costume.

And now, sadly, nearly every woman does.

Iran

Page F30 has an excellent collection of photographs of Iran in the 1970s, prior to the Revolution in 1979.

The much-vilified Shah of Iran was the country’s ruler at the time these snapshots were taken. None of the women covered their heads. They wore miniskirts, hot pants and open-toed shoes.

The comments are well worth reading. Some evoke fond memories of that era (emphases mine):

Anonymous: … this is not just pics of elites. My parents’ photo albums were filled with pictures exactly like this and they were barely considered middle class. Third, keep in mind that this was the 1960s and although Iran had not fully developed into a democracy it was well on its way….by separating government from religious ties. The revolution took away all of the country’s advancements in the 2oth century and reduced them to a theocracy.

Anonymous (another, perhaps): I am a proud American and a previously proud Iranian. The madness that started with the so called Islamic revolution uprooted me and thank god I am living in the heaven that we call USA.

Whatever happened in Iran of the Pahlavi regime was far superior to the tyr[ran]ny and injustice that is happening now and since the so called revolution.

Looking at these beautiful pictures of Iran, reminds me of a dream of the past. The Community School in Tehran and the annual Garden parties that w[ere] very similar to the School Fairs that you see in the U.S. There is nothing wrong with being westernized and believe in western ideals. Somehow the religious f[a]natics that hijacked Islam and rule the country turned that dream into a nightmare.

There are 20 year old kids in Iran now who never saw the beautiful dream that I am talking about. All that they have been witnessing is the dark cloud of this tyr[ran]ny and the Islamic revolution that has shrouded the country …

Of course, Iran’s back of beyond attire was very much tribal — the way it is today in the rest of the nation. Avax News has a post of photographs from 1955-1980 which shows the contrast of dress worn by the Shah and his wife and that of people living in the countryside.

As in Egypt and Afghanistan, women living in Iran have been legally and religiously obliged to dress like peasants since 1979.

This photo, courtesy of Pew Research, shows the mindset today regarding Muslim women’s attire in various countries:

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It can only be hoped that, in decades to come, life returns to the way it once was throughout Muslim countries. Many hope for a ‘Reformation’, however, it seems that perhaps that is what petro-dollar financed Wahhabism has wrought. Unlike Christianity, the reforms went into reverse, rather than forward, gear.

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