Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Iranian Islamic Revolution ends co-education and secularism, produces “big brain drain”

On November 4, 1979, militant Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took 66 Americans hostage. Six Americans managed to sneak out the back door of the U.S. Embassy and were eventually secretly aided out of the country by officials of the Canadian Embassy. African-American and female prisoners were let free but 52 of the prisoners (all white males) remained in captivity for 444 days. Updated daily by a frenzy of morbidly fascinating media reports entitled "America Held Hostage - The Iran Hostage Crisis," an emotionally-riled American public was shocked by this hostile act of terrorism against the U.S., especially because it originated from a Middle Eastern country that, at the time, was considered obscure to the average American. In April 1980, an ill-fated hostage rescue mission was aborted when three U.S. military helicopters crashed into the Iranian desert, causing even further loss of face to incumbent President Jimmy Carter's leadership. The perceived weakness and inability of President Carter to quickly resolve the situation eventually contributed to the Democrats' loss at the presidential election polls, and the hostages were not released until Inauguration Day in January 1981 when Republican President Ronald Reagan took office.

Within Iran, the two most important political figures during the upheaval (in terms of their actual actions as well as their influence on Iranian society as figureheads) were Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the controversial and politically repressive Shah who had fled Iran in January of 1979 but was allowed into the United States for cancer treatment in October of 1979, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a popular religious nationalist and bitter foe of the United States who had returned from exile to Iran in February of 1979. Within the Iranian psyche, the Hostage Crisis and indeed the subsequent Islamic Revolution were at least partially fuelled by acrid memories of the 1953 coup d'état when the CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) and British Intelligence interfered and dismantled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh to set up an imperialistic sovereignty yet again with Reza Pahlvai as Shah instead. Fearing that Iran's history of foreign dominance of the political development process would repeat itself and seeing Reza Pahlavi as a mere puppet to the U.S., many Iranians worried over the possibility of another U.S.-backed plot to restore the Shah to power. Against the backdrop of such apprehensions and within an explosive societal atmosphere searching for change, Ayatollah Khomeini - with his flowing white beard and tightly clenched fists - rose to become a man of great spiritual significance and rigid theocratic authority in Iran.

On the global stage, the Iran Hostage Crisis resulted in many long-term consequences. For example, among other outcomes, "it indirectly precipitated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War, alienation from the United States for a generation and running, and consolidated the radical Islamist regime led by the Ayatollah Khomeini" (Berkeley, 2004, 1). U.S. embassies around the world immediately increased their building security measures, and it has been argued that the Iran Hostage Crisis prompted the current politically conservative movement in the US and initiated America's present war on terrorism (Farber, 2005).

In this paper, I interweave my own recollections of the aftermath of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, including its effect on the educational system, alongside other scholars' writings. As an Iranian man who was a social activist in Iran until my escape in 1982, the political and the personal are inseparable - for I truly lived the Islamic Revolution. Therefore, as an eye-witness to revolutionary events as they were unfolding, I draw my knowledge on this topic from the myriad details of daily life in Iran during the late 1970s to early 1980s. Therefore, this paper possesses a perspective that embraces the value of including one's "lived experience" (van Manen, 1997) as well as the more traditional academic sources in any analysis.

There are innumerable studies examining the myriad social, economic, ideological, and political factors behind the Iranian Revolution. To list just a few, explanations are as wide-ranging as the ripple effect of USA President Jimmy Carter's 1977 human rights policy (Rinehart, 1997) to theoretical models of social breakdown (Tehranian, 1980; Green, 1980, all cited in Parsa, 1989) or social movement (Arjomand, 1981, 1986; Skocpol, 1979 all cited in Parsa, 1989) and structural theories of collective action and revolution (Parsa, 1989). One study is particularly noteworthy because it employs a cross-cultural and cross-historical approach to compare the Iranian Revolution with other revolutionary violence in two other countries (Rinehart, 1997). Ultimately, however, no one single explanation is sufficient: "Revolution is never the result of any single causal factor. It is frequently in response to a multiplicity of long-festering socioeconomic and political issues" (Rinehart, 1997, p.63).

Interestingly, arguments have been put forth emphasizing the influential role of education in the conception of the Revolution. Firstly, idealistic and protesting students who had originally planned only a short-lived three or four day "sit-in" became the catalysts for the entire revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini publicly supported their actions (Berkeley, 2004). Secondly, aspiring non-students also joined into the revolutionary fervour of the time. Using 1960 and 1970 figures, each year up to 20,000 or more disillusioned high school students were denied access into Iran's highly-competitive higher education system, described as "a narrow breach through which only a few can steer their course into universities" (Menarshi, 1992, p. 208). The long-term political reverberations of the situation should not be underestimated since annually "tens of thousands of families sank into despondency" (Menarshi, 1992, p. 209) when rejected youth were left adrift not only without further educational opportunities but also became liable for immediate conscription. The widespread and pent-up frustrations of these would-be students contributed much fuel to the growing societal turbulence and they ultimately added their voices to the student-initiated revolution (Menarshi, 1992).

The Iranian Revolution is most aptly described as a big wave - the term "tsunami" is not an exaggeration - that had a huge impact on virtually every person's life in Iran and on every aspect of life. The agenda of the new Iranian-Islamic regime was to transform almost everything in Iran by dramatically altering our way of life and by even trying to stamp out some well-loved traditions, for example, the "superstitious" celebration of Nowruz (the Iranian New Year), a festivity which dates back more than 2,500 years. In the following paragraphs, I first highlight a few of the more visible and surface effects of the Revolution on Iranian society and then next I discuss the Islamic national leadership's hurricane force of change on the educational system.

Change occurred in almost every social and political milieu. For example, the Israeli embassy was replaced by the Palestinian embassy, which demonstrated the ongoing adversarial relationship between Iran's Islamic regime and the Israeli government. The names of streets, parks, museums and numerous other places were changed to honour Muslim saints and other religious personalities. Even some of the names for newborn babies were outlawed because of their perceived negative American influence (e.g.: Western names like Britney or Tom). Some cities were renamed so that the Shah's legacy would be diminished, for example, the City of Rezaiee (after the name Reza Shah) was changed to Urumiee, and the City of Kermanshah (also after the Shah) changed to Bakhtaran. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning, feeling like the disoriented and bewildered character of Alice in the classic Western tale of Alice in Wonderland, asking myself "What has happened to my homeland?! To my country?!"

Within the world of arts and entertainment, the new Islamic regime banned some activities and certain establishments, for example, all discotheques and bars, deeming them places of vice. They introduced censorship over the genre of music to which the Iranian people were allowed to listen and over the type of movies that were permitted on television or in movie theaters. If painters or sculptors had created any art-work considered unacceptable within the tenets of the Islamic faith, for example naked, or partially undressed men or women, the pieces were destroyed or they simply vanished. Play-writers and movie-makers had to rein in their artistic vision so that their productions adhered to Islamic rules. As an example, all female actors were required to dress at all times with a chador (full-body dress) or a head-scarf covering their hair even though this is not an accurate depiction of Iranian women's actual customs. In real life, the Islamic dress code does not require a woman to wear a chador or a head-scarf if she is at home amongst family members (her husband, brothers, and other male relatives) and in fact, it is rare for an Iranian woman to don one under such circumstances. However, the Islamic regime was obsessed with the potential of film and dramatic productions to offend Islamic sensibilities and lead the people astray, and thus they implemented a hyper-vigilent censorship campaign forbidding all female actors from ever exposing their heads or their hair during a film or dramatic production - regardless of the scene's setting.

Sports also fell under the control of the new regime. Men and women were no longer allowed to exercise or play together, and beaches became segregated by gender. As a child and then as a young man, I spent many a lovely summer holiday at the Caspian Sea with my family but under the new Islamic laws, suddenly I was now forbidden from staying with my mother, my sisters, or with any female relatives or friends at the beach. After the Islamic Revolution, women had their own beach, closed by curtains, like a wall, that would "protect" all the female bathers from unwanted viewers.

Impact on Education

In the realm of education, the Revolution wrought innumerable changes. Surprisingly, women - many of whom had felt emboldened by their Islamic beliefs into temporary rebellious action - had played a substantial role in the overthrow of the Shah; however, ironically, women's status in society in general and within the field of education in particular, fell to a far inferior position after the Revolution (Shahidian, 2002). Gender became an issue of gargantuan proportions, dividing the Iranian system of education even further into two very distinct worlds. Co-educational schools were branded as illegal and thus, all students were sent to gender-segregated schools. In the all-girl schools, male teachers were gradually replaced by female teachers, and female teachers were no longer allowed to teach in the all-boys schools. Some programs, like Engineering or Gynecology, limited their acceptance of new students to only one gender. Some of the justifications used to ban women from studying Engineering were a) that women should not be working between so many men in the workplace, for example in the heavy industrial factories, because such arduous jobs were not designed for the more fragile sex and b) that there was no place for a female engineer on a construction site because her presence could threaten "the sentiment of manhood" - or in other words, the manly ego - of the faithful believers and c) that the attractive presence of alluring females could distract the workers and cause accidents. Similarly, male students were no longer admitted into gynecological medical studies and all current male gynecologists were replaced by female gynecologists, because ostensibly men should not see the body of an undressed woman.

The curriculum changed dramatically in ways that reflected the political clout of the clergy in power. The Muslim religious elites called for a new Islamic education free of Western influence and domination (Pryor & Eslami-Rasekh, 2000). History lessons ceased to glorify Iran's victorious royal past of emperors and kings - prominent religious leaders (ayatollahs, saints, imams, prophets) were lavishly praised instead. In History and Language Art textbooks, there was less emphasis on Iranian nationalism and more focus on the importance of Islamic history and values.

Some university courses (for example, psychology courses on human sexual behaviour or any courses that were interpreted to have an overly Marxist or materialistic point of view) were "cleansed" or rather, eliminated from the curriculum as a result of the Revolution. The discipline of Philosophy was "purified" so that it was taught from only an Islamic perspective. University faculty all around the country were under close watch and often spied upon within the universities by members of the Islamic organizations (Anjomanhaye Eslami). Tragically, droves of secular and non-believing political dissidents, intellectuals, and even ordinary citizens were persecuted, tortured and killed (Shephard, 2005). Countless persons were sent to the notorious Evin prison in northern Tehran. Numerous professors were fired immediately after the Islamic revolution, and their books and publications banned. There had been tremendous oppression under the Shah, especially concerning hideous cases of human rights abuse perpetuated by the Shah's brutal secret police force SAVAK (Sazman-I Ittili'at va Amniyat-I Kishvar; in English, National Security and Information Organization); however, under the new Islamic regime, the situation vis-à-vis human rights and free speech worsened dramatically (Sciolino, 2000). The almost daily public executions (as a tool of intimidation, the names and photos of executed so-called "criminals" often published in the newspapers no less!) and the utter lack of ideological, academic, religious, and political freedom created an intolerable social climate that culminated in a grand exodus of talented Iranians to other countries, sometimes referred to in everyday speech as "the big brain drain." Many Iranian scholars, artists, athletes, writers, scientists, and activists who were truly "Iranian national treasure" suffered continuous harassment under the new Islamic regime and thus were obliged to escape or migrate out of Iran - such a tremendous loss for a beautiful nation with so much human capital and potential.

In a movement to Islamize the universities - and many say to simultaneously humble the universities - the new regime started to conduct the Friday public prayers inside of universities rather than at the mosques where they had always previously been held. Also during this time, in an effort to give more power and credence to the once-deserted mosques, the Islamic regime began rationing some necessary daily items, such as soap, and made them available to the public only at mosques. A bitter joke demonstrates how the revolutionary transformations changed almost every aspect of daily life in Iran:

A man wanted to buy some soap.  He was told to go buy it at the neighborhood mosque. 

The man replied, “But the mosque is for praying. So then where are the prayers held?” 

He was told, “Prayers are held in the university now.”

The man answered, “But universities are for studying. So then where are the teachers and students?”

He was told, “The teachers and students are in prison now.”

The man answered, “But prisons are for ruthless criminals. So then where are the criminals?”

          He was told “The criminals are in power now.”


By D. Armani (Peel Board of Education) with L. Gormley (OISE/University of Toronto)

Works Cited:

Almasi, Ali Mohammed (1992). Tarihe umzesho va parvareshe Eslam va Iran (History of Education in Islam and in Iran) Tehran, Iran: Amir Kabir Publishing.

Berkeley, Bill (April 6, 2004). SIPA's Berkeley Speaks On "The Iran Hostage Crisis: Roots of Reform?" Columbia News - Audio News: Iran Hostage Crisis 'Indirectly Precipitated' Other Major World Events, Says Bill Berkeley. Downloaded January 30, 2005 from 

Farber, David (2005). Taken Hostage - The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Menarshi, David, 1992. Education and the Making of Modern Iran. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Parsa, Misagh, 1989. Social origins of the Iranian Revolution. New Brunswick, USA: Rutgers Press.

Pryor, Caroline R., and Eslami-Rasekh, Zohreh. "Iranian and U.S. Pre-Service Teachers' Philosophical Approaches to Teaching: Enhancing Intercultural Understandings," Current Issues in Comparative Education (online), December 15, 2004, 7 (1). Downloaded January 26, 2005 from: 

Rinehart, James F. (1997). Revolution and the Millennium - China, Mexico, and Iran. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Sciolino, Elaine (2000). Persian mirrors - The elusive face of Iran. New York: Touchstone Bookes.

Shahidian, Hammed (2002). Women in Iran - Gender politics in the Islamic Republic. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Shephard, Michelle with Nemat, Marina (2005, January 30). The woman without a past. The Toronto Star, pp. A1, A4, A5.

van Manen, Max (1997). Researching lived experience - Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Cobourg, Canada: The Althouse Press.

For related articles or websites, see:

A Popular Appeal In Support Of A Referendum for a New Constitution. Downloaded January 29, 2005 from: 

University of Toronto, Department of Historical Studies, Centre for Studies of the United States, Toronto Initiative for Iranian Studies, Munk Centre for International Studies, Conference held Nov 18-19, 2004: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Restrospectives on the Hostage Crisis in Iran, 1979-1981. Downloaded January 26, 2005 from: 

Mohyeddin, Samira, November 22, 2004, "444 days, 25 years later - Munk Centre conference looks back at Iran hostage crisis; hostages tell their stories to packed audience" The University of Toronto Varsity Online. Downloaded January 26, 2005 from: 

Film: Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option, PRODUCER: Nova Herman EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Ron Goetz, DIRECTOR: Chris Triffo, 2004. Downloaded January 26, 2005 from: 

The Jimmy Carter Library, "The Hostage Crisis in Iran", Downloaded January 30, 2005 from 

Citation: Armani, D. with Gormley, L. (2005). 1979: Iranian Islamic Revolution ends co-education and secularism, produces "big brain drain". In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available: 

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