Iran by Henry Clarke, 1969

Iran before the Revolution was hardly a tolerant liberal democracy, but in many ways it was more relaxed socially. For a brief period in the 1970s, it might have even be at the forefront of a liberated Middle Eastern womanhood, evidenced by its permissive glossy magazines. A woman cabinet minister was first appointed in 1968, and just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, women made up a third of university graduates.

In 1969 Henry Clarke, a fashion photographer, went to Iran to take photos for Vogue. Clarke started out as an accessorist at Condé Nast in New York, but a chance encounter with Cecil Beaton during a photography session at Vogue’s studio made him take up photography. During the 1960s, Clarke was sent by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland to exotic locations such as Syria, Jordan, India, Sicily, and Mexico create exciting fashion layouts, taking advantage of the jet travel, which was becoming more and more accessible.

Susan Train, the then Paris editor of Vogue, remembered travelling with Clarke: “One of his greatest gifts was doing his homework. He knew all about the places we were going and he was able to tell the official guides assigned to us, ‘No, I want this and this,’ and we would race around the country with two models, a hairdresser and a fleet of cars.”

In Iran, Clarke photographed his models — Marissa Burnson, Cynthia Corman and Lauren Houghton — in mosques and palaces in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and the beautiful Persepolis — an activity which could have gotten him into deep trouble just a decade later. The pictures were published in Vogue on December 1969. The story opened with the profile of Empress Farah Pahlavi, the wife of the Shah of Iran, also with a photo by Clarke.

The Revolution rolled back these small accomplishments to gender equality: hijab was introduced, and women were removed from the judiciary (Islam posits that women are unqualified to be judges). Because women’s role was to be at home solely, government–run day care centers were shut down, making it difficult for women to lead professional lives. In a telling brutality, the aforementioned first woman to serve in the cabinet was executed. (Only in 2009 and 2015 that Iran appointed its first female cabinet minister and ambassador since the 1979 revolution respectively). 

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