Photo of a large crowd gathered in demonstration

October 1978: An anti-shah demonstration in Tehran, under a banner of the Ayatollah Khomeini

AP Images


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Power, Authority, and Governance • Civic Ideals and Practices


Micah Greenblatt won our 2023 Eyewitness to History contest. Read his winning piece after the introduction below.

Revolution in Iran

An uprising in the Middle East in 1978-79 changed the course of a nation—and the lives of its people. First, learn about Iran’s revolution and its effects. Then read an eyewitness account.

As You Read, Think About: How do the introduction and the interview help tell the story of the Iranian Revolution?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

In the streets of Iran today, you may spot something that has been taboo for more than four decades: braids, ponytails, and buns. The visible hairstyles are defiant acts—part of a months-long uprising against a law in this Middle Eastern country requiring women and girls over the age of 9 to cover their hair in public.

The hair mandate and other religion-based laws are rooted in Iran’s revolution of 1978-79, when protests against the government led to a radical change in leadership. For nearly 40 years before then, Iran was ruled by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah (king). In the 1960s and ’70s, he had pushed through many social and economic reforms. He modernized Iran’s cities, improved education, and opened the country to Western lifestyles. But the shah ruled with a heavy hand, crushing religious, social, and political ideas that clashed with his own.

In 1978, anti-shah demonstrations broke out around the country. Early crowds opposed the shah on religious grounds, but Iranians seeking a more democratic system began to join them.

Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

November 1978: Wreckage on a street in Tehran after an anti-shah protest turned violent

In September 1978, the shah’s troops opened fire on demonstrators in Tehran, the capital. More than 100 people were killed. That led thousands more Iranians to take to the streets.

The shah fled the country in January 1979. Many Iranians rejoiced. Within weeks, a religious leader—the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—seized power. Iran is a majority-Muslim country, but the new laws Khomeini began to issue were based on an extreme interpretation of Islam. The changes upturned daily life for many of the nation’s then 37 million people.

The laws restricted Western influences and activities, including music and other arts. Girls and women had to cover themselves from head to foot. Disobeying these and other laws could mean arrest, imprisonment, or violence.

But then, as now, some Iranians found ways to push back and assert their independence. Read one such story below.

Courtesy Mark Greenblatt

Parisa Salehi and Micah Greenblatt. Micah, 13, is from Bethesda, Maryland.

Micah’s Eyewitness to History Interview

Imagine getting arrested for walking your dog. Imagine watching a mob set fire to your car or risking your dad’s life by playing chess with him.

That is what happened to Parisa Salehi, a young girl living in Iran when revolution struck. Her family suffered persecution during and after the uprising. Her father, their town’s mayor, was jailed.

Courtesy of Parisa Salehi

Parisa Salehi, about age 7

Micah Greenblatt: What is your earliest memory of the revolution?

Parisa Salehi: In 1978-79, I was 6 to 7 years old. One of my earliest memories is being at home as the revolution was happening outside. There were curfews and riots, and we would try to look at who was outside. Then the next thing you know, a big rock would come through the window. The revolutionaries came to the house and burned our car.

I remember my mom ushering us through the basement to escape. They were coming after my dad, but thankfully he wasn’t home. We stayed with my mom’s family. We didn’t know where my dad was. My mom would go out looking for him. She would search hospitals and morgues. After six months, she found him. He had been in a political prison.

MG: I read a book about the Iranian Revolution called Persepolis, in which the lead character tells a terrifying story of political and religious persecution. Did you fear for your safety, like she did?

PS: Yes. One time, when I was 14, we were playing chess. My dad was under house arrest at that point. At times, he would be taken in for questioning. Chess was illegal because it was considered a violation of Islam. I remember trying like mad to hide the chess pieces so when those guys with their guns walked into our living room, there would be no sign of chess. I was trembling and my heart was racing because I knew that if they found the chess set, my father might be arrested or killed. Thankfully, they didn’t see it. That experience was scary because when I looked at my parents’ faces, I could see the fear in their eyes.

MG: What was daily life like?

PS: I’ll give you an example. We had a German shepherd. The new government said dogs are a symbol of the West. Walking a dog meant you would get arrested. So I would take him out wearing my head scarf—but I would make sure I still showed some hair. Inevitably, I would get arrested. The police would take me to the station, call my parents, and make them sign a statement that said “Parisa will never do this again.” Two weeks later, I did it again. I had fear though because every time I stepped outside of my house, it was a world I didn’t know, I didn’t belong to, I was fearful of. It was incredibly stressful, but even as a child, I wanted to make a statement: my personal freedom.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

March 1979: Iranian women march against the head-covering requirement.

MG: What did you learn from your experiences under the revolution?

PS: You feel helpless. You don’t know how to act when they have guns in your face. It’s not like you’re talking to rational people. In a situation like the burning of the car or a crowd of people coming at your house, you feel like if you don’t get out of their way, you’re gonna be stomped on. You’re just running for your life.

It’s funny because of how that works now in my life. When we have a difficult day in my office, everyone is worked up. When I get a chance to pause, I compare the difficulty now with that fear from my childhood. Back then, there was nothing I could do to manage the situation. It felt so out of control. Now if there’s a problem, I’m dealing with rational people, and it won’t stay a problem for long.

I also can relate to people who don’t feel safe, even when their experiences are different from mine. I have empathy and understanding for their feelings and experiences.

Micah’s note: Parisa’s story gave me a better perspective on freedom because everyday things suddenly became illegal. I walk my dog and play chess every day, so her story makes me appreciate my freedom on a personal level.

It also helps me remember that other people are facing much worse problems than mine. If I forgot to study for a test, I may be stressed, but at least I’m not being chased by an angry mob. It also gave me empathy for communities who have experienced persecution. 

SKILL SPOTLIGHT: Analyzing a Primary Source

Which details from Micah’s interview with Parisa Salehi stand out most to you? Why? How does Salehi’s story help you understand the impact Iran’s revolution had on some people’s everyday lives?

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