Afterwords | Speaking Persian, Acting Parisian
The roots of French cultural, linguistic, and philosophical influences on Iran are not a 20th-century phenomenon but go back to the Safavid period (1502–1736).
Various diplomatic and military alliances forged between imperial France and imperial Iran from the 16th to 19th centuries made Iran receptive to European, mainly French, culture, European style education system, and even resulted in a large number of French loan words in Persian language.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Iranian rulers realized the need for modern military technology and diplomatic alliances with neighboring Europe to remain powerful and forged several alliances. But later, in the 18th century onwards, from the time of Fath Ali Shah Qajar, they believed that the West should be their role model in almost all aspects of life, even in clothing and social manners.
This belief rendered the country susceptible to European influences and these influences created the environment for exchanges in art and science and the introduction of new technology. Thus, European, mainly French culture, introduced to Iran during the Safavid era (1502–1736), became dominant in the Qajar era (1789 to 1925) through the introduction of French schools, engineering college, and the French language in Iranian schools in the mid-1800s.
All the Iranian shahs and aristocrats, from 1789 to 1925, believed in moving Iran away from its Eastern moors towards European civilization. They sent their sons and other talented students to Europe to study. Opened European-style schools in Iran, hired European teachers, imported new inventions, translated books, and even began wearing European-style clothing, which became the norm from the early 1800s. The Iranian army, Artesh, was reorganized on the French military model.
Naser-al-Din Shah (reign: 1848 to 96) had someone read French newspapers to him even when traveling. In the Safar Nameh Dovoum Khurasan (The Second Travel to Khurasan), it's written that every morning one of the princes read a French newspaper for the monarch. He also ordered every history and geography books in French to be translated into Persian and made available to the people.
In the old days, girls from upper and middle-class families were tutored at home by male or female teachers. Qajar Iranian princesses studied in the same class as their brothers. Despite some conservative ayatollahs' disagreement, in 1865, Safiyeh Yazdi, the wife of Shiekh Mohammad Yazdi, a well-known ayatollah, opened the first school for women named Aftiyeh in Tehran and invited men and women educators to teach there.
She lectured in the school about women’s rights and trained sixty-six young women, some of whom became teachers and principals of future schools. Eventually, along with other women, founded the Women’s Freedom Organization in 1868. All this European influence and education system had political implications as well.
During the reign of Mozafar-al-Din Shah (1896 to 1907) Iran witnessed a popular uprising that dominated Tehran and other major cities. When protesters asked for the opening of a Ministry of Justice, aware of the social changes, he immediately consented and signed the agreement written by the people's representatives over the objections of his ministers. The next outcome was the Constitutional Movement (1906–07) and the opening of the First Congress in the same year.
The cultural relationship between Iran and Europe in the 19th and early 20th century was driven by two different groups. One believed that Iran must follow Europe entirely, even in clothing, to become modern while disregarding its traditional culture and religious beliefs.
Another group was made up of enlightened individuals, including activists, artists, poets, writers, clerics, politicians, merchants, and people from other groups who considered close association with Europe to be beneficial with Western technology, culture, and social changes and adopted what they believed was positive for the society without harming its cultural roots.
Ali Shariati, the ideological father of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, belonged to the second group; Shariati attended the University of Paris and left after earning a Ph.D. in sociology in 1964. He became deeply influenced by Frantz Fanon and translated an anthology of his work into Persian. Shariati introduced Fanon's thought into Iranian revolutionary émigrée circles.
The cultural and political influence of France on Iran is visible in every sphere of Iranian society.
(A group of Iranian women entering a wedding gown shop in downtown Tehran)