The insistent cry for women’s freedom has been heard for hundreds of years in Iran. Twenty-five centuries ago in ancient Persia, women were in some ways more liberated than they are in modern Iran. There is often an ebb and flow to popular movements such as women’s liberation: enlightened progress appears inevitable until political, religious, or social forces turn back the tide with equal fervor.
Knowing that women decades ago — even centuries ago — struggled for what women are still fighting for today can only invigorate and inspire the contemporary rights movement. The following are a few exemplary women whose persistent and courageous voices of change continue to reverberate in present day Iran:
Defiant and Determined – Qurrat al-‘Ayn, known as “Tahirah” (1817–1852)
Considered the first suffrage martyr in Iran, Tahirah’s revolutionary spirit is hauntingly captured in her final words prior to her strangulation with a silk scarf: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”
A celebrated Babi theologian, Qurrat al-‘Ayn was one of the first activists to speak out against unjust treatment of women in Iran. Her quest for the truth began at an early age with her study of theology, jurisprudence, and literature. Her father was a cleric, and although the family was conservative she was allowed to listen to his lectures from behind a curtain in their home, asking pertinent questions when they arose. Upon marrying her cousin at the age of 14, she moved to Karbala, Iraq, where she pursued the teachings of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa’i, a philosopher and religious thinker, and his successor, Siyyid Kazim-i Rashti.
Rashti and his students, including Qurrat al-‘Ayn, believed in the coming of a messiah, and in 1844, Sayyid’Ali Muhammad of Shiraz claimed to be the Messiah, or Bab. Qurrat al-‘Ayn was among the first eighteen believers in the Bab, who named her one of his primary disciples. There were divergent factions within the new religious group. Some remained faithful to established Sharia or Islamic law; others, including the Bab, wanted a radical break with Islam and incorporated egalitarian values into their belief system. Qurrat al-‘Ayn clearly belonged to the latter group. She gave lectures espousing her views, which were widely attended by both women and men, but which also drew the attention of critics who deemed her promiscuous. The Bab defended her, giving her the name Tahirah (“pure one”), which became the nickname by which she was known.
At a gathering in 1848 in support of a new Babi religion that supported the equality of women, Tahirah appeared without a veil, shocking many of those who attended. It was not long afterward that the government crushed the Babi movement and executed the Bab. Tahirah was placed under house arrest and put to death in 1852.
Revered by members of the Baha’i faith, the religion that succeeded the Babi movement after her death, Tahirah is remembered as an important spiritual figure, a martyr for the Babi cause and for women’s emancipation.
A Thorn Aimed at Women – Bibi Khanum Astarabadi (1858–1921)
One of the earliest pioneers of the women’s movement in Iran, Bibi Khanum Astarbabdi was one of the first to question the lesser status of Iran’s women as interpreted in the Koran, asking “Is this God’s compassionate decree?”
Sometimes the most powerful statements of protest are uttered with an incisive sense of satire and wit. Bibi Khanum Astarabadi’s book, The Vices of Men, can certainly be counted among such rebellious proclamations. The Vices of Men (Ma’ayeb al Rejal) was a critical response to the anonymously written The Education of Women (Ta’deeb al-Nesvan), rumored to have been penned by one of the princes of the Qajar court, “who must have feared his wife so greatly that he has not had the courage to put his name on it as its author.” Astarabadi’s book was a penetrating yet satirical response to what she called the “nonsensical argument” in The Education of Women which spoke of the “slavish subservience” of women. Its main recommendations included:
1. Woman is a being who, similar to a child, must be educated by a man.
2. Salvation of woman is conditional upon her absolute obedience to her husband.
3. The duty of a woman at home is provision of conditions that are conducive to her husband’s tranquility.
4. The aim of matrimony consists of gratification [of] husband’s sexual desires.
5. Woman must at all times be abashed, except in bed.
6. Woman must not speak during meals.
Would the “anonymous” prince allow women to speak in bed? Bibi Khanum’s answer to his ludicrous mandates were:
“When I perused these pages … I found that the author has put forth an unrealistic criticism, senseless and more biting than the thorn of a thistle aimed at women. I did not like the book; I threw it aside … I wrote a book in answer to this evil-natured man, so that men would know that among women there are still those who are of high standing and whose force of speech may benefit from their eloquence.
He should have first corrected his own vices and then given us advice … He regards himself as ‘Westernized’ and ‘civilized,’ but in fact he is not even ‘half-civilized’.”
In her book, Astarabadi also denounced the respected religious figure Muhammad Baqer Majlisi by pointing out his decision to censor certain portions of the Koran for fear that they might corrupt the female mind:
“The great Shi’ite theologian even makes the teaching of the Koran to girls subject to censorship, leaving out the amorous story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife …”
A highly regarded figure of the early women’s movement, Bibi Khanum Astarabadi founded the School for Girls (Madreseh-ye Doushizegan) in 1907. She ran the school from her home, providing a formal education to young girls with classes in reading, writing, arithmetic, history, law, religion, geography, and cookery. As a staunch advocate of universal education for girls, Astarabadi wrote numerous articles expressing her views, which were just beginning to be accepted by a handful of forward thinking citizens.
A New Dawn – Shahla Sherkat (1956 – present)
“It takes artfulness to address taboo issues … Doing journalism in countries like ours—where … the system thinks if you say anything it’s going to fall apart — it’s like being a trapeze artist.” – Shahla Sherkat, award-winning journalist, founder and editor in chief of the feminist magazine Zanan.
Launched in February 1992 by Shahla Sherkat, Zanan was independent and reformist — and instantly classified as “a sophisticated literary magazine with an overtly feminist agenda.” Throughout Zanan’s years in operation, Shahla Sherkat managed it with a small staff, mostly women, who labored tirelessly under extremely modest conditions in order to expose the oppression of women under the Islamic regime. Fiercely committed to women’s rights, deeply respectful of both religious and secular women, Zanan, from its inception, offered its readers incisive articles and editorials that did not equivocate in confronting the male-controlled clerical establishment.
Zanan also featured the writing of internationally recognized Western feminists, among them, British novelist Virginia Woolf, French feminist and author Simone de Beauvoir, and African-American author Alice Walker.
Shahla Sherkat’s impartial, tolerant outlook, as reflected in her groundbreaking magazine, quite likely derived from her personal history. Born in 1956 to a devout family in the city of Isfahan, Sherkat’s upbringing was unlike that of many conservative households. Her parents, a housewife and a civil servant, remained comfortable in a secular atmosphere despite their own religious convictions, and this laid the groundwork for their daughter’s outlook.
Sherkat was honored in 2004 with the Courage in Journalism Award by the International Women’s Media Foundation for her “dangerous and challenging work,” and again in 2005, with the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism from the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
The following is the book trailer for Nina Ansary’s new book Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran will be released on June 25.