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Women's Movements in Iran, 1850 21st Century
A Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009

Nineteenth Century Iran

Any analysis of the women's movement in Iran is a very complicated task and requires time and space. This very brief article is meant to provide much needed basic information for the general public and to provide a coherent picture of what has been happening in Iran over the last two centuries. The second half of the nineteenth century is the beginning of fundamental structural and ideological transformations in Iran and the start of the women's movement that is still continuing.

The first major figure Fatima, the eldest daughter of a prominent religious leader, was born in Ghazvin in 1814. Fatima and her sister Marzieh received religious training and became masters in Persian literature, Arabic and Islamic studies. At the age of 14, she married her cousin, the son of Mulla Mohammed Taghi Borghani, one of the most famous Usuli religious leaders. Orthodox and dogmatic, the Usulis dominated the theological schools and strongly opposed all other schools of thought including Ahkbari and the latter Sheykhi, who demanded reforms and challenged the authority of high ranking clergy known as mujtahids. A close relative that was a Sheykhi supporter influenced the two sisters. In 1828, the young couple moved to Iraq to further their religious studies at Najaf and Karbala where many Sheykhi ulama (scholars} resided in exile. The long stay in Iraq introduced Fatima to others including Seyyed Kazem Rashti and his Successor Seyyed Mohammad Bab, whom she never met. She also became exposed to European politics which was gaining influence in Middle East at the time.

Fatima joined Rashti who gave her the title of Qurrat al-Ain (solace of the eye) and eventually ended in the top leadership of the later Babi movement. Her actions alienated her family; she left her husband started lecturing and openly supported the Babi movement. Amongst many changes demanded by the Babis, emancipation of women became an issue. Though her actions were predominantly religious, her presence often without a veil in public debates created a stir even amongst the Babis and she often was forced to leave and move to another city. Her very strong presence in the movement initiated the formation of the first well-organized women's league in Iran.

The first meetings were held at the house of the widowed Mrs. Rashti and quickly spread throughout the country. Fatima, Marzieh, Khorshid Beygum Khanum, with the mother and sister of Mulla Husayn Boushroyeh, the mother of Hadi Nahri, Rustameh, the first militant female leader in the movement and Mrs. Rashti traveled all over, organized meetings, and helped and rescued Babis. Many female members of the Royal court also supported Fatima who was known as “Tahireh” or “pure” by this time. In 1848, after the massive persecution of the Babis, the remaining leaders gathered at Behdasht. In the meeting Tahireh tore off her veil and demanded the emancipation of women. Her radical actions split the Babi leadership. When the persecutions started, Tahireh with other Babi leaders was arrested and sent into exile. She escaped a few days after a failed attack on the king’s life, Nasir al-Din Shah; she was captured in Tehran and along with other Babi leaders was executed in 1852. The Babi did not survive and after another split, a new faction, the Baha’i emerged and rapidly expanded and still exists in many countries.

The Babi and their successor Baha’i women's movements were genuine, dynamic, progressive and emancipated the female supporters of these faiths. However, they remained sectarian and women’s liberation was secondary to the principal doctrines of the faith. This limited their appeal to the general public, but the incidents were observed by all. The mass execution of Babi women and children shocked the nation, particularly the upper class and better educated women; their lessons were learned, moves copied and actions followed.

In the later half of the 19th century other prominent women emerged. Taj Saltaneh, Nasir al-Din Shah's daughter, in her famous memoirs criticized the stagnation of the political and social institutions in Iran without rejecting the monarchy. She mentions the pitiful state of women in Iran, criticizes the notion of veiling and how it has stopped women from advancing and with other members of the royal court joined secret societies. Bibi Khanoum Astarabadi in her pamphlet The Shortcomings of Men strongly criticized the derogatory popular book Educating Women and concluded that the writer's understanding of keeping women in their place implied the total subjugation of women. Bibi and her mother belonged to generations of females who served the Royal women. They were educated in literature, calligraphy, music, and religion.

Many were talented poets who had written their own written works of which only a few have survived.


Early Twentieth Century

In the late 1800s, women had a very strong presence in the constitutional struggle and the subsequent revolution. The Reuter concession of 1872 and the Tobacco protest brought masses of women into the streets. Kamran Mirza, the vice regent, was attacked by hordes of women. Militant women led by Zeynab Pasha alongside armed men attacked government warehouses in Tabriz. At the same time, the wife of Haydar Khan Tabrizi and other women armed with sticks protected pro-constitution speakers in Tabriz.

Mrs. Jahangeer, the aunt of the martyred journalist Mirza Jahangeer Shirazi (from Sur-i Israfil magazine), blocked Muzafir al-Din Shah's carriage and instructed him to endorse the constitution. Progressive newspapers like “Sur-i Israfil”, “Habl al Matin”, “Qanun”, “Soraya” and “Nida-yi Vatan” published articles by men and women writers demanding constitutional and gender rights. Women from all faiths gathered and joined the strikers seeking sanctuary at the British Embassy in 1906. Setareh, the daughter of the Armenian revolutionary activist Yephrem Khan, her mother and many others (Jewish, Bahai, Zoroastrian etc.) participated.  After the constitution was ratified in August 1906, women became involved in both boycotting the import of foreign goods and raising funds for the establishment of the first National Bank. Native fabrics were worn and women sold their jewelry and dowries to finance the bank. After the success of the constitutional movement, members of the Secret Union of women published pamphlets and articles demanding men should give up their seats in Majlis (parliament) and let women run the country. With the victory of revolution, they expected equal opportunities and gender rights. None were granted in the Constitution. The electoral law of September 1906 had expressly barred women from the political process and the appeal to the newly formed Majlis for institutional support received a hostile response. They were told that "the women's education and training should be restricted to raising children, home economics and preserving the honour of the family". Family laws remained within the domain of Shari’a with no change and the subject of emancipation of women was regarded as an embarrassment.

Women decided to organize themselves; education became the priority. In March 1838, American Presbyterian missionaries had opened the first girls' school in Urumiyah, Azerbaijan. Religious minorities—mainly Armenians—attended the school. Similar schools had opened in Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad, Rasht, Hamadan and other cities. However, Muslim girls were barred from attending the missionary schools by the religious authorities and public pressure. In the 1870s, the first Muslim girls joined the American school in Tehran.

The failure of Majlis to meet their demands forced women to take action. Semi-secret societies were formed. On January 20, 1907, a women's meeting was held in Tehran where ten resolutions were adopted, including one that called for establishing girls' schools and another that sought the abolition of dowries so that the money could be spent on educating the girls instead. In 1907, Bibi Vazirof opened Madresseh Doushizegan. She was forced to close the school, but it was re-opened. At the same time Toba Azmodeh opened Namus School in her own house. Despite threats and abuse by the mob and religious authorities the efforts continued. The opening of Effatiyah School by Mrs. Safieh Yazdi, the wife of the pro constitution mujtahid, Mohammed Yazdi in 1910 encouraged others and more schools were opened.

In 1911 Mahrukh Gawharshinas defied her husband and started Taraghi girl’s school in Tehran In the same year Mah Sultan Amir Sehei opened Tarbiyat. By 1913, there were nine women's societies and sixty-three girls' schools in Tehran with close to 2,500 students.

The schools produced the first generation of well-educated and prominent women. Touran Azmoudeh, Fakhre Ozma Arghon (Simin Behbahani's mother), Bibi Khalvati, Guilan Khanoum, Farkhondeh Khanoum and Mehrangize Samiei are amongst the best-known graduates of these early schools. Male supporters joined the movement. Javad Sartip, Mirza Hussein Rushdiyeh, Nasr Douleh and Adib Douleh are amongst the best-known supporters whose moral and financial support made the movement possible.

Women's associations flourished: “the Society for the Freedom of Women” and “the Secret Union of Women” were formed in 1907. “The Association of the Ladies of the Homeland” was followed by “the Society for the welfare of Iranian Women”, “Women of Iran”, “Union of Women”, “Women’s’ Efforts”, and “the Council of Women of the Center”. They all played an active part in politics: organized plays, and raised funds for schools, hospitals and orphanages. In 1915 “the Society of Christian Women Graduates” of Iran was formed, followed by Zoroastrian and Jewish Women's Associations. They started organizing, helping and educating women and children in their own communities. The communist members of “the Messengers for Women's Prosperity” celebrated the International Women's Day for the first time in Rasht in 1915. Society for the Freedom of women, the most prolific of all the societies, attracted prominent activists like Sadigeh Dawlatabadi, Muhtaram Eskandari, Huma Mahmudi and Shams al-Muluk Javahir Kalam. People from all faiths and men were present at the meetings. The gatherings were kept secret to avoid any attack by the mob. Other ladies like Mirza Baji, Samei, Monireh Khanoum, Gouleen Moafegh, Eftekhar Saltaneh, Taj saltaneh, Hakeem, Ayoub, Mrs. Jordan (the wife of the American missionary, Mr. Jordan) and Afandieh Khanoum were amongst the first members of the society.

A member of several associations and a publisher, Sadigeh Dawlatabadi opened the first girls' school in Isfahan in 1918, but was forced to close it after three months. On her return from France in 1927, she was among the first women to appear in public unveiled. Eskandari, a Qajar princess, later founded “Society of Patriotic Women”, organized classes for illiterate adult women and published a journal. During a public demonstration, the group burnt a misogynist pamphlet entitled “Wiles of Women” at the Sepah Square in Tehran. Huma and Shams al-Muluk were leading feminist writers and speakers. Huma was one of the organizers of a major demonstration by women outside Majlis demanding equal rights. Also a publisher and a poet, she wrote constantly on women's issues. Shams al-Muluk, a teacher was the first Iranian woman to teach unveiled in co-educational classes in Tiflis. Others like Durrat al Muali were praised by figures like poet Iraj Mirza for their courage.

Other prominent males like Dihkhuda, Vakil al-Ruaya, Lahuti, Ishqi, Aref and later figures like Kasravi, Taghizadeh, Saeed Nafissi, Ebrahim Khajehnouri and Reza-zadeh Shafaegh also lent their support with others like Parvin Etesami. Conservative members of ulama opposed the schools. Sheykh Fazlullah Nuri and Seyyed Ali Shushtari often accused the activists of heresy and of having Babi sentiments. Soon there were girls' schools in all the major cities, though they were constantly threatened, burned down and closed, they remained.

In 1910, Mrs. Kahal published the magazine Danish. This was the first journal published by a woman in Iran. Navabeh Safavi and Mrs. Ameed Mozayan-al Saltaneh published Jahan-i Zanan and Shokufah in 1912 and 1913. Sadigeh Dawlatabadi followed by Zaban-i Zanan and Zanan-i Iran in Isfahan and Tehran (1918 and 1919). Nameh Banouvan and Jahan-i Zanan were printed in 1920. Mrs. Fakher Afagh-i Parsa, the mother of Farokh Roo Parsa the first women minister in Iran, executed after the revolution, published the latter. This magazine was published in Mashhad and was violently opposed by religious groups. Mrs. Parsa was forced into exile and had to flee for her life. Many publications followed; by the 1930s fourteen women's magazines were discussing rights, education and veiling. Letters were sent to Majlis; equal rights and emancipation were demanded. They were refused and the ulama's hostility grew. In 1911 Ghassem Amin's book Freedom of Women was translated from Arabic into Persian. The renowned Egyptian activist supported emancipation. Conservative religious authorities responded harshly. Mirza Mohammad Sadegh Fhakhr-al Islam published his own resaleh condemning the book, emancipation and alcohol consumption.

Women The renowned grand sheikh, Fazlullah Nuri complained that "by encouraging women to dress like men Majlis has become a place for amer-i be monker and nahyeh az maroof" (promoting the forbidden and forbidding the good). Fazlullah Haeri Mazandarani published Hejab ya Pardeh Doushizegan in 1921 condemning the reforms. Zia al Din Majd and Aboul Hassan Tonekaboni urged Muslims to fight since veiling is a fundamental institution in Islam. By 1927, a collection of all articles opposing emancipation was published together in a book called Answer to Supporters of Emancipation. The Muslim Poet Eghbal Lahourri encouraged Muslim women everywhere to stick by their religion.

Pahlavi Era

Reza Shah Pahlavi became monarch in 1925 and ended the Qajar dynasty. In 1926 Sadigeh Dawlatabadi attended The International Women's Conference in Paris. On her return she went out in public in European attire. In 1928 Majlis ratified the new dress code. All males except ulama were required to dress like Europeans at all government institutions. In 1930 ladies hats were exempted from taxes. Emancipation was discussed constantly and encouraged by the authorities. Mirza Aboulghasem-i Azad established the first emancipation society in 1930 and was supported by Yahya Dawlatabadi. Around the same time, the first conference on Muslim women took place in Damascus, Syria. Sadigeh Dawlatabadi, Mastoreh Afshar and Mrs. Tabatabai represented Iran.

In 1931, for the first time Majlis approved a new civil code that gave women the right to ask for divorce under certain conditions and the marriage age was elevated to 15 for girls and to 18 for boys. The civil code was secular but family laws remained within the domain of Shari’a. The Congress of Oriental Women opened in Tehran in 1932 and paid respect to the deceased socialist Muhtaram Eskandari. In 1933, recommended reforms at the Damascus and Tehran conferences were presented to Majlis. Women demanded emancipation and electoral rights, but these were refused again. Reza Shah intervened: in 1934 Ali Asghar-i Hikmat, the Minister of Education, received orders to establish Kanoun-i Banouvan (the Ladies’ Center) and implement reforms. Hajer Tarbyat was the first chairwomen and Shams Pahlavi was the Royal appointee. Though controlled by the state, women's activities were legitimized for the first time. The Ladies’ Center was not well received by the socialists and independents. They opposed the royal monopoly and interference. In 1936, Reza Shah, his wife and daughters attended the graduation ceremony at the Women's Teacher Training College in Tehran. All women were advised to come unveiled. The emancipation of women had officially begun. Unveiling was made compulsory and women were barred from wearing chador (outer attire covering from head to toe) and scarf in public. A national education system was formed to educate boys and girls equally. In 1936 the first females entered Tehran University: Shams al Moluk Mosaheb, Mehrangiz Manuchehrian, Zahra Eskandar, Batul Samei, Tosey Haeri, Shayesteh Sadegh, Taj Muluk Nakhaei, Forough and Zahra Kia, Badr al Muluk Bamdad, Shahzadeh Kavousi and Saraj al Nesa (from India) were admitted. Amineh Pakravan was the first female lecturer and Dr. Fatimah Sayah the first woman to become a full professor.


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