The industrial revolution of the 19th century and the emergence of machinery to the work force sparked the women’s movement in Europe. Therefore the excuse of the physical difference between men and women was no longer valid due to the replacement of the laborer’s (male) strong arms with machines. Women entered the work force. This was a turning point for women’s social, political and cultural roles. The controlling power of the societies was very much interested in this new working group. Women did not have pre-defined expectations on workers rights and easily played into the hands of the controlling power. The male dominated power of the time was benefiting from the cheap labor provided by women. This change conflicted with the traditional role of women at home and in the family.
The financial independence resulted by this social development led women to gain more confidence in society and created a condition for breaking the barriers towards freedom. The bourgeois ideologues feared the consequences of the women’s freedom but could not ignore the economic benefit of this change. Therefore, they introduced the philosophy of " equal but different" so they could continue the suppression of women in the name of religion and ethics.
These social changes abroad had a great influence on history and the women’s movement in Iran. The effective parameters included the French revolution, the reflections of the Industrial Revolution throughout Europe, Constitutional Revolution in Japan, the fall of England’s imperial system, and Russia’s revolution in 1905. The news of these social revisions arrived via newspapers, magazines, missionaries, travelers, businessmen and the representatives of the European countries to Iran. Naturally, the women’s role in these movements had a great influence on women from all walks of life in Iran. One of the French diplomats who was based in Iran during the Constitutional Movement described the influence on Iranian women for that period as follows: "There was not a woman who did not dream about the Constitutional Movement."
As we go through the pages of Iran’s political history and the male-oriented vision of history we can see through small windows where women in Iran have shined through with their courageous acts.
During the last years of the Qajar Dynasty, new schools of thought were formulated as a result of the new socio-economic changes. One of the characteristics of this new movement was the focus on equal rights for men and women. One could even see the influence on the religious figures of the time. For instance, polygamy was permitted religiously but it was considered as a very bad practice. The Babi (later known as Baha’i) movement, which grew tremendously during the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, was very persistent on the equality of men and women.
During the Qajar period, the heroism of Babi women is apparent in Iran’s history. Two notable examples of heroines are Zarin-Taj and Rostameh, both of whom were prominent leaders during this period. Zarin -Taj also known as Ghor-Rat Ol-Eain, the outspoken leader of the Bahai movement and Rostameh, who was notorious for her shooting and fencing abilities, was the leader of the Zanjan’s (1) movement.
As the role of the Iranian women became more noticeable in the struggle against social injustice, the pain of the historical suppression became more transparent to them. Before the Nasser Shah’s days, illiteracy was the main obstacle in the intellectual growth of women. As soon as the women’s school opened during the Nasser Shah’s time, with the help of Americans in Iran, the wave of slanderous remarks started by the reactionaries in opposition to these initiatives. The so-called religious figures called the people who established the schools " Bahai" and declared their murder allowable. The reactionaries wanted to block women’s education and progress in the cloak of religion.
One of the progressive women was Bebee Khanoom, wife of Mossa Khan Mir-Panj, who established the school for women in 1907. The mullah, Fazlolah Noorie, was so moved by her act that he issued a decree announcing "the establishment of a girl’s school is against the Islamic laws". The reactionary mullahs wanted to justify their fanatic response by declaring the establishment of the schools as a campaign by the foreigners to promote immorality.
In spite of the endless effort of the mullahs against the establishment of the schools, women used the appeasing attitude of the government towards the west to successfully established the girl’s school throughout the country. They also pressured the parliament to provide more legal privileges in educational initiatives taken by women. The following schools were established by women: Namoos school by Ms. Tobie Azmodeh; Taraghi Banat by Ms. Mahrookh Gohar-Shenaas; Tarneyat Nessvan school by Ms. Amir-Sehi Mah-Soltan; Doratol Ma’aali school by Ms. Doratol Ma’aali.
With the progress in women’s education, the distribution of newspapers that were published abroad increased in Iran. Among them were Akhtar, published in Istanbul;, Ghanoon, published in London;, Habl-el-Matin, published in Calcutta;, Soraya and Parvaresh, published in Egypt. Many articles by the Iranian female elite and intellects found their way to these newspapers. Ghanoon newspapers wrote: "The awakening of Iran’s fate is because of the fact that our women recognize the humanity faster and better than most men." In an article which was published in 1946, Nedayeh Vatan wrote, "Women are human and they have not been deprived in creation. They do not lack anything and there is no difference between men and women as human beings." One might not realize the enormous impact this statement had with regard to modern history. At that time, this revolutionary way of thinking also required the help of male intellects and writers like Iraj Mirza, Soor Esraphil, MirZadeh Eshghie, Ali Akbar Deh-Khoda, and Aref Ghazvinie to find its way to the society.
As for the revolutionary role of Iranian women, one should look at the popular protests and the effectiveness of women’s activities against the Rejie Agreement. In 1890, a tobacco agreement was drawn between Iran and Great Britain, in which sole trade privileges of tobacco was granted to a British company. This agreement had a direct impact on many Iranians due to the popular usage of tobacco. As a result, it invoked protests in which women had a fundamental and effective role . Zainab-Pasha , born in Tabriz, was one of the heroes of those days and managed through her endless efforts to annul the agreement. She was also known as Zainab Bajie or Deh-Bashi Zainab. She always invited men to join in the fight against the oppressors. Once, during a conversation with a group of men she said, " If you men do not have the courage to punish the oppressors.....wear our veil and go home. Do not claim to be men, we will fight instead of you." She then took off her veil and threw it at them. This act, regardless of its religious meaning, was very telling and moving for those days. Another characteristic of Zainab-Pasha was her talent in organizing other women in social protests. She encouraged them to take a stand on issues. For instance, she would walk in to a local tea house and openly start a conversation with a group of men in order to set a symbolic act in breaking away from traditional expectations from women.
Zainab also took up arms in her long struggle for justice. Many women joined her during the armed struggle against the hoarders and helped distribute food among the poor. Iran’s history has many glorious pages on the heroic struggles of Zainab and her friends. Many years later, it is believed that this brave woman met her demise on a trip to Karballa, Iraq. To this day the circumstances surrounding her disappearance are not known.
Shortly thereafter ,the wave of the Constitutional Movement had taken over Iran’s cities, one after another. During those days, women played a significant role in protecting the revolutionary clerics in the mosques. One of the women, who was famous for her strength, was the wife of Haj Saiyad Haydar Khan Tabrizi. She was chosen on behalf of women in Tehran (2) to protect the clerics who gave speeches in the mosques. The popular type of protests of those days were strikes in the mosques. It was the presence of women at these strikes that prevented the government’s soldiers from firing on the crowds. After lengthy conflicts and tensions between people and the government, Mozafar-e-Din Shah gave in and authorized the constitution. The law, which consisted of 51 articles, was quickly drafted by the members of the parliament. Although the parliamentarians were aware of the problems and shortcomings of the draft, they preferred that it was immediately signed by the Shah, due to his serious illness. The Shah died 10 days after he signed the constitution.
The members of the parliament formed a committee to revise the constitution. However, the reactionary mullahs took advantage of the situation and used their influence to weaken the democratic parameters of the constitution. A chaotic political atmosphere ensued.. Women, who paid a heavy price during the Constitutional Movement, once again entered the scene and encouraged the government to finalize the constitution as soon as possible. In a letter from the Etehad Ghaibie Nessvan (Secret Alliance of Women), published in The Nedayee Vatan newspaper was written,, "We ask our parliament representatives to quickly complete the constitution and approve it so the country can settle down; if, however, they are not capable of handling this task, we ask them to resign and let women run the country." This organizations is noted for its underground socio-political activities.
It was during these days that the secret women’s organizations were forming in different cities. These organizations began to form networks throughout the country. This activity was discussed in a meeting between, Sar-el-Soltan, son of Ghavam in Shiraz, and a British diplomat that "The Tabrizie women have written to Shirazie women and encouraged them to rise against the rich."
Once the conflict between parliament and monarch, Mohammad Ali Shah, reached an extreme point, different communities in various cities denounced the Shah. This angered Mohammad Ali Shah and he retaliated by sending troops to many parts of Iran. He bombarded the parliament and sent a large troop with Eain-ol-Doleh as the chief commander to siege the resisting city of Tabriz (3). A group of women in Tabriz, known as the Women’s Committee, sent a telegram to their branch based in Istanbul and asked them to convey their message to the rest of the world. The Women’s Committee in Istanbul sent a letter to the Queen of Germany. They also, through Sir Gerald Walter, sent a similar telegram to the Queen of England. Edward Gerry, in response to the Women’s Committee, wrote that the English Queen had received their telegram and the government of Britain was working with the Russians to restore order in their country. The deceptive policy of Britain, who feared the influence of the United States (the new super power), was to unite with Russia against the Untied States and strengthen their influence in Iran. The "restoring order" meant that Satar Khan, the leader of the resistance in Tabriz, should give up his armed struggle and surrender.
During the 11 month siege, the Tabrizi women helped the freedom fighters in every possible way. The courageous women , during the Satar Khan days, fought in male uniforms alongside their male combatants without revealing their identities. Telly was one of the female freedom fighters. She was wounded in battle and taken to the medical facility for treatment. She did not allow the nurses to remove her uniform. Satar Khan heard of this news and went to her bedside. Satar Khan told the combatant "My son, I need you at the war front." Telly whispered in Satar Khan’s ears that she was a women, and to please not remove her uniform because her secret would be revealed. She asked to be allowed to die with a sound conscious. Satar Kahan, with tears in his eyes, said: "I am still alive, why did you go to the war?" According to the elders in Tabriz , there were many women like Telly among Satar Khan’s fighters.
In those days not only young women took part in movements in Tabriz and the Northern part of Iran, but also mothers such as Ezat-ol-Hajeyeh who created heroic history in Iran. She was the mother of Colonel Mohammad Taghi Khan Pesseyan. Ezat-ol-Hajeyeh lost two of her sons in the cause of freedom and did not shed a tear. Once she was notified of the Colonel’s death, she organized a gathering in her house where she wore a white dress as a symbolic gesture and encouraged others to be strong. She did not allow anyone to mourn her son’s death.
Another brave women was the wife of Gheyas Nezam. Nezam was one of the authoritative figures of Mohammad Ali Shah who was executed by the freedom fighters. The news of his death was delivered to his wife by the Ambassador of Russia. The ambassador offered her to hang a Russian flag on her door so the freedom fighters would not harm her. This courageous woman’s response to the offer was "I am an Iranian and I do not need the support of your government. Even if the freedom fighters of my country kill me and my children, I will never live under a foreign flag." This women, born in Qazvin (2), met with Satar Khan on his trip from Tabriz to Tehran. She expressed her gratitude for the work that Satar Khan did for Iranians. Satar Khan also admired her courage and said: "A lion is a lion regardless of its gender, you are a brave lioness and other lions should admire your courage."
After liberating Tehran, the second parliament began its session and women’s organizations, especially in Tehran, expanded. The main goal of women’s activities was to retaliate against gender discrimination. They established different clubs and took the responsibility of delivering speeches in club gatherings. They also encouraged each other to gain social identities. Women were very active against the political maneuvers and ultimatums placed by the super powers. Zainab Amin was one of the young female poets who called on people to stand up to the foreign oppressors. On the social level, women who were the majority of the consumer population in the society, boycotted Russian and British goods. Anjooman Mokhadarat Vatan (The Community of Iran’s Women), was one of the most active organizations during this time. They organized many demonstrations in Tehran. The result of all these activities by women was the blockade of foreign influence in Iran’s internal affairs.
The October Revolution in Russia gave new hope and a lesson to the Iranian women. They were hoping that this revolution would shape the social equality between men and women, which could be used as a model for other countries. Shargh’e Ghadini, a newspaper published in Azarbaijan of the former Soviet Union, had a very instrumental role in women’s social awareness. This newspaper analyzed the women’s movement in Iran in one of its issues. The paper wrote: "Iranian women are among the proletarian labors...Women laborers are present in small fabric factories and farms of the villages....Currently a women who was elected by female labors is a member of the Communist Party of Tehran..."
In another article this newspaper wrote: "The progress and social evolution in Iran is directly linked to the women’s freedom." According to the same newspaper "The first International Women’s Day, March 8th, was celebrated in 1921 by the communist Iranian women’s group in Anzalie. 45 to 50 women participated in this celebration."
Since the Constitutional Movement was not responsive to women’s rights, Iranian women continued their struggle. Throughout their resistance, the social and political activities of different women’s organizations helped Iranian women to gain some social and political rights.
During the Qajar dynasty, Iranian women had very significant roles in achieving the nationalistic goals. In spite of this, the issue of rights and equality of women never became a part of the overall objectives of these movements.
Researched and compiled by: Ramesh Sepehrrad
* Ramesh Sepehrrad is currently the President of National Committee of Women for Democratic Iran.
1. Zanjan, a city in north west of Iran.
2. Tehran, capital city of Iran
3. Tabriz,, a city in north west part of Iran
4. Qazvin, a city in north west of Iran