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Iranian Women and the Struggle for Democracy I

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

15 Apr 2010 20:2514 Comments
Pahlavi_Nuclear_Woman_Scientists-1.jpgIranian Women and the Struggle for Democracy: I. The Pre-Revolution Era

Throughout Iran's history, women have played influential roles. Archeological excavations at Shahr-e Sookhteh (Burnt City), a prehistoric settlement located in the present-day province of Sistan-Baluchestan, revealed that in the fourth and third millenniums BC, the city's women held high socioeconomic status. For example, 90 percent of the seals discovered in graves belonged to women. These seals represented the tools of trade and governance and their possession indicated economic and administrative control.

The Persepolis fortification and treasury tablets belonging to the early Achaemenid dynasty reveal that women of the royal court traveled extensively. They often personally administered their own estates. It is also known that the queen and her ladies-in-waiting played polo against the emperor and his courtiers. Ancient Persian women also fought in wars as soldiers. In their book The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars (AD 226‒363): A Documentary History, Michael H. Dodgeon and Samuel N.C. Lieu state that during the Sassanid dynasty many of the Persian soldiers captured by Roman forces were women.

The giant of Persian literature, Hakim Abolqasem Ferdowsi Tousi (935‒1020), immortalized some of the earliest influential Iranian women -- both mythical and actual -- in his masterpiece, the Shahnameh (the Book of Kings, or the Great Book), a national epic of Iran and Iranians. This theme is explored in Women in Shahnameh, the excellent book by Professor Djalal Khaleghi Motlagh, originally published in German in 1971, and later translated into English by Dr. Brigitte Neuenschwander and edited by Dr. Nahid Pirnazar. It describes all the great women, from Farangis (daughter of Afrasiyab, one of the book's central characters) to Rudabeh (mother of Rostam, Iran's mythical national champion), Tahmineh (Rostam's wife and mother of Sohrab, who is killed tragically by his father), to Purandokht (a daughter of the Sassanid king Khosrow II and ruler of ancient Iran for two years).

The Early Post-Islam Era

After the Sassanid Empire was overthrown by the Muslim Arabs and Islam was brought to Iran, the influential role of women continued. Shi'ism gradually took root in Iran, although it did not become the official religion until much later. At the same time, the Persians' fierce nationalism provided the impetus for many political movements that sparked rebellions against the oppressive kings. Persian women took part in such movements, including that of Babak Khorramdin (795‒833) in Azerbaijan, who fought against the Abbasid dynasty.

Shi'ism became the official religion after the founding of the Safavid Empire, which ruled Iran for over two centuries (1502‒1736). Instead of helping the cause of women, the official religion became an impediment to it. With the help of reactionary clerics, particularly Mohammad Baqer Majlesi (1616‒1689) and his students, the Safavid kings replaced the progressive understanding of Islamic teachings with a rigid, reactionary interpretation. In particular, their interpretation brought an end to women's participation in social and political movements. One must, of course, take into account the general character of the era. European women, as well, did not have many of the rights that they have enjoyed over the past century.

The Tobacco Boycott and the Constitutional Revolution

Taj_saltaneh.jpgThe first important female figure in Iran during the reign of the Qajar dynasty (1794‒1925) was Tahereh Qurrat al-Ain. Her real name was Fatemeh. She was born in 1814 in Qazvin to a prominent religious family. She married her cousin at the age of 14. Later she met Sayyed Kazem Rashti and his successor Sayyed Mohammad Bab, founder of the Babi Movement. She converted to Babism and became one of its radical leaders. At a gathering of Babi leaders in Behdasht in 1848, Tahereh tore off her veil and demanded emancipation for women. She was executed in 1852.

In the second half of the 19th century, Iranian women began to grow restless. In her memoir, Taj al-Saltaneh, daughter of Naser al-din Shah, criticized the political and social state of the nation, and lamented the pitiful state of women's rights. When even a member of the royal court was not happy with the state of affairs, one can well imagine how the population at large felt during that era.

Some of the first rebellions against the Qajar kings also happened in the second half of the 19th century. The defeat of Persia's forces by Russia in the wars of 1813 and 1828, which separated the Caucasus region from Persia, and by Britain in 1857, which terminated the political bond between Persia and Afghanistan, had put the Qajar dynasty in a terrible financial situation. To finance their lavish lifestyle and continue their absolute rule, the Qajar kings began giving concessions and exclusive rights to British companies, in return for sums of money. The first such concession was made in 1872 by Naser al-din Shah (1831‒1896) to Baron Julius de Reuter. He granted Reuter control over Persian roads, telegraphs, mills, factories, extraction of resources, and other public works in exchange for a stipulated sum for five years and 60 percent of all net revenue for two decades. Under tremendous pressure, applied both internally and by Russia, Naser al-din Shah had to cancel the agreement.

The next concession was made to Major G. F. Talbot on March 20, 1890, for a full monopoly over the production, sale, and export of tobacco for 50 years. In exchange, Naser al-din Shah was to receive an annual sum of £15,000, a quarter of the yearly profits after the payment of all expenses, and a dividend of 5 percent on the capital. Talbot then sold the concession to the Imperial Tobacco Corporation of Persia. At that time, Persia's tobacco crop was highly valued, because Iranians cultivated a variety of tobacco "much prized in foreign markets that was not grown elsewhere" (in addition to its domestic market). Hence, a Tobacco Régie -- a monopoly -- was established that forced all the producers and owners of tobacco to sell their goods to agents of the Régie. Given that the Persian tobacco industry employed more than 200,000 people at that time, the concession was a major blow to the farmers as well as the bazaaris whose livelihoods were largely dependent on the lucrative tobacco business. The public became aware of the concession only in February 1891, shortly after Talbot had traveled to Persia.

The first protests erupted in the spring of 1891, initiating what became known as the Tobacco Boycott, or Tobacco Movement. Led by the bazaaris and supported by leading clerics, the protests spread to major cities, such as Shiraz, Tehran, and Tabriz. In May 1891, Naser al-din Shah ordered Sayyed Ali Akbar, a prominent cleric in Shiraz and fierce opponent of the concession, to be expelled from Iran to present-day Iraq). Before his departure from Iran, Akbar met with the progressive Muslim activist Sayyed Jamal al-din Asadabadi, also known as Afghani (1838‒1897). At Akbar's urging, Asadabadi wrote a letter to the leading Shi'i cleric of the era, Mirza Hasan Shirazi, asking him to "save and defend the country" from "this criminal [Naser al-din Shah] who has offered the provinces of the land of Iran to auction amongst the Great Powers." Shirazi issued a fatwa against the concession in December 1891, banning consumption of tobacco.

A boycott had started in Isfahan even before Shirazi issued the fatwa. Propelled by the fatwa, the consumption boycott quickly spread. The bazaars in Tabriz, Mashhad, Kerman, Qazvin, Yazd, Kermanshah, and other cities and towns were closed. Naser al-din Shah was forced to cancel the concession in early January 1892, and Shirazi annulled his fatwa on January 26.

Women played a critical role in the defeat of the concession. In the Shiraz protests, a woman and her young daughter were killed by government forces. It is said that even the women of the royal court refused to serve their husbands water pipes. In his book Tahrim-e Tanbakoo, Avvalin Moqavemat-e Manfi dar Iran ("The Tobacco Boycott, the First Passive Resistance in Iran," published in Persian by Jibi Publication House in 1982 in Tehran), Ebrahim Taymouri writes,

Women's perseverance in this movement was such that when the ban on tobacco was announced, they led the protestors who were marching toward Naser al-din Shah palace. As they passed through the bazaar, the women closed down the shops.

One woman who played a leading role in the Tobacco Boycott was Zainab Pasha. Born in Tabriz, she was also known as Zainab Baji or Deh-Bashi Zainab. She invited men to join in the fight against the oppressors. During a conversation with a group of men she is said to have declared, "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." (For a man to wear a veil was, and still is, considered one of the most degraded expressions of weakness and timidity.) She then took off her veil and threw it at them, an utterly courageous act for that era. Zainab Pasha was also an excellent organizer of women, whom she encouraged to take a stand on issues. During the boycott, she even led groups of armed women who would shut down shops that had reopened under government threat.

The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 provided another platform for Iranian women to engage in political action. One popular way of protesting the absolute dictatorship was by staging sit-ins in mosques, where revolutionary clerics would speak. Women played an important role in protecting the clerics in the mosques. One such woman, famous for her strength, was the wife of Haj Sayyed Haydar Khan Tabrizi. In addition, women's presence in the protests prevented the regime's soldiers from firing on the crowds.

Women formed many secret or semisecret associations to organize activities in support of the Constitutional Movement. They also took part in demonstrations. In his outstanding History of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, the distinguished historian Ahmad Kasravi writes about an incident that took place on January 10, 1906, in Tehran. As the carriage of Mozaffar al-din Shah (1853‒1907) was taking him to the home of a rich aristocrat, it was attacked by a group of women marching in the streets. The carriage had to stop. One woman, Mrs. Jahangir, an aunt of Mirza Jahangir Khan Sur-e Esrafil (1870‒1908), the distinguished journalist who was later executed, read out loud a statement that said, in part, "Beware of the day when the people take away your crown and your mantle to govern."

One of the most influential women of that era was Bibi Khanoum Astarabadi, also known as Bibi Khanoum Vaziri. Bibi means a married woman, characterized by dignity and grandmotherly demeanor, and Astarabad is the present-day city of Gorgan in northeast Iran. Born to an educated and wealthy family, and married to Musa Khan Vaziri, a prominent official in the Persian Cossack Brigade, a Russian-trained military force, she was a highly influential intellectual. The newspapers of that era published many articles and letters on the necessity of educating young girls, as well as tales of their suffering and how they stemmed from a lack of education (a few cartoons here). At a large gathering in Tehran in 1906, some of the women issued a two-paragraph resolution. The first paragraph described the need for the establishment of schools for girls, while the second called for the abolition of heavy dowries for young brides, arguing that the money could be better spent on their education.

This movement led to Bibi Khaaoum's founding of the first school for Muslim girls in Iran in 1907, Madreseh Dooshizegan (School for Girls, or Maidens). Another school for Muslim girls inaugurated that year, Madreseh Naamoos (Honor School), was opened by Touba Azmoudeh in her own home. American Presbyterian missionaries had already opened a girls' school in Urumiyeh in March 1838, and several other such schools had been founded in other cities, but Muslim girls did not attend them. Safieh Yazdi -- wife of Mohammad Yazdi, a leader in the Constitutional Movement -- opened the Madreseh Effatiyeh in 1910. This was followed by Madreseh Taraghi, founded in 1911 by Mahrokh Gowharshenas. The first girls' school in Esfahan was opened by Sadigheh Dowlatabadi (pictured) in 1918, who was forced to close it after only three months (Nine years later, Dowlatabadi became one of the first Iranian women to appear in public without a veil.) These schools produced some of the first educated Iranian women, and some of the first prominent ones of the modern day.

Bibi Khanoum also wrote many articles in defense of women's right to receive an education. She is known for her 1895 book, Ma'ayeb al-Rejal (Failings of Men), which was a response to a small text, Ta'deeb al-Nesvan (Edification of Women), by an anonymous author (the man who wrote it was apparently afraid of his wife). Many consider Khanoum's book the first declaration of women's rights in the history of modern Iran.

Women actively participated in all the gatherings and demonstrations for a constitutional government. When protestors took refuge in the British Embassy in 1906, many women were among them, including Setareh, daughter of the Armenian revolutionary Yeprem Khan (1868-1912) and a hero of the Constitutional Movement.

Mozaffar al-din Shah finally relented. He signed the order to draft the Constitution and the elections for the first Majles (parliament) on August 5, 1906. On October 7, the inaugural Majles held its first meeting with 156 deputies. The new Constitution was signed by Mozaffar al-din Shah on December 30. He passed away five days later, the result of a heart attack. The Constitution he left behind did not grant voting and many other rights to women. When they protested, they were told, "Women's education and training should be restricted to raising children, home economics, and preserving the honor of the family," a view remarkably similar to that of many hardliners and reactionary ayatollahs in the present Islamic Republic.

When the Majles approved the establishment of Iran's first national bank without any help from foreigners, women raised money and donated their jewelry. The following appeared in the December 16, 1906, issue of the newspaper Edalat:

The Honorable Sayyed Jamal al-din Vaez, addressing an enthusiastic crowd, said, "Constitutionalism will not take roots without financial support. Everyone must contribute what he can." Suddenly, loud voices were heard among the women in the crowd. The impoverished women removed their earrings and offered them as support for the scared movement.

The counterrevolutionaries, led by Mohammad Ali Shah (1872‒1925) -- who had succeeded his father, Mozaffar al-din Shah, in January 1907 -- tried to reverse the gains of the Constitutional Revolution. Mohammad Ali Shah abolished the Constitution, declaring that it was against Islam. Colonel Vladimir Platonovitch Liakhov, commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade and an ally of Mohammad Ali Shah, ordered the shelling of the Majlis and executed several Constitutionalist leaders on June 24, 1908.

The revolutionaries resisted, and women -- including the aforementioned Zainab Pasha and her group -- fought alongside their men against the government forces. Mikhail Pavlovitch, an influential Russian leftist then living in Paris and in close contact with the Iranian community in Europe, wrote, "In one battle between the Constitutionalists and the counterrevolutionaries, 20 dead revolutionary fighters turned out to be women." When a cleric who backed Mohammad Ali Shah gave a speech in Tehran's Toupkhaneh Square,a woman attacked and killed him. She was arrested by government forces and executed right there in the square.

After Mohammad Ali Shah dispatched troops to Tabriz under the command of his government's premier, Ein-ol-Doleh, a group of Tabrizi women known as the Women's Committee sent a telegram to a women's group in Istanbul and asked them to tell the rest of the world of what was going on. The Istanbul group sent letters to the queens of Germany and England. Tabriz was under siege for 11 months, during which the Tabrizi women helped the Constitutionalist fighters in any way they could. Some of them fought in male uniforms alongside men without revealing their identities. One, named Telly, was wounded in a battle and taken to a medical facility for treatment. She did not allow the nurses to remove her uniform. Sattar Khan (1868‒1914), a hero of Iran's Constitutional Revolution who was fighting in Tabriz, told the wounded combatant, "My son, I need you at the war front." Telly whispered in Sattar Khan's ears that she was a woman, and asked to be allowed to die. Kasravi writes, "Women in Azerbaijan upheld the nation's honor more than anyone else." Pavlovitch quoted a historian then residing in Tabriz who observed a bunker being overrun by women wearing the chador. The historian also reported having seen a photograph of 60 female Mojehadin, as the revolutionaries were called at the time.

And then there was the wife of Ghiyas Nezam, a supporter of Mohammad Ali Shah who was executed by the Constitutionalists. The Russian ambassador delivered the news of his death to his wife and offered to hang a Russian flag on her door, so that the Constitutionalist fighters would not dare to harm her. She is said to have responded, "I am a Persian and 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."

Tehran was finally liberated by the Constitutionalists in July 1909. Mohammad Ali Shah fled Iran and was replaced by his young son, Ahmad Shah (1898‒1930). A woman played an important role in Tehran's liberation. Bibi Maryam Bakhtiari, daughter of Hossein-Qoli Khan Ilkhani and wife of Zarqam-o-Salataneh Bakhtiari, was one of the main people who convinced Sardar Asa'd Bakhtiari to liberate Tehran. Before his forces reached the city, she moved to Tehran with some of her husband's guards and stayed in her father's house next to Baharestan, the historic parliament building. When Sardar Asa'd's forces reached Tehran, she and her husband's guards joined the fight against the government soldiers. She fought so bravely that she was given the honorary rank of sardar (commander), and so became known as Sardar Bibi Maryam Bakhtiari.

After Tehran's liberation, the second Majles began its work and the number of women's organizations grew. There were soon at least 12 such organizations in Tehran alone. Among the most active was Anjoman Mokhaddaraat-e Vatan (Society of Homeland's Ladies), which organized many demonstrations in the city. Other such groups included Anjoman Azadi-ye Zanan (Society for Freedom of Women), the Society for the Welfare of Women, Women of Iran, Union of Women, Women's Efforts, and the Council of the Women of the Center. Followers of other faiths formed similar groups. The Society of Christian Women Graduates of Iran was founded in 1915: societies of Zoroastrian and Jewish women followed. In northern Iran, the city of Rasht witnessed the first celebration of International Women's Day in 1915, organized by leftist women. All the prominent women of that era participated in meetings of women's societies, which were often held in secret.

While struggling against gender discrimination, women were also very active in the opposition to interference in Iran's affairs by Russia and Britain. The American William Morgan Shuster was hired as Treasurer-General in May 1911. The government ordered Shu'a al-Saltaneh, the brother of Ahmad Shah and an ally of Russia to surrender his assets to the government. Shuster moved quickly to execute the order, but Russia landed troops in Bandar Anzali, demanding its reversal. In an ultimatum issued on November 29, Russia, with Britain's support, demanded that Shuster be fired and the government consult with Russia and Britain before appointing any replacement.

The response around Iran was outrage, and women played an important role in spreading it. Fifty thousand people poured into Tehran's streets and declared a general strike. Hundreds of women, wearing the kafan (the shroud that the Muslim dead are wrapped in before burial) and wailing, took part in the demonstrations. A large demonstration with thousands of women was held in front of the Majles on December 1, 1911, at which many spoke. One young female poet, Zainab Amin, a founding member of the Anjoman and a teacher at the girls' school in Tehran's Shahabad neighborhood, recited her poetry and called on people to stand up to the foreign oppressors by boycotting Russian and British goods, particularly sugar. Shuster himself gave an account of the demonstrations, describing how 300 female protestors got into the Majles building (quoting from Janet Afary's The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906‒1911):

Out from their walled country yards and harems marched three hundred of that weak sex, with the flush of undying determinations in their cheeks. They were clad in their plain black robes with the white nets of their veils dropped over their faces. Many held pistols under their skirts or in the folds of their sleeves. Straight to the Medjlis [Majles] they went and, gathered there, demanded of the President [speaker of the Majles] that he admit them all.

In this reception-hall, they confronted him, and lest he and his colleagues should doubt their meaning, these cloistered Persian mothers, wives, and daughters exhibited threateningly their revolvers, tore aside their veils, and confessed their decision to kill their husbands and sons, and leave behind their own dead bodies, if the deputies wavered in their duty to uphold the liberty and dignity of the Persian people and nation.

The Anjoman also sent a telegram to the deputies of the Majles on December 5, which read in part, "Either you must undertake to establish order and prosperity within a specified time or, if you cannot do so within that time, you must resign so that the nation may be served by other hands." Russia tried to deceive the women of the Anjoman by telling them that the new Constitution had failed to improve their lives and, therefore, they should not support it. The response of the Anjoman was sharp: "The acknowledged that the government is weak and has failed to open many girls' school or offer much hope to women who preferred civilization and education to lack of skills and idleness. But this did not mean a return to autocracy, as every person who has a sound conscience prefers justice and legality to autocracy and arbitrary misrule. This attitude is shared by men and women alike."

Women in other cities joined the protests. Hay'at-e Nesvan-e Qazvin (Council of Women of Qazvin, a city west of Tehran) sent telegrams to other women's societies throughout the nation. The Isfahan branch of the Hay'at called upon the Anjoman to train and arm women to fight against the Russian forces that had entered Iran. They warned that they would no longer abide by the Islamic ban on women participating in a military jihad. referring to the presence of Russian forces in the country and their harassment of ordinary citizens, the Hay'at wrote, "If there were one man in the house, he would have spoken up" -- mocking men for their apparent lack of courage.

The first weekly published by an Iranian woman appeared in 1910, 88 years after the publication of the first Iranian newspaper. It was called Danesh (Knowledge). Published by Mrs. Kahal, it was eight pages long and focused on women's issues. Several other women's publications followed: Jahan-e Zanan (Women's World), published by Navabeh Safavi in 1912; Shokoufeh (Blossom) by Amin Mozayyan al-Saltaneh in 1913; Zaban-e Zanan (Women's Language) and Zanan-e Iran (Iranian Women), published in Isfahan and Tehran by Sadigheh Dowlatabadi in 1918 and 1919, respectively; and several others (see Parvin Paidar's Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran).

But all the courage exhibited by the women of Iran could not prevent Shuster's firing. He was removed from his post by mid-December 1911. In his book The Strangling of Persia, a Record of European Diplomacy and Oriental Intrigue (1912), a valuable eyewitness account, he writes

The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world. That this statement upsets the ideas of centuries makes no difference.... Having themselves suffered from a double form of oppression, political and social, they broke through some of the most sacred customs which for centuries past have bound their sex in the land of Iran.

Through their participation in the Constitutional Revolution, Iranian women established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. After Shuster was fired, however, Iran entered a period during which it was a quasi-colony of both Russia and Britain, with no strong, functioning central government. As a consequence, the advances made by Iranian women came to a temporary halt.

The Era of the Pahlavi Dynasty

Sayyed Zia'eddin Tabatabai (1888‒1969), a journalist and most likely a British agent, staged a coup on February 21, 1921. He had first started publishing the daily Banaay-e Islam (Foundation of Islam), and then the daily Ra'd (Thunder) at the age of 23. After Ra'd was closed by the government, he published a third newspaper, Bargh (Lightning). Tabatabai's coup was supported by a little-known officer, Reza Khan Mirpanj (who later became Reza Shah). Tabatabai was prime minister until May 1921, when he was removed from power and exiled to Palestine, where it is believed that he bought Arab lands and sold them to the Jews. When he died of a heart attack in Tehran at the age of 81, his sprawling house in the northern part of the city was taken over by the government and converted into the notorious Evin prison that houses political prisoners.

In 1925, Reza Khan, then premier, abolished the Qajar dynasty and founded the Pahlavi dynasty, declaring himself Reza Shah. He carried out a program of modernization and economic reform, founding Iran's modern bureaucracy. But his rule, one of the darkest periods in modern Iranian history, set back the country's political development and its march toward democracy that had begun in the 19th century. His reign was characterized by repression, by the imprisonment and murder of both his opponents and many of those who loyally served him, but whom he came to perceive as a threat to his rule.

The Majles approved a new civil code that granted women the right to ask for divorce under certain conditions. The legal age for marriage for girls was increased to 15. Reza Shah ordered Ali-Asghar Hekmat, his minister of education, to establish the Kanoun-e Banovan (Women's Center), headed by Shams, Reza Shah's daughter, and Hajar Tarbiyat.

In 1935, Reza Shah ordered the compulsory unveiling of women. He, his wife, and daughters attended the graduation ceremonies at the Women's Teacher Training College in Tehran the following year. The royal women were all unveiled, as were all the other women who were there. It is said that even Reza Shah himself wept at the thought of taking his wife and daughters out in public without any hejab (Islamic cover). The same year, the University of Tehran accepted its first female students.

Supporters of the monarchy consider the forced unveiling an important step in Iran's modernization. Perhaps it was, but it also led many women who had actively taken part in the political and social processes during the Constitutional Revolution and its aftermath to stay home in objection to the ruling. A simple statistic is telling. There were about 3,470 female students in Iran in 1925 when Reza Shah began his reign as the new king, but only 2,600 in 1935 right after the compulsory unveiling began. The August 1941 invasion by Allied forces removed Reza Shah from power and sent him into exile. With his departure, the compulsory unveiling also faded away. Almost immediately, the number of female students increased to more than 5,800.

In his History of Modern Iran, Professor Ervand Abrahamian characterizes Reza Shah's rule as a time of "oppression, corruption, taxation, lack of authenticity" with "security typical of police states." In Nationalism in Iran, Richard W. Cottam, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1953‒54 and later became a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, called Reza Shah's rule "superficial."

Between 1941 and 1953, women actively participated in the nation's political discussions. This participation was significant enough that some political groups began setting up organizations for women. In 1943, the pro-Soviet, communist Tudeh Party formed the Women's League. With branches in all the major cities, it was renamed the Organization of Democratic Women in 1949. Some of the best known leftist women of the era, such as Maryam Firouz, Akhtar Kambakhsh, and Zahra and Taj Eskandari (all related to the Tudeh Party's leaders), were members of the organization. Renamed again in 1951 as Organization of Progressive Women, it was banned after the 1953 coup.

The government of Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh granted women the right to vote in the municipal councils in 1952. Women were also given equal rights with men when a new social insurance code was ratified by the Majles in 1953, which also gave women maternity leaves and benefits and disability allowances. In return, women supported Dr. Mosaddegh strongly, as in the demonstrations of July 21, 1952 (30 Teer 1331 in Iran's calendar). But the CIA-MI6 coup of 1953 that overthrew Dr. Mosaddegh's government again put a temporary stop to the gains that women were making.

In 1963, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919‒1980) granted women the full right to vote in all elections. (This move was opposed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, although after the 1979 Revolution he supported the franchise for women, even though right-wing clerics were against it). The Shah and his prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda (1920‒1979), introduced the country's first family protection law in 1967, which restricted men's former absolute rights in divorcing their wives. A second family protection law, introduced in 1975, granted women equal rights for divorce, custody of children, marriage settlements, and limited rights of guardianship. The legal age of marriage for girls was set at 18, and considerable restrictions on polygamy were also imposed. Women were also allowed to be judges, deputies to the Majles, and even members of the Cabinet.

These represented considerable advancements for Iranian women. So why was it that many highly educated women took up arms against the Shah's government? The answer is simple. Many intellectual women considered their political advances as bogus. The Shah's absolute dictatorial rule had made it impossible for intellectuals, political dissidents, and opposition groups to be openly active. There was no free press, no democratic elections, no true opposition, and heavy-handed censorship of all media and publications. So, the fact that there were, for example, 22 female Majles deputies and two female senators in 1978 -- all of them Shah loyalists -- impressed few women. Aside from the tightly controlled, officially sanctioned outlets, women had no forum in which to express their concerns, let alone engage freely in political activity.

At the same time, the situation for women was not as rosy as the Shah wanted the public to believe. The government's own statistics indicated, for example, that even in 1976 when the Shah was boasting about Iran reaching the "Gates of the Great Civilization," only 26 percent of women living in urban areas and a little over 3 percent in rural areas were literate, while 87 percent of women were without any job.

women_against_veil.jpgMany women lost their lives in their struggle against the Shah and his rule. With almost no exception, they were all either university graduates or university students, and were members of either the Sazman-e Cherik-haaye Fadaee Khalgh (Organization of People's Devotee Guerrillas, or OPDG) or Mojahedin-Khlagh Organization (MKO), two leftist organizations that waged armed struggle against the Shah and his regime. In hindsight, I believe that waging armed struggle against the Shah was a mistake. But that is beside the point. These women had the courage and conviction to give up their comfortable lives and fight and die for what they believed in.

The names of the members of the OPDG that lost their lives follow; unless otherwise specified, all were killed in Tehran. On October 1, 1971, Mehrnoush Ebrahimi (born 1948) became the first Iranian woman to be killed in an armed confrontation with the SAVAK, the Shah's security organization. On February 12, 1973, Pouran Yadollahi, a student at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran (the author's alma mater) was killed in an attack on a domestic hideout. On April 26, 1974, Marzieh Ahmadi Oskouei (born 1945), a graduate of Teachers' College, was killed in an armed confrontation with the SAVAK. On May 22, 1975, Shirin Mo'azed (Fazilat Kalam) was tortured to death. Her sister, Anousheh Mo'azed was killed during an armed struggle in February 1977, while her brother, Mehdi Mo'azed, had been killed in an armed confrontation in August 1972. On June 24, 1975, Nezhat-ossadat Rouhi Ahangaran was killed in an armed confrontation. Her brother Bahman Rouhi Ahangaran was tortured to death on January 13, 1976, while her sister, Azam-ossadat Rouhi Ahangaran was executed by firing squad on August 28, 1976, after being jailed and tortured for over a year.

On September 30, 1975, Parvin Fatemi (born 1950 in Isfahan), who had entered the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran in 1968, was arrested in Mashhad. She committed suicide with cyanide in order to prevent the SAVAK from extracting information from her by torture. On October 16, 1975, Pari Sabet was killed in an armed confrontation. On January 8, 1976, Fatemeh Hassanpour Asil was executed by a firing squad. Four days later, Fatemeh (Shamsi) Nahaei was executed by a firing squad. In the same month, Manijeh Ashrafzadeh Kermani was killed in armed confrontation. On January 26, Fatemeh Afdar Nia was killed in an armed confrontation in Tabriz. On May 15, Ladan Al-e Agha, Mahvash Hatami, and Ezzat Gharavi were all killed in an armed confrontation. Two days later, Gharavi's daughter, Farideh Gharavi, was also killed in an armed confrontation. On May 18, Zohreh Modir Shanehchi was killed in an armed confrontation in Shiraz, while Mitra Bolbol Sefat was killed in Tehran. Eight days later, Maryam Shahi and Mina Talebzadeh were both killed in an armed confrontation.

On June 22, 1976, Nastaran Al-eAgha, Ladan's sister, and Golrokh Mahdavi were killed in an armed confrontation. Nastaran Al-e Agha was a student at Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran. A friend of mine had checked out a science book from the library of the Faculty to study. In those days, the borrower's name would be written on a card attached to the back of the book. One of the previous borrowers of the book had been Nastaran Al-e Agha. When the SAVAK raided my friend's house to see what he was doing, they saw the book. Because the book had been borrowed previously by Nastaran Al-e Aghan, my friend was held in jail for months, just to make sure that there was no connection between the two. Such was the state of terror in those days, very similar to the present.

On June 27, 1976, Fatemeh Hosseini and Tahereh Khorram, together with several male comrades, including Hamid Ashraf, were killed in an armed confrontation. Khorram, who was the sister-in-law of a friend of mine, was born in 1955 in Tabriz. She had been accepted to the electrical engineering program of Aryamehr University (now Sharif University) in 1972. Killing or arresting Ashraf, who was a legendary figure in the ranks of those who had taken up arms against the Shah's regime, was an obsession of the SAVAK, as he had escaped masterfully several attempts to kill or arrest him. The day after he was killed, the Shah's regime celebrated. (On that day, the author's college classmate, Hamid Aryan, was killed in an armed confrontation.) On June 29, 1976, Afsar-ossadat Hosseini and Nadereh Ahmad-Hashemi were killed in an armed confrontation, while Simin Tavakkoli was executed by a firing squad.

On December 20, 1976, Zohreh Aghanabi-Gholhaki (born 1954 in Qazvin) was executed by a firing squad. She had been arrested a year earlier and savagely tortured. On February 17, 1977, Ferdows Agha-Ebrahimian was killed in an armed confrontation. On March 30, 1977, Ghazal (Paridokht) Ayati and Simin Panjehshahi were killed in an armed confrontation. Simin's brother, Abdollah, was also killed in an armed confrontation in April 1977. On April 23, 1977, Nasrin Panjehshahi, Simin's sister, was killed in an armed confrontation, and on May 22, 1978, Raf'at Bonab-Me'maran was killed in an armed confrontation in Karaj, west of Tehran.

Zahra Goudarzi and Behjat Tiftakchi, members of the MKO, were executed by a firing squad. Another member, Fatemeh Amini (born 1941), was arrested in 1971 and tortured. She was paralyzed and later died.

The Shah was finally overthrown on February 12, 1979. Women participated in the 1979 Revolution en masse, and strongly supported it. Did the Revolution result in equality for Iranian women? No. In fact, many of their rights were taken away. I will take up Iranian women's struggles after the Revolution in the next part of this article.

Related reading.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Dear Dr. Sahimi,

Thanks for this interesting and informative article. I look forward to the sequel.

I feel your article should also have treated the internal politics of underground leftist movements of the late Pahlavi era. How did womens' status inside these movements compare with those of their counterparts in mainstream society?

In the course of outlining the history of women's social and political activism, you have again committed lese-majeste against the Pedar-o-Pesar Fantastic Duo, so be sure to take cover as the Pahlavistas come galloping out of their redoubt in Westwood Blvd. on sturdy Aryan steeds, firing their Asle-Chahar carbines with shoddy aim but deadly intent.

By the way, I recommend Shuster's 'Strangling of Persia' to anyone who hasn't read it.

This outstanding man combines passion for Iran's betterment and deep respect for the Persian people with a keen wit for finding humour in the endless intrigues which bedevilled his work.

One example to whet interest from Chapter I, where he describes his first contact with the scum of the British Embassy at the Sipahdar-e-Azam's garden party in Shemiran:

"There we stood, gazing in awe and admiration at the archaic types of top-hats worn by the gallant secretaries of the legations, most of them rare vintage (the hats), and many sizes too large. Why the young Englishmen wore top-hats which were prevented from engulfing their entire countenances only by their ears puzzled me for sometime afterwards. I subsequently learned that the supply of these social weapons is limited in Tehran and, as they are hard to transport over the Elburz mountains, are treated by the junior diplomats as official heirlooms. From which I take it that megalocephalia was prevalent among their predecessors in office."

Or this example from Chapter IV:

"[...] I was soon made aware that another great, though secret, influence was watching my work with jealous but kindly eyes. It was well-known in Tehran that there were dozens of more or less secret societies among the Persian women, with a central organization by which they were controlled. To this day, I know neither the names nor the faces of the leaders of this group, but in a hundred different ways I learned from time to time that I was being aided and supported by the patriotic fervor of thousands of the weaker sex."

The most prized item in my possession is a 1920 edition of his book, autographed as follows:

To my friend,
Howard C. Smith
with the author's warmest regards
W. Morgan Shuster
New York,
March 10, 1933

Ali from Tehran / April 15, 2010 11:26 PM

Dear Professor Sahimi,

Thank you for the article.

I would like to raise a couple of points. Firstly, the article shows how the problem is also cultural and not just political. For example, the fact that fewer women attended university after Reza Shah's reforms should not be automatically attributed to their dissatisfaction with the reforms; it is highly possible that many women were pressured by their families not to leave their homes unveiled.

Secondly, I disagree with your assertion that Mohammad Reza Shah’s reforms were just superficial. There is no gratitude for the fact that such sweeping reforms, which some European nations had no yet experienced, were passed to begin with. There is also a failure to realise that if women and society had not experienced such reforms, then Khomeini’s backward vision could well have been implemented. After the revolution the Iranian people refused to let the regime turn back the clock as much as the they envisioned; the same Iranian people that learned during the Shah’s era.

Pak / April 15, 2010 11:40 PM

I can't thank you enough for this fascinating, enlightening article, and I look forward with pleasure to reading Part II.


Elisabeth from Chicago

Elisabeth / April 16, 2010 2:51 AM


I agree partially with your first point. Culture does play a role, and an important one.

Regarding the Shah's reform: First, please note that I said many women thought that the POLITICAL reforms were superficial. The Shah granted women the right to vote. That was an important step, no doubt about it. His Family protection laws were also important and progressive. But, bringing women into the cabinet, Majles, the Senate, and other political appointments were, in my opinion, superficial, precisely for the reason that I mention.

Muhammad Sahimi / April 16, 2010 5:10 AM

I also take exception to your blanketed negative statements regarding the rule of Reza Shah. During that reign, my great-grandfather served multiple posts as Minister, and was Speaker of the Majlis. His son-in-law, my grandfather, was his Minister of Education and President of the University of Tehran. I can assure you they were not corrupt men by any stretch of the imagination. And my grandfather strictly encouraged girls (as well as boys) in their educational studies while touring schools throughout Iran. (Not to say there wasn't corruption or shortcomings during this period, only that blanketed negative statements should not be applied.)

Ali from Tehran,
In your copy of Shuster's "Strangling of Persia," there is a photo of my great-grandfather, Mumtazu 'D-Dawla.

Pirouz / April 16, 2010 5:11 AM

Ali From Tehran:

You are lucky regarding Shuster's book. I agree with your assessment of him.

Regarding the Shahollahies: Oh, well, they can say what they want. I am used to it. This has been going on for at least 15 years, every since I began talking on local Persian radios.

Muhammad Sahimi / April 16, 2010 5:16 AM


And there are photos in Shuster's book of my maternal great-great grandfather Eynodowleh, and his uncle's nephew, Amir Azam (minister of war)who both, I can assure you, were as reactionary and crooked as they come.

When I read out loud to my family a first-hand account by Shuster of Amir Azam's foiled attempt to pocket cash alloted to military provisions, they indignantly dissed it as an American plot to embarrass the Qajars!

Needless to say, none of their booty has oozed down to yours truly, or I wouldn't be here posting comments on TB.

Where's the vaunted 'trickle-down effect' when you really need it?

Ali from Tehran / April 16, 2010 6:35 PM


You seem to have a certain way of reading things. In what part of the article did I accuse any specific person under Reza Shah of being corrupt? In fact, I said that Reza Shah did good things for the country, but that POLITICALLY it put the nation backward. I stand by it.

Also, I do not get your thinking. On the one hand, you seem to be an ardent supporter of Ahmadinejad, not just here but all over the internet. On the other hand, you seem to defend Reza Shah. What gives?

Muhammad Sahimi / April 16, 2010 7:05 PM

Many thanks for your continued writing Dr. Sahimi.

Thank you for the post with the reference to Shuster -- indeed a lovely read!

Anyone interested can obtain a free PDF copy at:

Jay / April 16, 2010 9:08 PM

Thanks to Shah's time, during which Iranian women excelled. I am too young to know but reading much of history I have a great respect for Shah's open minded service to women, the white revolution and foremost the high respect he had for his own wife. All the videos I see and when I look at past generation, I realize if it was not for the modernization of Pahlavi era...inside Iran where I have been living since the past 25 year, our generation would have had a very difficult time with this close minded clerics.
Having lived all my life in Iran, I thank my parents for my education who were educated during shah's time. Now the system of education in Iran wastes a lot of our time...you go inside as a genius and you come out as less genius...believe it or not, living under this system, was has been such a bad experience!

Nassim / April 17, 2010 2:50 AM

Ali from Tehran,
Sorry to hear about your crooked relatives. I can assure you mine were not. In fact, mine we're known for their integrity (something rare in most any government, I'm afraid).

You misunderstand me. I defend the independence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Regarding specific aspects of politics, I am merely mainstream. (I remind you I voted Green in the June 2009 election.) I oppose anti-Iran cheerleading, as well as close-minded interpretations of Iranian current events.

I went back and checked. It appears my grandfather was Minister of Education when the first woman was accepted at the University of Tehran. (There's a high school in Tehran that's named after him.)

Pirouz / April 17, 2010 6:25 PM


II totally agree with you. Based on the released U.S. classified papers, it is quite evident the Iranian revolution was staged.
Additionally, considering the realities of Iran of the 70s, the political realities of the Middle East and the cold war, the Pahlavies truly served Iran and the Iranian people. I have no doubt problems did exist, but the truth will emerge enabling us to differentiate between fact and fiction. However, logic leans toward Pahlavies.
Sometimes I listen to my relatives talk about the good old days, women in particular, and I ask myself if I even live on the same planet. It is really hard to be a woman in Iran today. The mullahs and their thugs are truly backward and do not belong in our world.

Golnam / April 19, 2010 1:12 AM

There in no doubt that Shah endorsed and granted Iranian women rights they never had before in an attempt to bring Iran to “gates of great civilization”, as he put it, but as Mr. Sahimi rightly points out there was no free press, , no democratic elections, no true opposition, and heavy-handed censorship of all media and publications. For any society to grow and for its human resources to flourish, if those ingredients are lacking then any talk of democracy and modernization will be exercise in futility and Shah’s claim to carry Iran to the gates of civilization was nothing but a demagogical move.

sia / April 21, 2010 6:05 AM

Dear Dr.Sahimi, I appreciated your article on the history of Iran and the struggle for women equality in human rights. As a creator of a small community dedicated to "Revolutionary Women"{Orkut}and the recognizing of the true value of the participation of women in a true revolution,or any work for peace and help to the needy done by women of yesterday and today.I want to thank you for enlightening me with a small part of the great history of Iran.
" A Revolution with out the participation of women ,is never a TRUE revolution."Equality for all.

Napoleon Parada-Moran / December 30, 2010 6:31 AM