A Brief History Of Women's Movements In Iran 1850 – 2000
By: Massoume Price, 2002
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 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 going on.
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 Mujtahids.
The two sisters influenced by a close relative took the side of the Sheykhi.
In 1828 the young couple moved to Iraq to further their religious studies at Najaf and Karbala, where many Sheykhi ulama resided in exile. The long stay in Iraq introduced Fatima to others including Seyyed Kazem Rashti and his Succesor Seyyed Mohammad Bab, whom she never met. She also became exposed to European politics and influence spreading in Middle East at the time. Fatima joined Rashti who gave her the title of Qurrat al-Ain 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 Beygom Khanum, with the mother and sister of Mulla Hussein Boushroyeh, the mother of Hadi Nahri, Rustameh, the first militant female leader in the movement and Mrs. Rashti traveled all over, organized meetings, 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 tears off her veil and demands emancipation of women. Her radical actions splits the leadership; Tahireh herself is arrested is send into exile. She escapes, a few days after a failed attack on Naser al-Din Shah’s life; she is captured in Tehran and along with other Babi leaders was executed in 1852.
The Babi and their successor Bahai women’s movements were genuine, dynamic, progressive and emancipated the female supporters of these faiths. However they remained sectarian and were secondary to the principal doctrines of the faith. Though 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 more educated women, lessons were learned, moves copied and actions followed.
In the later half of the 19th century other prominent women emerged. Taj Saltaneh, Naser al-Din Shah’s daughter in her famous memoirs criticized the stagnation of the political and social institutions in Iran without rejecting Monarchy. She mentions the pitiful state of women in Iran, criticizes the notion of veiling and how it has stopped women from advancing and joined secrete societies with other members of the royal court. 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 implies the total subjugation of women.
Bibi and her mother belonged to the generations of women who served the Royal women. They thought literature; calligraphy, music, religion and many were talented poets with their own written works of which quite a few have survived. In the late 1900’s 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 lead 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 Sur-i Israfil, blocked Mozafare Din Shah’s carriage and warned 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 granted 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. The members of the Secret Union of women published pamphlets and articles demanding men should give up their seats in Majlis and let women run the country. With the victory of revolution they expected equal opportunities and gender rights. None was 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 hostile response. They were told that “ the women’s education and training should be restricted to raising children, home economics and preserving the honor of the family”. Family laws remained within the domain of Shariat with no change and emancipation of women became an embarrassment.
Women decided to organize by themselves, education became the priority. In March 1838 American Presbyterian missionaries had opened the first girls’ school in Urumiyah, Azarbaijan. Religious minorities, mainly Armenians, attended the school. Similar schools had opened in Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad, Rasht, Hamden and other cities. However Muslim girls were barred to attend 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 but re-opened. At the same time Toba Azmodeh opened Namus 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. In the same year Mah Sultan Amir Sehei opened Tarbiyat. By 1913 there were 9 women’s societies and 63 girls’ schools in Tehran with close to 2500 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. Mr. 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. Society for the Freedom of Women and Secret Union of Women were formed in 1907. 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 raised funds for schools, hospitals and orphanages. In 1915 the Society of Christian Women Graduates of Iran was formed, followed by Jewish Women’s Association 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, Jordan and Afandieh Khanoum were amongst the first members of the society.
A member of several associations and a publisher, Sadigeh Dawlatabadi in 1918 opened the first girls’ school in Isfahan and was forced to close it after 3 months. On her return from France in 1927, she was amongst the first women who appeared in public unveiled. Eskandari, a Qajar princess later founded Society of Patriotic Women, organized classes for adult illiterate women and published a journal. The group in a demonstration publicly 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, Vakilal-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 having Babi sentiments. Soon there were girls’ schools in all the major cities and though they were constantly threatened, burnt and closed they stayed.
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 Shikufah in 1912 and 1913. Sadigeh Dawlatabadi followed by Zaban-i Zanan and Zanan-i Iran in Isfahan and Tehran (1918 & 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 who was executed after the revolution, published the later. This magazine was published in Mashhad and was violently opposed by religious groups. Mrs. Parsa was forced into exile and had to run for her life. Many publications followed, by 1930s fourteen women’s magazines were discussing rights, education and veiling. Letters were send to Majlis; equal rights and emancipation were demanded. They were refused and ulma’s hostility grows.
In 1911 Ghassem Amin’s book Freedom of Women is 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.
Fazlullah Nuri complained that “by encouraging women to dress up 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 in 1921 published Hejab ya Pardeh Doushizegan and condemned 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 were published together in a book called Answer to supporters of emancipation. The Muslim Poet Eghbal Lahourri encouraged Muslim women every where to stick by their religion.
Reza Shah became monarch in 1926. In 1926 Sadigeh Dawlatabadi attended The International Women’s Conference in Paris. On her return she went 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. The first conference on Muslim women at the same time began in Damascus Syria. Sadigeh Dawlatabadi, Mostoreh 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 18 for boys. The civil code was secular but family laws remained within the domain of Shariat. The Congress of Oriental Women opened in Tehran in 1932 and paid respect to the deceased socialist Muhtaram Eskandari. In 1933 recommended reforms at Damascus and Tehran conferences were presented to Majlis and women demanded emancipation electoral rights and were refused again. Reza Shah intervened, in 1934 Ali Asghar-i Hikmat, the Minister of Education received orders to establish Kanoun-i Banouvan and implement reforms. Hajer Tarbyat was the first chairwomen and Shams Pahlavi the Royal appointee. Though controlled by the state, for the first time women’s activities were legitimized. The Ladies Center was not received well by the socialists and independents. They opposed 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. Emancipation of women was officially born. Unveiling was made compulsory and women were barred from wearing chador 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 who became a full professor.
After Reza Shah’s fall, independent organizations were formed. Safiyeh Firouz in 1942 formed the National Women’s Society and the newly formed Council of Iranian Women in 1944 strongly criticized polygamy. Tudeh Party Women’s league was the best organized in this period. In 1944 Huma Houshmandar published Our Awakening and in 1949 the women’s league was changed to Organization of Democratic Women and branches were opened in all the major cities. Zahra and Taj Eskandari, Iran Arani, Maryam Firouz, Dr. Khadijeh Keshavarz, Dr. Ahktar Kambakhsh, Badri Alavi and Aliyeh Sharmini were amongst the best known Tudeh activists. The society was later changed to Organization of Progressive Women and in 1951 unsuccessfully lobbied for electoral rights. Mossadegh’s fall puts an end to independent organizations. In 1949 the Higher Council of Women is formed headed by Ashraf Pahlavi.
The council opened branches all over the country focusing on health, education and charity work. By 1964, it was changed to Organization of Iranian Women and in 1978 had 349 branches, 113 Centers and covered 55 other organizations dealing with women’s welfare and heath. The last registrar indicates that in 1977 alone, over a million women used the services. Most centers were trashed after the revolution.
In 1951, Mehrangiz Dawlatshahi (the first female Ambassador) formed Rah Naw and with Safeyeh Firouz founded the first organization supporting human rights. The two met with Shah and demanded electoral rights. Opposition by religious authorities ended the debate. In Bahman of 1962 at last women were given the right to vote and to be elected. In 1968 the Family Protection Law was ratified. Divorce was referred to family courts, gains were made with respect to divorce laws, polygamy was limited and required first wife s’ written consent. Marriage age for girls was set at 18 years. Mrs. Parsa became the first women minister in Iran. Women were required to serve the education corps and pass military service. In 1975, women gained the right of guardianship for their children after their husbands’ death. Abortion was never legalized but the existing penalties were omitted and this made it a lot easier. In 1975 Mahnaz Afkhami became the first minister responsible for women’s affairs. Shariat remained but ulam’s response was drastic, Fatwas by known figures including Ayatollah Khomeini declared the move heretic, demonstrations followed but were put down.
At the same time Ali Shariati published the best seller Fatima is Fatima and declared all western looking Iranian women as corrupt. Ayatollah Motahari started the popular series women in Islam in the secular magazine Zan-i Ruz and confirmed Hejab. There were no independent organizations except the underground groups opposing monarchy. Marzieh Ahmadi Oskouei, Ashraf Dehghani, Mansoureh Tavafchian, Fatimah Rezaei and Mrs Shayegan were amongst the activists. By 1978, 33% of university students were female with 2 million in the workforce. 190,000 were professionals with university degrees. There were 333 women in the local councils, 22 in Majlis and 2 in the Senate.
At the revolution of 1978 millions of women participated in every aspect of the movement. The Islamic Republic was established in January, the Family Protection Law was abolished by a declaration from Imam Khomeini’s office in April and by March women were barred from becoming judges. Women working at government offices were ordered to observe the Islamic dress code. Women protested, on March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands gathered at Tehran University. The speakers could not speak since the microphones were sabotaged. The crowd moved towards Ayatollah Taleghani’s house, Jam e Jam TV station and Ministry of Justice. In April the marriage age for girls was reduced to 13 and married women were barred from attending regular schools. By this time many Independent women’s’ organizations were formed and all political parties had their own women’s league.
Ten’s of women’s magazines were published, the daily Awakening of Women was amongst the first published in Tehran University and was immediately followed by Equality, Women in Struggle and Women’s Path. The later with the National Union of Women and others formed a loose coalition, the Committee for Solidarity of Women.
The Organization of Iranian Women, The Women Populace of Iran, Women’s branch of National Democratic Front, National Front and the Association of women lawyers were amongst the most active. The last one is the only one that still exists and it has formed an extremely powerful lobby in support of women’s rights.
The Islamic Women’s Movement was formed with the support of the government. Monireh Gorjee a member of the Islamic Republic Party was the only woman at the Assembly of Experts when the new constitution was drafted. She did not oppose the new legislation concerning women. Shariat became the legal code. In the first Majlis Gohar Dastghayb and Maryam Behruzi were elected and represented the two prominent parties, Islamic Republic and Crusaders for Islam. Azam Taleghani represented the Women’s Society of Islamic Revolution and send letters to Khomeini cautioning the authorities about compulsory veiling. Altogether 217 members were elected to the first Majlis, 3 were women. The birthday of Fatima, Prophets’ daughter was announced National Women’s Day. In 1980 Azam Taleghani completely wrapped in Islamic attire represented Iran in United Nations Conference on Women in Thailand.
Zahra Rahnavard, Prime Minister Mousavi’s wife took over the popular magazine Etelaate-i Banouvan and the name was changed to Rah Zeynab. Fereshteh Hashemi was appointed chief editor of Zan-i Ruz. In the early 1980s, Dr. Shahin Tabatabei chaired Iran at another United Nations’ women’s conference in Denmark Amongst independent participants was Laleh Bahktiar the well-known scholar of Islamic mystic literature and a psychologist residing in England. When asked about stoning women to death, she defended the action and commented that no crime is worst than adultery committed by women. At the same time the tomb of Sadigeh Dawlatabadi was destroyed. In her last will and testament she had said that she did not want any veiled woman to ever visit her grave!
In the summer of 1980, Rajai the Prime Minister introduced the Law of Compulsory Veiling to Majlis. Soon all political parties were banned members arrested and mass executions of the 1980s put an end to all independent political activities. Mojahedin Khalgh suffered most. Maryam Firouz an executive member of the Tudeh Party praised Imam Khomeini and called him the most important supporter of Women’s rights in our history. Tudeh party was the next one to go.
A year later, Maryam Behruzi in Beijing condemned abortion, called day cares as centers for producing robots. She defended the Islamic Criminal code and regarded Ghesas as appropriate and Islamic. Outside Iran the National Council of Resistance and the National Union of Women were established. Rah Zeynab magazine was closed down. Muslim women began expressing concern over their situation in Iran. Armed male and female personnel began their function as the guardians of the Islamic code of conduct by arresting, imprisoning, flogging and imposing monetary penalties. In 1982, Freedom Movements’ women’s league in Tehran after a meeting with Zahra Rahnavard, Azam Taleghani, Ali Mojtaba Kermani, Ahmad Sadr Haj Sayyid Javadi and Naser Katousian, expressed concern over implementation of the Islamic Legal Code.
In 1984, the first theology school for females was established in Qom. The male teachers entered the fortress like building through an underground passage and never met any of the students. Presently the school has female tutors only and no males are allowed inside.
Unlike male students of such schools, the women will not have a religious rank. So far they have stayed away from all debates in Qom and nationally. The only women journal published by the theology students; Payam-i Zan is published by males. After the war with Iraq and in the 1990s women’s issues became front-page news. The magazine Zanan published in 1992 systematically criticized the legal code. They argued gender equality was Islamic but religious literature is misread and misappropriated by misogynist interest oriented males. Secular activists, Mehrangiz-i Kar, Shahla Lahiji and the Muslim Shahla Sherkat the editor of Zanan lead the debate on women’s rights. Reforms were demanded by all, the leadership did not respond but for the first time they could not silence the movement.
Segregation of sexes legitimized the entry of millions of lower class girls from traditional families and rural areas into the public life and the education system. The segregation required training of women to serve the female only policies. Thousands were employed in the security forces and morality corps and others to impose strict Islamic codes. For many this was the first time they had fully entered public life and received wages with pensions at the end. Khatami’s presence in Ministry of Guidance paved the way for a less restricted press. Hundreds of books about feminist issues were and are published including radical feminist books and biographies. Faezeh Hashemi initiated Asian games for Muslim women in 1993. Later on the establishment attacked her for being outspoken, wearing blue jeans and riding bicycles. In a landslide victory she was elected in the 5th Majlis with the highest number of votes in Tehran. Muslim feminism had emerged in Iran.
In 1997, a prenuptial document to be signed at the time of marriage was approved. The object was to give women the rights they lacked in Shariat. The future husband forfeits his rights to polygamy and unconditional divorce. Women can initiate divorce, divide assets and have joint custody of children and child support. All the articles are conditioned. As pointed out by the critics this is only a voluntary contract, men do not have to sign and if they don’t there are no legal consequences. The practice so far has failed and most men will not sign the contract. Few gains are made since then. Family courts are back again and divorce is referred to these courts, though the number of courts is very limited. Women can function as judges but do not have the title. Mahriyeh is indexed and linked to inflation. Women are given more grounds for initiating divorce. But so far no fundamental changes. By the late 1990s, the National Muslim Women’s League, sponsored and financed by the government became a powerful umbrella organization providing support and networking for sixty registered women’s organizations. In 1998, 52% of the students entering universities were female and the worsening economic situation has forced millions of women to enter the workforce. The fifth Majlis has 13 female deputies out of 270. The changes and the oppression have released a massive political force never seen before. The result has been the formation of a dynamic grassroots movement lead by the so-called Muslim feminists who believe men have misinterpreted and manipulated the religious texts.
This re-interpretation movement is very new and is part of a larger global movement by small reformist groups who are questioning Shariat and its compatibility with the modern world. The Muslims have never criticized practices of Islam. Nor any Muslim country has provided a safe environment where such re-thinking can be experimented. Historically all such movements have either been crushed or resulted in new religions such as Ismaili and Bahai.
The struggles over the last two centuries have made one thing clear to women in Iran. The inability of Shariat and religious authorities to improve legal status of women and the centrality of women to the political process. What happened in Iran is a logical evolution of the women’s movement since its’ beginning in the 1800s. Ironically it started with religious reformists and ended up as a new religion, Bahai. The women of Iran are not about to start a new religion. But the realization is all too clear. Change is not going to come from within the system. Shariat is God’s words and constitution forbids any legislation contrary to Shariat.
Pahlavi rule cleared the path for women. Sooner or later they had to face the major obstacle, Shariat. The revolution provided the momentum. The secular women though extremely active especially in legal matters are not heard as well as the Muslims. The two have joined forces now. How far the secular and the Muslim feminists will go depends on the success of the larger movement in the Islamic world and the political situation in Iran.