Drawing by Morteza
A brief history 1850-2000
By Massoume Price
March 7, 2000
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 >>> Photos
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
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 thew 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
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
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 nine women's societies and 63 girls' schools
in Tehran with close to 2,500 students. The schools produced the
first generation of well-educated and prominent women. Touran Azmoudeh,
Fakhre Ozma Arghon (Simin Behbahani's mother), Bibi Khalvati, Guilan
Khanoum, Farkhondeh Khanoum and Mehrangize Samiei, are amongst
the best known graduates of these early schools. Male supporters
joined the movement. 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 crowned in 1927. 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.
January 7, 1936 Reza Shah, his wife and daughters attended the
graduation ceremony at the Girls' 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
focussing 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 Ulan'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 Ayatollah 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
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 is 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 drawn. 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. In the
summer of 1980, Prime Minister Rajai introduced the Law of Compulsory
Veiling to the Majlis. Soon all political parties were banned members
arrested and mass executions of the 1980s put an end to all independent
political activities. The Mojahedin Khalgh suffered most. Maryam
Firouz an executive member of the Tudeh Party praised Ayatollah
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. It argued gender equality was Islamic but religious
literature is misread and misappropriated by misogynist interest
oriented males. Mehangiz Kar, Shahla Lahiji and 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 bicycling. 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 lack
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.
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 >>> Photos