By: Banafsheh Zand
In the late 1800’s Iranian women were the main force behind the constitutional movement and the subsequent revolution. The Qajar dynasty’s kings (1799 – 1925) sat idly by and allowed the intrusion of the British and Russian political and economic domination; Russia in the north, Britain in the south. On top of which, debts to Britain incurred for war indemnities as well as the expenses of various royal frivolities, led to payoff type concessions to Britain; the 1872 Reuter concession to build a railroad and the 1890 concession on tobacco, and the 1901 William D'Arcy concession on oil were made, to name a few. These concessions exacerbated by tax-free foreign merchandise, which saturated the Iranian market, pushed Iranian economy to near collapse and brought everything to a fever pitch. This marked the beginning of the Constitutional revolution of 1906. Militant Iranian women of all walks of life, ethnic and religious minorities and majorities alongside armed men attacked the government. Women carried guns and became solders of the revolution. They marched, spoke and plotted against the dictatorship of kings and clergies and fought to the victory. The new constitution was granted in August 1906, shamefully betraying the women of Iran.
Compromises were made among the men of the ideals of liberty and modernity with the Shiat clergies. In all; the new constitution only eliminated ½ of the problem that was the absolute power of king but let the clergy’s domination remain intact. Although the Belgium secular constitution was adopted, many social and family affairs, including women, remained under the control of the clergies and the Islamic laws.
William Morgan Shuster an American accountant who was hired in 1911 to help organize the finances of the newly freed Iran, has said in his book; The strangling of Persia, “The Persian women since 1907 became 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. It is the fact. It is not too much to say that with out the powerful moral force of women the ill started and short-lived revolutionary movement, however well conducted by the Persian men, would have early paled in to a mere disorganized protest. The Persian women did much to keep the spirit of liberty alive“.
With the victory of revolution and establishment of the constitution the women expected equal opportunities and gender rights. None was granted in the constitution. Family laws remained within the domain of Shariat with no change. But the women of iran did not give up, on January 20, 1907, The Secret Society of the Ladies was established. A women’s conference was held in Tehran where ten resolutions were adopted, including one that called for establishing girls’ schools sought the abolition of dowries so that the money could be spent on educating the girls instead.
Women Became involved in all aspect of the country’s affairs, despite the threats of the Islamic clergies, although informally. The patriotic Iranian women tired of the foreign Imperialist interference, marched to the Majlis, Parliament, threatening the members to do the right patriotic things, with pistols under their hijobs and in their sleeves. Boycotting the import of foreign goods as well as raising funds for the establishment of the first Iranian National Bank. Women sold their jewelry and dowries to finance the bank. The members of the Secret Society of women published pamphlets and articles demanding that men should give up their seats in “Majless” and let women run the affairs of the country. By 1913 there were 9 women’s organizations and 63 girls’ schools in Tehran with close to 2500 students.
Society for the Freedom of Women and Secret Society of Women were the first to be formed in 1907followed by many others. They all played an active part in politics by staging plays which raised funds for schools, hospitals and orphanages. In 1915 the Society of Christian Women Graduates of Iran as well as the Zoroastrian and Jewish Women’s Association were formed in order to educate and organize women in their own communities. All the signs of a progressive civil society.
In 1910, the magazine Danish (knowledge) was published. This was the first journal published by a woman in Iran, the second and third followed in 1912 and 13. Ms. Sadigeh Dawlatabadi, one of the leaders of the women’s movement in Iran, followed in 1918 and 1919 with Mrs. Fakhafagh Parsa Nesvon magazine, and Zaban-i Zanan (Women’s language) and Zanan-i Iran (Iranian Woman) in Isfahan and Tehran. By the 1930s fourteen women’s magazines were discussing equal rights, education and veiling.
In 1926 Sadigeh Dawlatabadi attended The International Women’s Conference in Paris. On her return she went public in European attire no Hijob. In 1928 the Iranian Parliament, Majles, ratified the new dress code, giving the women the choice of not wearing Hijob. In 1931 for the first time Majles approved a new civil code that gave women the right to ask for divorce under certain conditions and the marriage age was elevated from 9 to 15 for girls and 18 for boys. The civil code was secular but family laws remained within the domain of Shariat however. In 1933 recommended reforms at Damascus and Tehran conferences were presented to Majlis and women demanded electoral rights and were refused again. Reza Shah Pahlavi intervened and in 1934 the Minister of Education received instructions to establish Kanoun-i Banouvan (The Ladies Center) to affect reforms for women.
In the morning of January 7th 1935 Reza Shah Pahlavi once again proving to the people of Iran that he was a progressive leader, stepped out of his palace with his wife and daughters in Western attire and without any hijob, “The king stood in support of the women of Iran and therefore the emancipation of women was officially born.” It took 29 more years and two more generations of extra struggle, after the establishment of the constitutional government in 1906, for the women and a progressive patriotic king, to overcome the influence of the Muslim clerics like Ayatollah Khomeini, to shake the foundation of fundamentalism and Gender Apartheid in Iran.
Unveiling was made compulsory in 1935, since the clergies had been using all means of preventing it, since the Majlis, parliament, had ratified the law. A national education system was formed to educate boys and girls equally. In that same year the first ladies entered Tehran University and Amineh Pakravan was the first female lecturer along with Dr. Fatimah Sayah who was the first woman who became a full professor.
After The Second World War, independent organizations were formed. In 1942 the National Women’s Society and the newly formed Council of Iranian Women was formed in 1944 which strongly criticized polygamy. In 1944, Our Awakening was published and in 1949 the women’s league was changed to Organization of Democratic Women and branches were opened in all the major cities. The society was later changed to Organization of Progressive Women and in 1951 unsuccessfully lobbied for electoral rights again. In 1949 the Higher Council of Women was formed opening branches all over the country focusing on health and education. 1954 Dr Soghra Azarmi, returned from United States and was appointed to head the Cancer Research Center of Iran.
In 1951, Ms. Mehrangiz Dawlatshahi (the first female Ambassador) and Ms. Safeyeh Firouz founded the first organization supporting human rights. The two met with the Mohammed Reza Shah and demanded electoral rights. Opposition by Ayatollah Khomeini and the other Islamic clergies, once again, ended that debate as well. However in February of 1962 at last women were given the right to vote and to be elected, by Mohammad Reza shah Pahlavi. In 1968 the Family Protection Law was ratified. Divorce was referred to family courts and huge strides were made in the direction of ratifying equitable divorce laws, polygamy was also severely restricted. Marriage age for girls was set at 18 years and Dr. Farrokhroo Parsa (who was later brutally executed during the first days of the revolution by Khomeini’s executioner) became the first woman member of the cabinet in Iran. Women were drafted to serve in the education corps and go through military service. And finally In 1972, women gained the right of guardianship for their children after their husbands’ death.
By 1978, 33% of university students were women with over 3 million professionals with university degrees in the workforce. There were 333 women in the local councils, 22 in Majlis, Parliament and 2 in the Senate. The women of Iran had fought a hard and long battle with the Islamic clergies and Ayatollahs and had won.
William Morgan Shuster says in his book: “ When the Mjles, Parliament, was threatened by the Russians and the members were giving in to them the Persian Women supplied the answer; Persian mothers, wives and daughters marched in hundreds to the Majles, exhibited threateningly their revolvers, tore aside their veils, and confessed their decision to kill their own 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 the nation. May we not exclaim: All honor to the veiled women of Persia …They drank deep of the cup of freedom’s desire, and offered up their daily contribution to their county’s cause.”
This generation of Iranian Women has learned the lessons of the past and work together for their human dignity and freedom again. Women of all ethnic and religious background are fighting for their rights, keeping up with the tradition of their grandmothers.
Copyright © 2019