Tahirih has been inspiring writers, human rights activists and artists for generations. Now a new book about the Persian poet and champion of women’s rights examines her life and her links with suffragettes in the West, and pays tribute to her legacy. 

Robert Harris reviews The Calling: Tahirih of Persia and her American Contemporaries by Hussein Ahdieh and Hillary Chapman


The Calling is a story of women in the 1800s, from wildly diverse circumstances, who were “called” to confront the intractable opposition to equal opportunities for their gender. I’m especially pleased that this tightly-woven tribute to brave women leaders was written by two men — Hussein Ahdieh, originally from Iran but long a resident of New York City and a respected educator and author in New York City, and Hillary Chapman, an American teacher, poet, writer and songwriter.

Ahdieh and Chapman look at the legendary and rightly celebrated leaders of gender equality in the West; and they introduce a compelling and transformative religious and literary figure, Tahirih, in Persia, also of the 19th century.

Tahirih was rare among Persian women of her time because she was literate; even more, she was also an author. She wrote poems, delivered fiery speeches directly to men, and was a religious leader whose methods provoked tremendous agitation within and outside the movement that came to be known as the Baha’i Faith.

Tahirih challenged conventions of civil behavior for women then current in the Islamic Middle East.  She believed herself to be men’s equal – and did not hesitate to exercise her birthright as a human being. Her story of challenging what is, to this day, a male-dominated culture, is meticulously documented by Ahdieh and Chapman, with the help of recent translations of her famous poetry. The authors construct a compelling narrative of her life and her desire to free women from the shackles of ancient orthodoxy and ignorance. Tahirih’s vision, her struggle and her eventual murder have inspired many in Iran and beyond; artists, authors, musicians, and even human rights lawyers have been motivated by her bold spirit and her story.

Ahdieh and Chapman trace the influence of Tahirih’s life and poetry to Turkish suffragettes and even mystical poems by the Punjabi poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. More than a hundred other Urdu-language writers also included Tahirih in their own translations and compilations. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy publicly performed the narration for a play by the Russian playwright Isabella Grinesvkaya that featured Tahirih’s execution.

A clear link between Tahirih and western suffragettes is found in the work of Charlotte Despard, a 19th century English women’s rights advocate. She wrote several pieces on Tahirih that were published in the suffrage journal The Vote. Another English woman, Elizabeth Maud Constance, who had a great interest in the woman’s suffrage movement, devoted an entire article in The Fortnightly Review to her, entitled "The first Persian Feminist,” on Tahirih’s life story.

Tahirih’s shameful murder itself gave her an opportunity to express her hopeful spirit. As she was strangled, and just before being thrown down a well, she uttered these dying words: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!”

Tahirih’s most immediate effect in Persia was to inspire the education of women. Her spirit was invoked to launch the first of several modern schools in 1899, the Tarbiyat Schools, opened by the Baha’is in Tehran. These schools were assisted by Baha’is in the United States. For years, there was an active correspondence between several American Baha’i women and those making educational efforts for Persian girls. The American women took an interest in the situation of their counterparts in Persia and lent much expertise to the Baha’is in Iran. By 1913, the Tarbiyat Baha’i School for girls was educating four percent of the girls going to school in Tehran. Baha’i-run secular schools (for boys and girls) were later opened in at least 10 more locations – bringing modern education to areas of Persia that had never enjoyed any formal schools.

Across the ocean, in a different world, amid the backdrop in the United States of the “Great Awakening,” the revivalist movements, the Second Coming fervor, the abolitionists, and Seneca Falls, we next meet women who were, for the first time, speaking in public before audiences of women and men together. These women were the founders of new religious movements, suffragettes, reformers, novelists, journalists, opponents of slavery, war and even alcohol – ardent and powerful women such as Ann Lee, Ellen G. White, Mary Baker Eddy, Mother Ann Lee, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth. In a total rupture with their traditional roles, they not only spoke but also organized conferences and were regularly quoted in the press. These women are some of the agents of change who helped shape what we today call modern western civilization.

And so on one side of the world, American women publicly demonstrated in Washington, spoke to the press and to conferences to advocate for gender equality. While in Persia, a lone voice in a sea of religious orthodoxy and despotic power seemingly immune to the winds of change, Tahirih was writing, teaching, lecturing and finally dying, all to inspire men and women worldwide with the vision of the emancipation of women. Ahdieh and Chapman knit these hemispheres together, juxtaposing East and West, to look at a worldwide movement just as it was being born.

The stakes cannot be higher. These historical narratives serve as a jolting reminder that, in 2017, hundreds of millions of human beings continue to live their daily lives in constraints – physical, psychological, political, religious and traditional. Too many women still have their feet bound, are kept hidden and veiled, are married as children, are mutilated at puberty, are denied education and are forced to be silent prisoners within their own lives. The entire human race needs to be emancipated, because it is not just women who are suffering. All humanity pays a price for so many women being denied freedom, and denied the chance to contribute their share to the betterment of the world and the advancement of every family. 

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