An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
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Journalist Sediqeh Dowlatabadi was an influential feminist in 20th century Iran. For many years, she fought for women’s rights, particularly female suffrage, but she sadly passed away just before her dream became a reality. Dowlatabadi dedicated her life to promoting women’s rights, which was anathema to many religious zealots, so much so that they destroyed her grave 16 years after her death. In her will, she asked that women wearing the hejab did not attend her funeral.
Sediqeh Dowlatabadi was born in Isfahan, Iran in 1882. Her father, Mirza Hadi Dowlatabadi, was seen as being a forward-thinking cleric because he permitted his daughters to be educated. In fact, Dowlatabadi studied alongside her brothers, Yahya and Mohammad Ali, who were adherents of Iran’s Constitutional Movement and founded the Council of Education, a society that promoted Western- and European- style education.
When Dowlatabadi was growing up, however, there were no schools for girls and little social prospects for women in Iran at the time. When she was 15, she married a doctor, Etezad-ol-Hokama, although they soon divorced.
However, before they separated, the couple moved to Tehran. In 1906, when they had been in the capital for a while, a group of women, including Dowlatabadi, founded an organization called “The Patriotic Society of Women.” This was possible at the time because Iran’s aging monarch Mozaffar ad-Din Shah had given in to the country’s constitutionalists and permitted a parliament to stand. The society, which operated in secret at first, had three principal goals: to promote democratic values and institutions; to fight back against foreign meddling in Iran and to support women’s rights. Dowlatabadi was secretary to the society’s board of directors.
Although women actively took part in the constitutional movement, the constituent assembly did not help their cause, and in fact some of the newly-elected parliamentarians actually made a stand against women’s right to education and schools. This led to many women, including members of the Patriotic Society of Women, to take action. For instance, in 1907, when Russia and Britain divided Iran into spheres of influence, Dowlatabadi and some other women went to coffee houses to encourage people to boycott foreign imports, such as sugar. This is because they felt that women were subservient in Iranian society as a result of foreign interference and domination and therefore if they could put a stop to this, women’s position in society would improve.
Let the Women do it!
Then in 1909, members of the society staged a rally outside parliament after Russia gave Iran an ultimatum over its hiring of the American William Morgan Shuster as treasurer-general in Iran. During this, the women wore burial shrouds and carried firearms as a way of telling MPs that if they were incapable of running the country, they should allow women to do it.
Several years later, in 1915, Dowlatabadi went back to Isfahan to ask the ministry of education for a permit to publish a magazine called Women’s Voice. This was Iran’s third-ever women’s magazine but the first to be published outside of Tehran. In its first issue, it informed readers that it would only take contributions from women and girls.
The magazine looked at a range of topics, including the need to educate girls and set up schools for them; advice on how women could choose the right partner; relations between husband and wife; tips for housekeeping and articles that were critical of patriarchal societies. But the magazine went further than just championing women’s rights and education; it also attacked the government for signing the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement that gave England unprecedented rights over Iranian affairs, finances and oil.
Eventually, Iranian parliament denounced the agreement in 1921, but by this point England already held enormous sway in Iran and frequently bribed politicians and religious figures. It was not long until a group of religious extremists were encouraged to attack the Women’s Voice magazine — the zealots threatened DowlatabadI and many of the other women working there.
“A Hundred Years Too Late”
However, the attack did not stop Dowlatabadi in her efforts. Following this, the government ordered the magazine to be shut down. “Ma’am, you’re a hundred years too early,” she was told by the Isfahan police chief as he handed her the warrant.
“You’re mistaken sir,” she answered. “I was born a hundred years too late, otherwise I wouldn’t have allowed women to remain wretched and inferior in the chains of slavery to men as they are today.”
Dowlatabadi also tried to set up modern schools for girls in Isfahan but she was unsuccessful. After the magazine was shut down, she went back to Tehran and resumed her activities promoting women’s rights and putting an end to English interference in Iranian affairs. After this, she set up a school for underprivileged girls.
Then in 1921, she travelled to Berlin to give a speech on women’s rights to the International Women’s Congress – this was a first for an Iranian woman. Then in 1932, she went to Paris to be treated for a kidney disease but ended up staying to finish her studies at the University of Sorbonne.
Dowlatabadi returned to Iran in 1928 and was that year placed in charge of female education at the ministry of education. Then in 1938, she became secretary-general of the Women’s Society, an organization that she co-founded. And in 1942, she re-launched Women’s Voice.
In the early 1950s, the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh set out to change the rules surrounding elections. Dowlatabadi used the opportunity to write to him and ask him to include female suffrage in the new by-laws. Although Mosaddegh was willing, he was unable to do so because he was toppled from office in 1953 after US and British intelligence agencies instigated a coup d’état after he had nationalized the Iranian oil industry.
In 1961, Dowlatabadi died in Tehran of natural causes at the age of 80. Less than two years after she died, women received the right to vote in Article 5 of the “White Revolution” — a series of reforms launched by Mohammad Reza Shah and approved in a referendum in 1963.
In the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, fanatics destroyed her gravestone, as they wanted to destroy any trace or memory of her. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became mayor of Tehran, her grave, as well as her brother’s grave and several other people, were dug up to make space for a park. The remains were thrown into a river valley nearby to the cemetery.
Although Dowlatabadi does not have a gravestone, her name and legacy live on, especially online, where Iranians are able to read her work and learn about her life.
By Sediqeh Dowlatabadi, Tahereh Taslimi, Citizen Journalist
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