Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
In pre-Islamic Iranian history and mythology, there are numerous fascinating accounts of female warriors. But from the 17th century onwards, women are increasingly pushed into the shadows of history after Iran was conquered by the Muslims. From that point onwards, women were denied any real power or leadership roles or even a semblance of them, which made it even harder for women to ask for more rights. However, Marzieh Arfaei, modern-day Iran’s very first female general, was one woman that was not afraid to break the mold.
Things began to change for women in the late 19th century when a number of factors, including an awakening of nationalistic sentiments in reaction to the meddling of colonial powers and the influx of Western ideas of democracy and justice, gave rise to a movement that culminated in the 1905-1907 Constitutional Revolution. During this revolution, women boldly stepped into the public arena and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with men in demanding for democracy. And, although men refused to give women any more rights than they had before, the “genie [of women’s rights] was out of the bottle” and it could not be put back, despite periodic and continuing efforts to turn back the clock since then.
General Marzieh Arfaei came into the world during this important time in women’s history. She was born in Istanbul in 1901, five years before the aging Qajar King Mozaffar al-Din Shah gave in to revolutionary demands and accepted a constitutional monarchy in the country. At the time, her family lived in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which is where she grew up. Marzieh studied at the Medical School in Istanbul and graduated in 1929. For two years, she worked in Istanbul as a pediatrician and gynecologist before returning to where her family lived in 1931.
During her time away, many things changed in Iran. In 1925, Reza Khan had deposed the last Qajar King - Ahmad Shah - and founded the Pahlavi dynasty. Although he was a dictator, he was adamant in wanting to modernize Iran. Whilst in power, he did many things, including banning women from wearing the chador and changing the marriage law. Clerics in the country vehemently opposed these decisions, which led to protests in the country, but Reza Shah put them down bloodily.
Shortly after moving to Iran, the Ministry of Health hired Marzieh as a doctor, and soon after that, she was put in charge of two wards at Pahlavi Hospital, the biggest and most modern hospital in Tehran.
Marzieh had many male relatives who were officers in the new Iranian army. Through family connections and her proven track record as a medical practitioner, she was appointed as head of the women’s army school. The army then hired her as a physician and she began working in military hospitals.
For 19 years, she also taught at a special vocational school for young women wanting to become paramedics. Her first marriage was to Dr. Pishva but this was short-lived as he died not long afterwards. Several years later, she married another doctor, Dr. Bakhtiari.
Then in 1933, Reza Shah gave a direct order that she be given the rank of captain in Iran’s Imperial Army. After moving up the ranks like other officers, she was promoted to brigadier-general by order of Reza Shah’s successor Mohammad Reza Shah.
Marzieh Arfaei retired from the army in 1962 after serving in the army for 30 years. She died on May 13, 1979, right before the Islamic Revolution when actions were taken by the Islamic Republic to roll back progress made in the realms of women’s rights. Today, the Iranian army has no female officers, let alone generals.
Bita Zolghadr, Citizen-Journalist, Yazd
Also in the series: