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.
IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.
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Opposing political factions in Iran frequently turn anecdotes about the life of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into powerful weapons to support their claims, even when the veracity of these stories cannot be proven.
Although female members of the families of Iranian religious leaders are often kept out of the public eye, the women of the Khomeini family have proven to be too much of a temptation for political rivals to ignore.
Khadijeh Saghafi, Wife of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution
Khadijeh Saghafi was born in 1913, the only daughter of Mohammad Saghafi Tehrani. Tehrani was a cleric and studied under the same religious authority as Ruhollah Khomeini did. But Khadijeh Saghafi’s upbringing was not the traditional upbringing one would expect. When her father took a second wife, her mother protested and divorced him. Khadijeh Saghafi studied French language in school, a rather rare experience for girls at the time.
She married Ruhollah Khomeini at age 16 after her family rejected him three times — they were not confident about Khomeini’s financial prospects. Khomeini was then in his late twenties and their marriage lasted 70 years, until his death in 1989. They had five children, two sons and three daughters, and 15 grandchildren.
“Imam Khomeini respected and paid attention to me so much and he never behaved impolitely,” Khadijeh Saghafi said of her husband. “While sitting for meals, he never began to eat before I did. He did not want me to do household work.”
Khadijeh Saghafi never involved herself with politics, either before or after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Whatever the Khomeini narrative, all agree on one point: Ayatollah Khomeini’s home was not a place where politics was discussed.
Nevertheless, in April 2015, in a ceremony commemorating Khadijeh Saghafi, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and current head of the Expediency Council, brought her to the forefront of political controversy. “I was not happy about getting involved in electoral rivalries,” he told the audience. But in 2009 [during the unrest that followed the disputed presidential election], Ms. Saghafi summoned him and told him, “Imam [Khomeini] entrusted this revolution to you and your friends. Do you know who these people are and what would they will do to the revolution?’”
Not to be outdone, Parvin Ahmadinejad, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sister, produced her own anecdote. She said that, in 2006, on the anniversary of Khomeini’s death, her brother had visited Khadijeh Saghafi. According to her, Khomeini’s widow told him that “if the doctor [Ahmadinejad] wins the vote, be my guest in celebrating. Order any food you want for delivery. I have told the servants to turn on the TV only if the doctor or the Supreme Leader is making a speech.”
But one of the Khomeini grandchildren disputed Parvin Ahmadinejad’s account: “After he was elected president, he and his wife came to see [Khadijeh Saghafi] at dusk. She very explicitly told him, ‘I did not vote for you. I voted for Mr. Hashemi. I do not know you, but you are young and, God willing, you will serve the country.’ This was their only meeting.”
Khadijeh Saghafi outlived both her sons and died in 2009 after an illness of a few months, at the age of 96. She was buried next to Ayatollah Khomeini.
Zahra Mostafavi Khomeini, Daughter
Among Khomeini’s daughters, Zahra Mostafavi Khomeini, born in 1940, was the most politically active, and remained so until a few years ago. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and theology and is a member of the faculty of the School of Theology at the University of Tehran. She is married to Mahmoud Broujerdi, who in the 1980s served as Deputy Higher Education Minister when Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate in the 2009 presidential election, was prime minister.
Like other Khomeini children, Zahra Khomeini has for the most part been a supporter of reformists. She supported the reformist president Mohammad Khatami and more recently voiced her support for the current president, Hassan Rouhani.
Zahra Khomeini created controversy in the run up to the presidential election of 2013 when she wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, after the Guardian Council disqualified Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from competing in the election. In the letter, she wrote that her father had told her that Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani were both qualified to be the Supreme Leaders of the Islamic Republic. She asked Khamenei to re-qualify Rafsanjani and wrote that his rejection would “create a gulf between my father's two friends [Rafsanjani and Khamenei]. It also shows disrespect to the wishes of the people on the street. This separation will cause great harm to the revolution and to the regime.” She also said that such a move could lead to dictatorship.
But her appeal and warning led nowhere, and Rafsanjani decided not to challenge his disqualification. Since then, Zahra Khomeini has kept a low profile.
Zahra Eshraghi, Granddaughter
Born in 1964, Zahra Eshraghi is a philosophy major and is married to Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the former president of the reformist party Islamic Iran Participation Front and the younger brother of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami.
Under President Khatami, Zahra Eshraghi was an advisor to the deputy in charge of youth affairs in the Interior Ministry. She was also the head of reformist coalitions’ Youth Headquarters in the 2008 parliamentary elections. She is a member of the non-governmental Society to Support Iranian Women and has let it be known that she writes blogs under pseudonyms.
Her reformist political positions and the fact that she regularly quotes Ayatollah Khomeini has often made her a target for hardliner attacks. For example, she has spoken out against Morality Patrols, which harass women in the streets for not conforming to Islamic standards when it comes to clothing and makeup. She has quoted Khomeini as saying that the color black “is makrouh”, a word that means “distateful,” although not forbidden.
Zahra Eshraghi’s views run the gamut of everything that hardliners are against. She has stated that the constitution must be changed so that women have an equal opportunity to become president of the Islamic Republic. “As a woman, if I want to get a passport to leave the country, have surgery, even to breathe almost, I must have permission from my husband,” she has said. “If my grandfather were here now, I am sure he would have had very different ideas.”
She has also spoken publicly about compulsory hejab and chador.“I’m sorry to say that the chador was forced on women,'' she told the New York Times in an interview. ‘'Forced — in government buildings, in the school my daughter attends. This garment, that was traditional Iranian dress, was turned into a symbol of revolution. People have lost their respect for it. I only wear it because of my family status.''
Following protests against the official results of the 2009 presidential election, Zahra Eshraghi wrote on her Facebook page that “if Mousavi [and] Karroubi [whom she had supported] and their supporters are counter-revolutionary, then so was Imam [Khomeini].”
Naeimeh Eshraghi, Granddaughter
Born in 1965, Naeimeh Eshraghi, the sister of Zahra, is a petrochemical engineer and sits on the board of Kish Petroleum Engineering Service. Like her sister, she has pro-reformist views and condemns forced hejab, and launched the "One Million Signatures Saying No To Compulsory Hejab” campaign. However, for the most part, she has not been in the political limelight to the same extent as her sister has."My grandfather's system of spiritual guidance of the government rested its legitimacy on people's consent," she told the British newspaper the Telegraph in an interview in 2012. “Today, this theory of government has split many sections of our society from the regime and has led to a deviation from the earlier right path of the revolution."
Naeimeh Eshraghi’s activity on Facebook has led to various controversies and widespread commentary — so much so that she eventually closed the account.
To begin with, a mini-scandal ensued when users discovered a Photoshopped picture of her daughter on her Facebook page. As was reported by IranWire, Eshraghi had altered the image of her daughter Naima Taheri accepting an award at her university in Canada so that it appeared as though she was wearing a manteau over her skinny black trousers and platform heels.
In 2013, she posted a joke about her grandfather in the comments section of her Facebook page. “[This is] another joke we used to tell Imam [Khomeini] and he always referred to it. Imam Khomeini: ‘Hey Revolutionary Guards, marry the widows of the martyrs. I wish I was one the Guards.’” This joke enraged many, and not only hardliners or supporters of the Islamic Republic. Many people referred to the comment as “shameful” and disrespectful to hundreds of thousands of Iranians who were killed or maimed in a war that the absolute majority of Iranians believe was an unjustified aggression by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
After the storm of condemnations, the joke was removed from the page. Naeimeh Eshraghi claimed that her page had been hacked.
Also in the series:
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Jinous Nemat Mahmoudi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Simin Behbahani
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Forough Farrokhzad
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Parvin Etesami
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Farokhru Parsa
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Jamileh Sadeghi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Fatemeh Daneshvar
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Fatemeh Moghimi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Googoosh
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Sima Bina
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Tahereh Qurratu'l-Ayn
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Farah Pahlavi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Pardis Sabeti
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Mahsa Vahdat
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Maryam Mirzakhani
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Fatemeh Karroubi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Shirin Ebadi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Mehrangiz Kar
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Narges Mohammadi
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Zahra Rahnavard
50 Iranian Women You Should Known: Leila Hatami
50 Iranian Women You Should Known: Golshifteh Farahani
50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Susan Taslimi
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