An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
All Iranian girls schools owe pioneering educationalist Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi a debt of gratitude. Astarabadi took on the seemingly impossible task of setting up a school for girls in a reactionary society where women had no presence in public life and enjoyed few rights, if any. In many ways, she was a feminist — with a biting sense of humor.
Only one crude painting suggests what Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi might have looked like; no other images of her exist.
She was born in 1858 or 1859 to Mohammad Baqer Khan Astarabadi, a military commander, and Khadijeh Khanom, a companion to one of the Qajar king Nasser al-Din Shah’s favorite wives. As a learned women, her mother was in charge of tutoring the royal children at the court.
After her parents were divorced, she lived with her father until, at the age of 22, she married Musa Khan Vaziri, a commander in the Persian Cossack Brigade. They had seven children, most of whom grew up to make a name for themselves in their own right in arts and culture, especially Colonel Ali-Naqi Vaziri, one of the most famous Iranian musicians and composers and founder of the Academy of Music of Iran and Iran's National Orchestra.
But the marriage did not last and ended in divorce. The reason, Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi later wrote, was “infidelity”.
The “Edification” of Women
In 1891 an anonymously-written book became a source of entertainment among men. Entitled The Edification of Women, it attributed many negative qualities to women and concluded that they were like children, in need of education from men. It declared that “salvation of a woman is conditional upon her absolute obedience to her husband”, “women must not speak during meals”, “the aim of matrimony consists of gratification of the husband's sexual desires,” and so on.
The book, probably written by one of the numerous Qajar princes, was a crude manifesto of patriarchy and male chauvinism. It was published at a time when the ground was shifting under the traditional systems of government and society with the spread of modern, Western ideas and ideals. The book can perhaps be seen as a reaction to looming changes. In 1896, the absolute king Nasser al-Din Shah was assassinated by a political dissident and 10 years later, his successor yielded to revolutionaries — and to a constitutional monarchy.
The Edification of Women annoyed many women, especially those who could read and regularly consumed books and newspapers and knew about the modern world. At that time, some Iranian women had met European women who had visited Iran and who were allowed into closed woman quarters. Bibi Khanoom, who always encouraged her female friends to do something about the servile situation of women in Iran, was one of them.
She decided to write a rebuttal to The Edification of Women. She entitled her book The Imperfections of Men, and it was published in 1895 shortly before the king’s assassination. Unlike the author of the first book, she clearly identified herself as the writer and used a combination of satire, formal language and slang to get her point across. “To sum, yours truly does not believe that she is able to edify men so I wrote [this book] to disclose their shortcomings so that perhaps they would stop trying to educate women and instead edify themselves.”
"He should have first corrected his own vices and then given us advice,” she wrote about the anonymous writer. “He regards himself as 'Westernized' and 'civilized,' but in fact, he is not even 'half-civilized.' Does he not know that Europeans treat their women like flowers, and women freely associate with men?" She went on to accuse men of participating in “parties” where drinking, gambling, the use of drugs including hashish and opium, and sexual promiscuity were encouraged, all the while maintaining her satirical style.
In the second part of the book, Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi advised women to choose their husbands carefully and declared that “no man is higher than every woman and no woman is lower than every man.”
But it was Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi’s devotion to education and the founding of the first school for girls that holds her in such high esteem so many decades later. Modern school for boys had just been introduced to Iran under the reign of the new Qajar king, but girls had no opportunities to obtain a formal education outside the confines of their homes. American missionaries had founded school for girls in Tehran and the cities of Tabriz and Urmia in the northwestern province of Azerbaijan. However, Muslim girls were not allowed to attend these schools.
When more such schools were established in other cities, some wealthy families decided to break the existing taboo and sent their daughters to missionary schools. For the less fortunate and less well-off, this was not possible.
Only Woman Teachers
In 1906, when Iran was engulfed in the excitement and tensions of the Constitutional Revolution, Bibi Khanoom succeeded in getting the consent of authorities for opening the school. The School for Girls registered a number of girls between eight and 12 years of age. A 1907 newspaper advert said that a new school had opened that boasted a “large courtyard and numerous rooms equipped with all necessary school outfits.” Five female teachers had been appointed, the advert announced, “each responsible for a subject, such as writing and calligraphy, reading, cooking, law, religion, geography, arithmetic. Teaching will be adapted to the learning ability of each girl. In addition, a location has been set aside for teaching in the manual arts, such as knitting, gold embroidery, silk embroidery, sewing and other arts.”
To address the religious sensitivities of the time it assured parents that “all these teachers are women and with the exception of an aged doorman, no other man will be in the School.”
The importance of the school was not lost on the British ambassador to Tehran, Sir Charles Murray Marling. He praised Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi in a letter to Sir Edward Grey, the UK’s Foreign Secretary at the time.
But, a short while after the school opened, Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, a reactionary mullah who later sided with anti-Constitutionalists and was eventually hanged following a civil war, issued an edict calling girls schools to be against Islamic laws. Another cleric published a pamphlet that stated: “Pity the country which has girl schools.”
Prodded by these edicts, a group of men attacked the school and broke the windows when girls were in the classrooms. In a move to protect the girls and avoid greater tensions, the Ministry of Culture Bibi Khanom Astarabadi to close down the school. She conceded, but she did not give up. The following year she opened a new school for girls.
In addition to the school, Astarabadi also founded an orphanage for girls and wrote articles advocating women’s rights for newspapers.
By Shahnaz Zolghadr, Citizen Journalist
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