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 last 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. These articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
Despite her years of tireless work on behalf of the Women's Organization of Iran, history remembers the name of Farangis Yeganegi (née Shahrokh) for her campaign to protect and promote traditional Persian arts and handicrafts. This remarkable individual, also the founder of the Zoroastrian Women’s Organization in Iran, is known as the mother of Iranian national handicrafts – and not without reason.
An Upbringing Steeped in Politics and Art
Farangis Yeganegi was born into a cultured and politically active family. Her father was Arbab Kaykhosro Shahrokh, a liberal constitutionalist and influential MP in who held a seat in the Iranian parliament for 10 terms.
The Persian Constitutional Revolution, which led to the eventual establishing of a parliament in the country, took place when Arbab Kaykhosro was 30 years old. He successfully stood for election ahead of its second ever term, representing the Iranian Zoroastrian community, and in the fourth term was one of the MPs who opposed the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement, which gave a guarantee of British access to all Iranian oil fields. agreement. Arbab Kaykhosro is also recognized as the founder of the Parliamentary Library of Iran.
Farangis was born on 11 May 1916 when her father took over the presidency of the then-Iranian Telephone Company. She grew up steeped in her father’s cultural and political activities, completing her primary education up to the ninth grade at Iraj School, which belonged to the Zoroastrian community, and later receiving her diploma from the American Girls' College. After graduating from Tehran University with a BA in literature, she travelled to the United States to pursue an MA in social work.
On returning home she married Ardeshir Yeganegi, a cultural and economic activist. Just a few years later, Arbab Kaykhosro Shahrokh was killed in a suspicious car accident in Khakh Street, Tehran.
Making Her Own Way
Ardeshir Yeganegi was about 16 years older than Farangis and had established the first modern leather factory in Iran in the city of Hamedan. After their marriage he established Iran’s first hydraulic power plant in 1936, on the Abbas Abad Hill in Hamedan city. The main shareholders of the fledgling Alvand Electricity were the people of Hamedan themselves. He would later go on to create the first ice-cream factory in Iran, by purchasing modern refrigerators and other necessary equipment from Russia. After the Second World War, he spearheaded reconstruction efforts in the two main streets of Hamedan, Ibn Sina and Abbas Abad.
Farangis and Ardeshir began their marital life in Tehran. They had three children, Parviz, Firuzeh and Kambiz, but both remained active in the cultural and commercial arenas. Despite her husband’s glittering career, it would be Farangis in the end who achieved the most in both.
While Farangis Yeganegi’s children were still young, she dedicated most of her time to them but still found the time to write a book, Searching the Truths. During the same period she joined the nascent Iranian women’s equality movement, and took steps to support girls who were interested in learning. The foundation of the Zoroastrian Women Society, a progressive organization that also campaigned for women's rights, was one of her most significant early achievements.
In January 1953, Yeganegi’s husband suddenly passed away in Nice, France. Out of the ashes of the tragedy, Yeganegi decided to devote her the rest life to women and their empowerment. A relentless campaigner, throughout the 1950s she focused much of her efforts on – and brought about - improvements to women's prisons in Iran, and the training of social workers to help women classed as “delinquent” by Iranian society.
Building a Legacy
Farangis' relentless efforts in the sphere of women's rights would see her take on a prominent role on the High Council of Women's Organizations of Iran (High Council), an umbrella body tasked by Princess Ashraf Pahlavi in 1959 with co-ordinating the activities of the hundreds of disparate women’s movements in Iran. Its charter was penned by several of its members along with former prime minister Ahmad Matin Daftari, and approved at a meeting in the presence of Ashraf Pahlavi, royalist politician Manuchehr Eqbal, and former prime minister Asadollah Alam. The Council was later disbanded due to inefficiencies but not before it had succeeded in agitating for Iranian women’s right to vote, which was implemented in 1963, and established the Iranian Women’s Organization (IWO): a 5,000-member assembly of women from diverse backgrounds and regions, where Yeganegi would go on to serve as Secretary General.
While advancing myriad causes in the field of women’s rights in the early 1960s, Yeganegi also devoted much of her time to the field of handicrafts, with the fervent intention to help preserve and promote the country’s unique artistic heritage. On one six-month expedition, Yeganegi travelled the length and breadth of Iran, collecting samples of traditional Persian handicrafts from villages and towns along the way. The haul she brought back – including saddlebags, handmade bags, embroidered sheepskin coats, ceramics, glasswork, Tabriz and Baluch batik, and needlework – was displayed at a high-profile exhibition held in 1963 at the Wakayama Castle Museum in Japan, lending Iran a new grounds for prestige and fame. It also created the favorable conditions Yeganegi needed to establish the Iranian Handicrafts Organization, together with an affiliated commercial center, in 1966.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Yeganegi was also active in Iran’s literary sphere. In 1958 she established the Ardeshir Yeganegi Library in Tehran, in her husband’s memory and at her own expense. It built on a parcel of land belonging to Tehran Zoroastrian Association and was initially also home to the Cultural Society of Ancient Iran as well. Today the Ardeshir Yeganegi is still operational and houses some 14,000 volumes, and is considered a specialist reference center for scholars of the Zoroastrian faith. Numerous well-known Iranian and Western scholars alike have visited the library and included it in their book dedications. Parts of its corpus are extremely valuable because of their content and age, and can only elsewhere be found at the Parliamentary Library.
After the Islamic Revolution Yeganegi moved to the United States and became a co-founder and chairwoman of the California Zoroastrian Center. In 1994 she was selected as the Woman of Excellence of the Year and praised at a ceremony held in the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for the extraordinary breadth and scale of her lifetime accomplishments. Two years later, she would also receive a commendation from the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of America for her service to the community.
This formidably active, staunchly progressive woman passed away in Los Angeles on February 13, 2010 at the age of 93. She remained active in her support for women’s causes and advancing Persian culture until a few months before her death.
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