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.
This article was written by a citizen journalist based in Iran and going by the pseudonym Tahereh Taslimi to protect her identity.
Forough Azarakhshi, who founded the first school for girls in Mashhad, is remembered and celebrated by women, champions of education, and the people of Mashhad alike. The progressive school, in one of Iran’s most religious quarters, thrived despite fierce opposition from a group of reactionary clerics who were against girls’ right to education.
In some cases, this opposition was extreme, and, together with other campaigners for girls’ right to education, Azarakhshi physically guarded and defended the school night and day for two years, preventing the mullahs and authorities from traditional religious schools from forcing it to close.
Forough Azarakhshi was born into the royal Qajar family, one of the numerous grandchildren of Fath Ali Shah Qajar, the second king of that dynasty. Her grandfather Shoja ol-Saltaneh was Fath Ali Shah's second child and her mother, Marzieh Khanum Qaraei, was the daughter of the Khan of the Qaraei Tribe in Khorasan, given the nickname "Qahraman [Hero] Mirza" because of her strong determination and fight.
Qahraman Mirza married Soqra Khanum (Bibi Jaan) and their child, Forugh ol-Saltaneh, was born in 1881 in Azghand. At the time of her birth, Mirza Hasan Roshdieh was leading the movement to open schools. Roshdieh attempted to open two schools in Mashhad, but was unsuccessful so then went to Tehran, where he founded the capital’s first school. Following Roshdieh’s efforts, attempts were made in other cities to open new, pioneering schools that broke the mold of the traditional Iranian religious school run by clerics. Girls, of course, did not benefit from these reforms, and their right to education was not recognized, or if they were, these rights were not prioritized. However, Forough ol-Saltaneh and her sister Banu did both learn to read and write in Iran’s traditional schools.
At the age of 17, Azarakhshi married Brigadier General Ali Akbar-Khan Azarakhshi, a young man from Tbilisi, Georgia, then part of the Russian Empire, who was the head of Telegraph office at the Russian Consulate in Mashhad at the time. The couple had four sons and three daughters. Although demanding, family life did not stop Azarakhshi from working toward the improvement of education for girls, and the birth of her first daughter, Aziz ol-Molk, further motivated her to achieve her goal, as did her relationships with women's rights activists in Tehran, including Fakhr-Afaq Parsa. A keen researcher into educational policy and its practical application, she began to pursue her goal more seriously in 1917, and was supported by her husband, who discussed the matter with prominent cultural figures with whom he had contact, including Haj Morteza Qahraman Mirza, also known as Shekasteh. With his assistance, the construction of the first girls' school in Mashhad got underway.
A Dangerous Mission
Construction of the school began in 1917, and took more than three years to complete. "The school building had a raised platform with five rooms with half-wooden half-glass windows and sufficient light facing a garden, “ Azarakhshi’s daughter Aziz ol-Molk Azarakhshi said of the building. “There was a wide, long corridor connecting a big yard to a smaller one, which then opened on to an alleyway. To enter the school, one had to cross the small yard, and walk through the long corridor to reach the larger yard where the school building was situated. The headmistress' office was in the smaller section, with another room between her office and the corridor. There were three rooms and a toilet opposite. The third room belonged to the janitor, which had a backroom. There was a pool with two middle-sized flower beds in the middle of the yard."
Iranian history books report that the school was opened on the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad. Three girls enrolled in first grade and four in the second. Although the school was set up discretely, news of its opening quickly spread across the city of Mashhad. And once this news spread, the opposition began.
Clerics opposing the school warned Azarakhshi and her family to close the school, threatening to kill her and her colleagues and set the school on fire. Despite their threats, Forough Azarakhshi refused to close the school even for a single hour. Together with the teachers, students, staff and her family, she guarded the school — and some of them were armed while doing so.
After a few months, the school offered third, fourth and fifth grades in addition to first and second. Seven candidates sat the fifth-grade exams, and all of them passed. Four years later, the number of pupils grew, and the school began to offer sixth grade too. The expansion of the school, although inspiring, created further problems for Forough Azarakhshi. As the school was privately run, it gradually faced budget deficits and suffered from a lack of facilities. In an attempt to remedy this, Azarakhshi appealed to the Khorasan Cultural Institute for financial assistance. In addition, Ahmad Qavam, who later became prime minister and who was the governor of Khorasan at the time, donated 2,000 rials to the school.
Success and Further Schools
The school's success continued, and the number of pupils began to rise rapidly. In 1925, there were 145 young girls studying at the Forough School, 27 of them studying on scholarships. Well-known educators, including Fakhr-Afaq Parsa, taught there. Her daughter Farokhru Parsa, who later became the Minister of Education and the first woman minister in Iran, studied at the Forough School.
A year after it opened, Azarakhshi established another school in Mashhad, and asked her sister, Princess Banu Qahramani, to oversee it. This school was situated in Bala Street on the Sheikh Abdolhoseyn Alleyway in a house rented for 300 rials per month from a man called Shahidi, Azarakhshi and her sister funded the school mainly by themselves.
The opening of the second school encouraged other educators to follow suit, and in the course of a few years, the Arz Aqdas, Esmatieh, Ezatieh, and Goharieh Schools were opened in Mashhad.
In 1932, in coordination with Khorasan Education Department, Forough applied for a permit to open a high school. It was proposed that the school be run as a state school so that it would not require a special permit, and so that students could take state exams there. It was also hoped that those running the school would face fewer problems. By 1934, the school was expanded, accommodating greater numbers of female students.
In 1948, the Forough Elementary School in Gonbad Sabz Street in Mashhad became a state school, though it still bore the name Forough on its entrance. Located in the Sarshur district of Mashhad, it was close to and branched off into Khosravi Street, which was later home to today's Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. Since that time, and long after the schools were no longer opened, there were calls for the street to be renamed Khamenei in honor of the Leader (who is not known for championing girls’ education).
Honor Befitting a Hero
Forugh Azarakhshi remained the headmistress of the Forough School until 1956. She retired after more than 40 years of service — marked by a ceremony celebrating her accomplishments.
"The ceremony was attended by the governor, deputy custodian [of Imam Reza's Shrine], heads of various offices, teachers, as well as a large number of people from different social classes,” an article published in Aftab-e Sharq newspaper on December 11, 1956, said. Addressing the audience, a senior member of the office of the Ministry of Culture in Khorasan called Kosari provided a detailed account of Forough Azarakhshi's 42 years of service and announced: “Our culture will always be proud of her and she will remain in the heart of culture and academia forever."
Also at the ceremony, pupils from Forough Elementary School sang an anthem entitled "Culture" and Mr. Qodusi, the head of the endowment office of Khorasan, also gave a presentation. Aqdas Shahidi, Zahra Alasti and Fereshteh Tahri all recited poems in praise of her services, and other distinguished guests also hailed Azarakhshi’s accomplishments, including the headmaster of the Vocational School, the deputy custodian of Imam Reza's Shrine, and the Governor General of Khorasan.
At the ceremony, Azarakhshi’s grandson Mohammad Vali Qahraman, also read out something by Azarakhshi: "For an old servant like me, I am very grateful that you came here today. Twelve years ago, when I opened the Forough School, my hope lied in God's mercy and the respectable people of this city. Fortunately, soon it became clear that it was not a vain hope, because despite the slanders and reproaches pouring on the heads of our staff from all directions, people were sending their children to school. Today I am very happy that although I do not have any strength in my feet and any light in my eyes, you have become the light of my eyes and burning candles of a loving family. In my last day of serving culture, while being grateful of your love and grace, I assure you that as long as I live, I will be a servant of our culture."
Writing about Azarakhshi’s life after retirement, Shokuh Saremi wrote: "Ms. Forough Azarakhshi died in December 1963 in Mashhad and was buried in Imam Reza's Shrine. Her students attended her funeral. Ali Azari, author and one of the pupils of Rahimieh School in Mashhad, wrote the following verses in gratitude to her services:
She appeared on the vast land of Khorasan,
A free soul, with a Forough [ray of light] like Anvari [luminosity],
Founder of the new method school,
Princess with oratory talents,
Rebelled bravely in favor of women,
A pure rebel, without bringing harm,
She cried for women's ignorance,
Believe me no woman equaled her in the world.
Although 54 years have passed since her death, and the school she founded has now closed, Azarakhsh’s legacy as a committed educationalist is powerful and lives on in people’s memories — and the small street where the school was originally situated is today called Forough Azarakhshi Alley.
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