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.
It is said that Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, the Shah of Persia from 1848 to 1896, was not keen on women's literacy, and some of his wives who could read and write hid it from him. It was in this repressive atmosphere that Maryam Amid Semnani, an Iranian journalist and intellectual known as Mozayan ol-Saltaneh, would first attempt to open a girls' school, and later publish the second women's newspaper in the country: the first woman to work at the helm of a national publication. Though ol-Saltaneh’s second venture was short-lived, it had a transformative role in conceptions of women and their abilities both in its time and during the Constitutional Movement.
Maryam Amid Semnani born in Semnan was the only daughter of Mir Seyed Reza Semnani, a doctor nicknamed Rais ol-Ateba (“Head of Physicians”), who was Naser al-Din Shah's army physician. The young Maryam received her early education from her father, while also pursuing studies in French and photography. At the age of 16 she was subjected to an arranged marriage to Mirza Etemad ol-Saltaneh Salvar, a Qajar prince, but vehemently opposed it and was able to divorce him just a year later. Her marriage and its outcome led her to become a fierce opponent of the premature and compulsory marriage of girls in Iran.
Seven years later, ol-Saltaneh married a prominent intellectual and cultural proponent of the day, Qavam ol-Hokama. He died a few years later, however, and so ol-Saltaneh raised their two children on her own. Throughout these years, she remained preoccupied with teaching and women’s literacy.
A Budding Institution
In 1913, eight years after the publication of the first newspaper in Iran, ol-Saltaneh published a women's newspaper called Shokufeh (“Blossom”). She did so despite the fact that the very first women's weekly, Danesh, had been forced to shut down two years earlier. It had first launched in 1910 as an-eight volume in folio and lead printing by Masumeh Kahal, a physician from Tehran, and had been widely-read in both Iran and other countries before having to close just 12 months later.
According to women’s rights collective Bidarzani, the newly-published Shokufeh bore the legend under its logo: The wind blew bringing the scent of amber/ Almonds, bursting into blossoms.
In its first issue, Maryam Mozayan ol-Saltaneh wrote: "No country can enter the circle of civilization and progress except through newspapers. It is newspapers that criticize thought, teach us speech and rhetoric and show us how to live, how to earn money and wealth, how to learn manners, ethics, socialize, communicate, gain knowledge, trade, and cultivate. It is only with the help of newspapers, published specifically for women and in a language that they are familiar with, that ideas and habits penetrate our being to wake us from our deep slumber and the stupefying effects of the opium of ignorance. It is hoped that with the help of this newspaper we rise above the humiliation of ignorance and sit on the throne of grandeur of knowledge, peace, and comfort."
Kobra Fakhari Zavareh, head of the National Library and Archives of Islamic Republic of Iran Periodicals, told IRNA news agency: "Shokufeh was the second publication dedicated to Iranian women after Danesh, which was founded with the goal of awakening women.”
The newspaper, Fakhari Zavareh says, was initially a four-page publication printed in naskh (Islamic calligraphic) script with a verse decorating its top. From its fifth issue it changed to nastaliq script. On the last page of every publication a caricature was printed related to its topic.
In its own pages, Shokufeh described itself as “an ethical, literary newspaper about, child health, housekeeping, child-raising, educating girls, and purifying women, girls' schools, sometimes published twice a week for the time being. The concessionaire and managing director is Mozayan ol-Saltaneh, daughter of the late Mirza Seyed Razi Rais ol-Ateba.”
Shokufeh In Full Bloom
Fakhari Zavareh divides Shokufeh’s trajectory into two distinct periods. "From the first to the tenth issue,” she says, “the articles are more about gender equality, development of cultural issues among women, girls' education in girls' schools, family issues, individual and social hygiene, and attacking superstitions."
Ol-Saltaneh was a co-founder of the Iranian Women’s Society, which was established by a group of schoolmistresses and made up of women’s rights activists. Apart from promoting women’s education in the arts and sciences, one of the Society’s key goals was to boycott foreign products and prohibit their importation. All girls’ schools, the Society argued, should use Iranian textiles, with those not complying – be they pupils or teachers – expelled. Nearly 5,000 people joined this movement in a single month.
"From the tenth issue to the end of Shokufeh’s publication,” Fakhari goes on, “the newspaper was the organ of the Society, discussing national independence and the fight against foreign infiltration. In other words, from the second year onwards, Shokufeh assumed a more political and critical tone. It placed a more comprehensive range of topics on its agenda, such as reviewing the causes of certain economic and social problems, backwardness in Iranian society, and the performance of officials and authorities."
In a strident, often ironic tone, the newspaper also addressed the day-to-day problems of Iranian women, the education and training of girls and political issues of the day. It routinely criticized the Ministry of Education for the state of girls’ schools in Iran.
According to the head of periodicals at the Iranian National Library, another of Shokufeh's goals was to familiarize women with well-known works of literature, in order to eliminate superstitions and provide guidelines for housekeeping, child-raising and improving women's morale. With the passage of time, they said, it took on a sharper tone and its protests regarding the Iranian social environment became more candid: "criticizing, for example the tradition of forcing girls to marry at young age and even protesting against the interference of superpowers, and promoting national independence."
Shokufeh’s writers were also well-acquainted with international affairs and it published news and articles about women of the world, on events such as the Women's Show in London, and drawing comparisons between European and Iranian Women.
Fakhari Zavareh says: "One of most important steps taken by Mozayan ol-Saltaneh, the managing director of Shokufeh, was to introduce candidates who were acceptable to women for the third parliamentary term – which was not without consequence."
Shokufeh was published in Iran every two weeks. The cost of a six-month subscription was just two qerans and each issue cost 100 dinars, while the annual subscription fee for readers outside of Iran was eight qerans and six francs.
The newspaper’s publication provoked different reactions from women’s activists. It was welcomed and supported by many headmistresses and the Ministry of Education, but some other activists and educators regarded it more cynically as an income stream for Mozayan ol-Saltaneh.
In response to their criticism, ol-Saltaneh wrote: "The sole reason for our lagging behind the caravan of civilization is women's ignorance."
A Tireless Educator of Girls Rich and Poor
As well as being managing director of a newspaper, Ol-Saltaneh was a strident campaigner for girls’ education and was the first to call for the unification of the Iranian curriculum. In 1902 she established a girls’ school known as Mozayanieh and to combat the dominance of a patriarchal culture that saw many families disinclined to send their girls to school, she offered some places without tuition fees. Moreover, os-Saltaneh imposed the condition that parents would not take their daughters out of school until they had completed their studies.
Mozayanieh had two branches: the House of Science, which taught various sciences, reading, writing, mathematics, geography and foreign languages, and the House of Arts, which taught arts and handicrafts such as carpet weaving, sock-darning and filigree. To enter the former, pupils needed to pass an entrance exam set by the Ministry of Education, which funded the school.
Ol-Saltaneh was also a vocal campaigner in the Constitutional Movement and spared efforts to expand and improve the publication of her newspaper, which was considered a disseminator of progressive ideas, throughout this period. According to one of close friend, on one occasion os-Saltaneh sold her own silver teacup holders to pay for the printing expenses of Shokufeh. She ploughed all her available resources into social and cultural projects because of her passionate love for her work.
With the onset of the First World War, Shokufeh’s publication became more irregular. Mozayan ol-Saltaneh herself died suddenly of a heart attack in September 1919 in Semnan, aged just 37, during a trip to her birthplace. After her death, the publication of Shokufeh was suspended – and tragically, it never returned.
Read other articles in this series: