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.
Were a list to be compiled of influential women within the Iranian private sector, democratic institutions and charities, the name of Ashraf Bahador-Zadeh (née Qandehari) would crown it.
The late founder of the Kahrizak Ladies’ Charitable Society, a large benevolent institution which she directed for more than 10 years, was so dedicated to her work that endowed all the property left to her by her father and husband to charity.
The story of Ashraf Bahador-Zadeh begins on a dark night: the night on which the former Ms. Qandehari transformed into a humanitarian force of nature. She would go on to support hundreds of old, invalid, and lonely men and women with the help of Benevolent Women’s Group.
Born into a cultivated family from Mashhad, as a young woman Bahador-Zadeh moved to her father's house in Shemiran, in Tehran province, after marrying her father's cousin. Her father, Haj Mohsen Qandehari, was a well-known bazaar merchant who had opened a small mosque in his garden in Shemiran and hosted classes in religion. One of these was led by Sharifeh Katuzian, who gave lectures on the Koran and morality to devout local women.
Bahador-Zadeh began to attend the classes. She was struck by the remarks her teacher made at the end of every session, telling her pupils to help the weak in a way that did not undermine their dignity.
A Chance Encounter in the Dead of Night
Having a mosque in the family home meant everyone in the neighborhood came to the family for help. Late one night, Bahador-Zadeh heard someone knocking at the door.
In a later interview, she would recall: "It was a cold snowy night. At about 11pm, a man came to our door. I opened the door and saw him trembling. He entered and told me about his disabled mother-in-law, who was unable to control her bladder and smelled bad; she had been posing a real problem for the family. They had just one room in their house and it smelled. He said his children had grown up and would now not come home, spending the night in the alleyway, becoming delinquent."
The woman was unwell but no hospital would accept her and her son-in-law was desperate, and disinclined to turn her out into the street. He had heard there was a charity sanitorium in Kahrizak, providing nursing care for the old and infirm. He attended two days later and beseeched them to provide such an opportunity for his mother-in-law.
"I went to that address,” the man told Bahador-Zadeh. “A paralyzed man was the doorkeeper. There were just a few rooms. They told me to bring my patient. They did not ask for any documents. We were all elated. Expressing my gratitude, I am asking you to pay a visit there. I ask you to do that, only once."
The man repeated the last sentence a few times, encouraging Bahador-Zadeh to pay a visit to the sanitorium.
In the run-up to Norooz, Iranian new year, the man’s voice echoed in Bahador-Zadeh’s ears. She asked her husband and daughter to accompany her to Kahrizak. To find the place, they were told, keep going until you the odor hits you. When you reach a foul smell, that is Kahrizak.
Immediately on arrival Bahador-Zadeh was greeted by an unsanitary wreck of a building and a desperate state of affairs. "We arrived at Kahrizak at 5am Thursday morning,” she later recalled. “Sharifeh Katuzian, from the mosque, accompanied me. As soon as we got out of the car, we saw Dr. Hakimzadeh [Mohammad Reza Hakimzadeh Lahji, then the head of Firuzabadi Hospital].
“He told me, ‘You see, you could make it!’. I was surprised and said, ‘I only just arrived’. He said, ‘Last night you came alone, but now you have company. God has doubled your force.’ There were two brooms behind the door. Pointing at them, he told us, 'Start wherever you want. I am late and have to go to the hospital.'
“So Ms. Katuzian and I began to work. The municipality would not collect the garbage because it was a remote area and the village was deprived of all facilities. We collected some firewood, boiled the water and got started."
A Lasting Legacy for Kahrizak
A nun by the name of Ms. Goldfinger later joined the pair in their endeavors, and thus the Ladies’ Charitable Society was born. It now has an army of more than 2,500 volunteers on the books who regularly attend Kahrizah to clean and support the social workers. Through the efforts spearheaded by Bahador-Zadeh, who joined the official founding committee in 1972, Kahrizak went from being a neglected sanitorium to a vast charity complex and nursing home providing respite care to up to 1,600 elderly and disabled patients.
Bahador-Zadeh also co-ordinated fundraising efforts together with the nursing home’s board of trustees. With the financial backing of good-hearted donors they were eventually able to erect a building, known as Jasmine Flower, dedicated to caring for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). She also travelled to the United States and other countries, holding charity bazars to help keep the nursing home afloat.
In the aftermath of the devastating Roudbar earthquake in 1990, Bahador-Zadeh and the Ladies’ Charitable Society were among the first to rush to the aid of stricken families in the area. They set up a sister scheme, the House of Mother and Child, in the affected zone, providing shelter and care for around 650 children orphaned in the disaster. They later did the same for those orphaned in Bam’s earthquake. Today the project supports around 500 disadvantaged women and children, providing a peaceful and nurturing environment in which they can thrive.
Nicknamed the Mother Teresa of Iran for her benevolent work at Kahrizak over four decades, Bahador-Zadeh died on February 23, 2017 at the age of 91. She will forever be remembered as the woman who, on a cold winter night and on the request of a needy family, came to know the Kahrizak sanatorium – and with the help of her friends, family and companions, turned it into a little paradise for those most in need.
Read other articles in this series: