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 using the pseudonym Zohreh Zolghadr for security reasons.
Even if Roshanak Nodust had not been born in the city of Rasht in northern Iran, and in the house of Haj Seyyed Hasan Tabib, a physician who had studied abroad, she would have always chosen the path she did, such was the level of her commitment to educating girls. As leftist politics gained ground in Iran, Roshanak Nodust became well known and respected for founding a girls' school, for her role in Iran’s leftist feminist movement, and for launching the country’s first communist magazine for women.
In 1917, at the age of 23, Nodoust opened the school in the city of her birth at her own expense, encouraging students to learn about life outside of their immediate surroundings, and to push for progress in their own lives."You, my daughters! What will separate you from the orange seller on the street is your knowledge,” she advised the students, adding that being a nice, hardworking person was important, but not enough to ensure a good life. “A nice and self-sacrificing mother without knowledge is not enough,” she said.
Roshanak Nodust was the daughter of Haj Seyyed Hasan Tabib, also known as Aqa Mir, a physician whose father was the influential religious leader Mirza Yahya Nuri, also known as Subh-i-Azal. After finishing his preliminary education, Seyyed Hasan went to Turkey and studied medicine at the Istanbul Medicine Dar ol-Funun. On returning to Iran, he opened a clinic in Rasht.
His father before him had five wives, and Aqa Mir’s mother was named Maryam. He followed his father’s tradition and married seven women, Roshanak Nodust’s mother Khanum Jan among them. They met and married in Rasht, and she gave birth to Roshanak in 1894, although she and Aqa Mir did not give their daughter the name by which she became known— Roshanak Nodust changed both her first and last names when she was a young woman.
Aqa Mir paid special attention to his children's education and personally taught them. In addition to a basic education, he gave Roshanak lessons in literature and French language. She then went on to be taught by Mirza Hasan Sadr, who continued her education in literature, as well as teaching her Arabic and mathematics. She also became fluent in Russian, which was one of the reasons she became drawn to communism.
A Revolutionary Time
Nodust was a young woman during the time of Iran’s Constitutional Movement and its success. It had an immense impact on the lives of Iranian women and girls, and although girls faced numerous obstacles, schools for girls began to emerge in the country. Inspired by this, Nodust opened Saadat Nesvan, which taught four grades to girls.
"The main building of Nesvan School was in Sabzeh Maydan Street, with Sabzeh Maydan Garden exactly opposite,” Mahmoud Nafisi wrote about the school’s opening. “Every day, when the school finished at noon for lunch and once again in the afternoon, Roshanak would stand next to Sabzeh Maydan Garden to make sure that the boys did not bother the girls.”
Driven by her belief in communism, Roshanak Nodust considered herself to be a socialist rather than a religious person. She spent most of her time and money on educating girls and overseeing the running of the school. She was against girls and women wearing hijab, and did not allow pupils to wear hijab at school. She, however, observed the custom.
"When the classes were over, pupils would line up in two queues with the head girls leading them along Sabzeh Maydan Street,” Mahmoud Nafisi wrote. “The school was on one side of this street, and the pupils walked on the opposite side along Sabzeh Maydan Garden. Roshanak would stand in front of the school, making sure that the pupils walked in an orderly manner and did not wear hijab until they reached the end of the street, where they were free to leave the queue and wear hijab if they wished."
Nodust emphasized the importance of modesty and decency when it came to dress and manners. She regularly inspected students’ nails to ensure they were kept tidy and not too long, and she did not approve of short skirts. In fact, both students and teachers were required to wear a uniform. They had to wear special uniforms.
Although she considered herself to be a socialist rather than a religious person, the school taught religious studies, and employed teachers from of Muslim, Christian and Baha’i faiths.
According to Mahmud Nafisi, Roshanak Nodust was very strict about educational criteria.”Even though Saadat Nesvan school was a private school and the pupils had to pay tuition, paying was not enough. The more important condition was pupils' perseverance. Her school in Rasht was an exemplary school, known for its high educational standards. Along with the pupils who paid the tuition fee, there were also a number of highly talented poor pupils who were exempt from paying."
At the time, Rasht was famous for its relative liberalism, which gave Nodust greater freedom in running the school. Nafisi pointed out that, with the government increasing emphasis on children's education, the school enjoyed a certain level of support. "For example, a number of its teachers were official government teachers,” he said, adding that the teachers were relatively well educated, which was uncommon for women of that period.
“Demanding Fundamental Change”
Not only did Nodust take education for girls seriously, she was also committed to ensuring the teachers received adequate salaries. The school soon became a gathering place for women leading the campaign for egalitarian rights. At that time, left and communist movements were widespread in the province of Gilan. Mirza Kuchak Khan Jangali initiated the leftist movement in the region and some of his colleagues, including the prominent Marxist politician Ehsanollah Khan Dustdar, were fervently spreading Bolshevik ideology, which was taking shape in Iran's northern neighbor. The Russian Revolution of October 1917, the same year that Nodust started her school, overthrew Tsarist rule and replaced it with a communist regime, an event that had a powerful impact in Gilan province.
The first congress of the Iranian Communist Party was held in Anzali port in Gilan in 1920, and motivated women to form a communist association. The association took its name from Roshanank's school and came to be known as the Peyk-e Saadat Nesvan association, or the Association of Women's Wellness.
As well as Nodust, the founders of the association included Jamileh Sediqi, Sakineh Shabrang and Oranus Paryab. Soon after it was founded, the association started publishing a magazine, also entitled Peyk-e Saadat Nesvan, which is considered to be the first magazine in Iran with the aim of supporting women's rights.
Nodust’s editorial for the first issue of Peyk-e Saadat Nesvan, published on October 6, 1927 said: "At a time when the curtains of misfortune and thousands of other adverse factors have hindered women's progress and when the social principles of all the silent and backward nations are resuming a new modern face, and finally as Iran has also woken up from its slumber...with the catastrophic situation for women's lives and education, we too do not see it as appropriate to remain silent. So we are picking up our pens to show the causes and the roots of misery and to demand a fundamental change."
The magazine was distributed not only in Gilan, but throughout the country. Through launching literacy and other classes, the Peyk-e Saadat Nesvan association worked to increase women's awareness and knowledge. The association also opened a library in Rasht, using its reading room for speeches, plays and other cultural events — all aimed at advancing women’s knowledge and access to the world.
Saeed Nafisi was one of several people invited to come and speak. “The liberal and modernist women of Rasht, still wearing chador, invited me to their houses for discussions,” he wrote in his memoirs. He described Roshanak Nodust as “the most brilliant educator of girls in Rasht” and said he was pleased to be acquainted with her and Sorour Mahkameh Mohases, one of the leaders of the women's movement in Gilan, throughout those important years.
The Peyk-e Saadat Nesvan association held Iran’s first international woman's day in Bandar Anzali in 1921, and Rasht hosted the event the following year. In 1927, the Women's Awakening Organization marked International Women’s Day by staging The Victim Girl by well-known writer and politician Mirzadeh Eshqi.
Little is known about Roshanak Nodust's private life. Some accounts say that she married for a short time, although it is is not known whether her husband died or the couple divorced. She remained single most of her life and never had children, though she was s the guardian for two of her father's youngest children, Hedayatollah and Muluk. The latter lived with her throughout her life and taught at her school, acting as her deputy.
Politics and society were always important to her. During the time that prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh was working toward Iran gaining more independence and becoming less reliant on other countries, Nodust’s school collected national bonds to support the government, selling the most bonds of any school in Rasht.
In the spring of 1959, Nodust traveled to Tehran for medical reasons, accompanied by her sister Muluk and her sister’s children. Her condition could not be treated, and she died in the hospital and was later buried in Ibn Babveh cemetery in Rey, Tehran province.
Roshanak Nodust’s school in Rasht continued its work until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After the revolution it remained open, but changed its name, despite public objection. However, the school and its founder live on in the memories of Rasht and its residents.
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