Special Features

Iranian Women You Should Know: The Women’s Clandestine Union

May 22, 2020
Tahereh Taslimi
10 min read
The Women's Clandestine Union was catapulted to fame by a single politically-charged newspaper article published in 1907.
The Women's Clandestine Union was catapulted to fame by a single politically-charged newspaper article published in 1907.

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.

IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.

 

"They sent us to traditional schools when we were five; not all of us, just a handful. When we reached the age of nine, they took us out again. If we could read a book or write a line, our dear fathers would cruelly take away the books and pens, tear up one and break the other, and throw them out, shouting: ‘What does it mean to have good handwriting, you want to become a secretary?’."

An anonymous woman penned this letter in May 1907 to Tamaddon (Civilization) newspaper. In it, she conjured up a precise and complete portrait of the experience of Iranian women at the time: women who were labelled "inferior" and were to be segregated and "concealed," whose only task was to please men and give birth to sons.

This woman may or may not have been aware that on the other side of the same city where she lived, a group of women had already decided to form a secret association. They wanted and, in time, were able to change this historic precedent, helping to cast off centuries-old stagnation by forming an association called the Women's Clandestine Union.

Though the names of the founders and members of this union are not recorded, it was one of the first and most influential feminist groups in the history of Iranian women. For this reason, though they chose to remain anonymous, we have no hesitation in including its founders within our series Iranian Women You Should Know.

 

A Trickle, Then a Flood

There is no record of exactly when or how this group of women determined to form a secret association. We do not know which progressive, egalitarian women were instrumental in its foundation. What is known is that it was formed in 1907 in the home of a constitutionalist in Tehran, shortly before the bombardment of the Iranian parliament.

Historical documents show the Women’s Clandestine Union was active even before its official foundation. Women were actively involved in demonstrations during the Constitutional Revolution, meaning it was no longer possible to ignore their existence to the same degree as before. Certain written sources mention a woman who managed to reach then-King Mozaffar ad-Din Shah's carriage to give him a letter, which deeply affected him. If was following this exchange that the monarch went to Sahebqaranieh Palace and signed the Constitutional Oder.

That woman is said to have been the aunt of Mirza Jahangir Khan, a writer and prominent revolutionary. Her house was the meeting place for the clandestine association, and her letter had been submitted to the king with the help of several constitutionalist men and women.

On 28 September 1906, a few months after the Constitutional Order was signed, the newspaper Habl ol-Matin reported that during one of the protests 100 women had entered the street running behind Sabzeh Maydan Street, marching on a mosque in the company of revolutionary Mohammad Tabatabaei. The women passed the court house and crossed a line of soldiers and doorkeepers, but were then attacked by the soldiers. Two of the women suffered head injuries but they nevertheless continued their march.

Evidently, the group’s descent into the streets was both organized and coordinated, and it must have been formed in the women's compartments of nearby houses. The move marked the beginning of regular demonstrations. Important newspapers such as Habl ol-Matin and Tamaddon published letters by women in which they clearly addressed women's rights and their struggle to secure the right to education. Their demands were undisputable. They wanted to study, come out of the harems, and see radical change to the ruling patriarchal culture. Nevertheless, they did not confine their protests to such demands, also calling for freedom of speech across the board. The Women's Clandestine Union was probably the first such group, created by and for women, joining in with and addressing political debates of the day.

In a letter to Habl ol-Matin newspaper, one liberal woman wrote: "Iranian newspapers primarily write about freedom of the press. By virtue of its freedom, the press can resurrect the dead. Dear brother, if newspapers are national mirrors to reflect the shortcomings [of society], they why do they not describe these defects as they should?"

She continues writing about freedom, describing it as a phenomenon that does not call a virtue evil out of fear, and does not portray an evil as a virtue out of dread. She advocated standing up to newspapers’ editors and management and encouraging them to speak plainly to their audience.

Even though women were at the very beginning of a long path toward equality in Iran, they were evidently well-versed in politics. Their scant learning had helped them read the newspapers and study politics in their own time. Many of these women had sat quietly behind the closed doors of the women's compartments in their houses, eavesdropping on men. They memorised what they heard and repeated it at their own gatherings.

 

Demands for Redress in Political Spaces

What made the Women’s Clandestine Union famous was a single article entitled Mokhadarat (Women), which was published in the 70th issue of Neday-e Vatan magazine in 1907. The author demanded both women's right to vote and their presence in parliament of the new National Consultative Assembly and MPs. The article is counted among the most strident political assertions by women after the Constitutional Revolution. Its author demanded that women be able to participate in ongoing national reform, and signed off with The Women’s Clandestine Union.

The tone of the article was sharp. "Today,” it asserted, “everybody knows that any widow has the right to enter the National Consultative Assembly and we demand our rights. It has been 14 months since the Constitution was established and we spend our cherished days and nights reading newspapers to find out what the National Consultative Assembly has said and done.

“Obviously our MPs have established parliament for recreational purposes. The parliament is the space in which to enact laws. Where are your laws? What happened?... If our exalted MPs can finish legislation by the end of Ramadan and make provisions for public welfare, it will be a great relief. If you find no such progressiveness in yourself and wish to continue as before, resign from the job and inform us officially through Neday-e Vatan newspaper. Leave the work to us women for 40 days, on the condition that it not be taken as an insult, because our lives depend on each other. Without us, you will not be."

The writer’s plan for women’s running the country for 40 days ran as follows: "We amend the law. We regulate the police force. We appoint the governors. We send guidelines to the provinces. We eradicate the roots of cruelty and autocracy. We kill the despots. We break into the wheat and oat barns of the rich. We make a company for the bread. We empty the treasuries of the ministers, accumulated from the people's blood, stored in the cellars. We establish a National Bank. We drive away the Ottomans."

The article was in effect an official statement, announcing the existence of the Women’s Clandestine Union. It established the women's movement as a political movement, and initiated the idea of a struggle against the patriarchal-masculine society and state protecting the ruling traditions, culture, religion, economy, and law. The advancement of the women's movement became interlocked with the approach of ruling powers.

The letter and other similar activities had plenty of critics, many of whom were women themselves. A female reader named Zarin Khanum responded to the article in Neday-e Vatan, asking the original author to revise their position and concentrate in a more measured way on removing the obstacles and problems lying in women’s paths.

According to historical sources, the Women’s Clandestine Union’s sessions were held at private houses. No news was published about them, save for the letters they anonymously sent to newspapers.

The organization was the first to draw attention to girls in Quchan being sold off to Russian Turkmen and used the media to demand an investigation into the apparent practice. Later, the Union opted to make its presence felt in the National Consultative Assembly through a proxy: Morteza Qolikhan Naeini, a representative of Isfahan landowners.

In an official session of the Assembly, Naeini produced a ticket on behalf of the Union and said: "I have obtained a ticket, which I will read to you, to see whether it is religiously permissible or not.”

The exchange that followed is described in the book The Goals and Struggles of the Iranian Women. The MP Mirza Mahmud Khan reportedly said the issue of the Union’s existence and goals were not negotiable in parliament and ministries should be told not to allow such associations to take shape.

Mirza Fazlali Aqa apparently, acknowledged that such associations did no harm, but added: “As we are familiar with the nature of our country's women, I do not think pious women would join this path, and I think those who are corrupt and tendentious wish to provoke corruption through such associations.”

One vocal proponent, however, was Vakil ol-Roaya, who reportedly said: "The name of this association has recently been invented. What harm is there for a group of women to gather and learn virtues from each other? If it becomes clear that such gatherings would give rise to perversions related to religion and the world, they should be closed down. Otherwise there is basically nothing wrong with that."

It was proposed that the issue not be addressed in the National Consultative Assembly, and instead discussed in the newspapers. But the content of this debate was summarily removed from the minutes of the Iranian parliament and the newspapers did not address it either.

The only subsequent article to deal with the question of the Union was published in the Charand o Parand column of Suresrafil newspaper. "Why is it,” stormed the author, “that each time our women gather and write to the Consultative Assembly and the cabinet, beseeching permission to open modern girls' schools and women’s organizations, our MPs and representatives do not support them, and even oppose the idea?"

It seems the main reason for the MPs' opposition had been the article Mokhadarat, because it had addressed political issues directly – instead of women's daily life. From these MPs' perspective, the Women's Clandestine Union and its reformist stance signalled an impending transformation in the position of Iranian women, who could no longer remain behind the closed walls of the harems. It was a credible threat to the misogynistic worldview of that era. Members of the Women’s Clandestine Union remained veiled, so as not to disturb the sensibilities of this masculinist society overmuch. But through their early gatherings and public correspondence, they paved the way for later, bigger associations, such as Iran’s Nationalist Women and Women of the Homeland.

 

Read other articles in this series: 

Roshanak Nodust, Headmistress of Saadat School

Mahshid Amirshahi, Writer, Journalist and Satirist

Parvin Motamed Amini, A Life Devoted to Education

Nahid Pirnazar, Professor of Iranian and Jewish History

Farangis Yeganegi, Mother of Persian Handicrafts

Ashraf Bahador-Zadeh, Iran’s Mother Teresa

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