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Special Features

Iranian Women You Should Know: Razieh Ebrahimzadeh

May 27, 2020
IranWire Citizen Journalist
11 min read
Razieh Ebrahimzadeh pictured alongside her husband, Reza Ebrahimzadeh
Razieh Ebrahimzadeh pictured alongside her husband, Reza Ebrahimzadeh
Ebrahimzadeh remained a communist firebrand up until her death at the age of 87
Ebrahimzadeh remained a communist firebrand up until her death at the age of 87

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.

 

Right up until her death at the age of 87 on January 30, 2012, Razieh Ebrahimzadeh had been as revolutionary as she was 70 years before. The communist firebrand had always held true to her ideals, which had seen her sent to prison as the first woman in the contemporary history of Pahlavi era to be incarcerated for her political activities.

But neither her own detention, nor the tragic death of her son in prison, nor her years spent abroad in self-exile, shook Ebrahimzadeh’s relentless belief in the communist Tudeh Party of Iran.  Her published Memoirs of a Woman Follower of the Tudeh Party is written proof of her unerring dedication to the cause.

 

Growing Up in Poverty

Born in May 1925 in the city of Tabriz, Razieh Ebrahimzadeh came from a large working-class family. Razieh Shabani Gholami, as she was then, describes her father in her memoir as a noble cook and laborer who took care of his family of nine, working hard so that his seven children could be educated and make something of themselves.

Razieh was the fifth child. Her sister had left school in the third grade because of their low income. Despite the difficult conditions, Razieh was able to attend Iran’s first primary school, which happened to open in Tabriz. She writes in her memoir: "The monster of poverty pressed and hurt me with its rough, cruel claws. My father could not afford to pay for my education, or even for my chador. I had to wear a scarf when I went to school, which was regarded as profane at the time."

Not only did she have to go to school without a chador, but faced the constant scolding of the headmistress as a consequence. This particular problem, however, did not last more than a year or so, because in January 1935 Reza Shah Pahlavi ordered that Iranian women stop wearing chador and veil.

The young Razieh was delighted. That said, she still had to wear a gray school uniform, with white collar and wristbands. The family’s living conditions were deteriorating every day and another of her sisters left school. It was hard for Razieh, too, to continue attending school. Her own circumstances were made more difficult because teaching in minority languages was forbidden, and Razieh, whose mother tongue was Turkish, had to learn Farsi at the same time.

In forth grade she came to know a teacher called Ms. Baradaran who had a profound influence on her future ideological leanings. Ms. Baradaran treated her kindly, she later recalled, and gave her self-confidence. But this joy did not last long because Ms. Baradaran was sent to another school. Razieh sat for her fifth grade examination in September instead of June due to the typhoid epidemic, and completed her sixth grade at the Church School Barnova in Tabriz.

 

Forced to Tehran Amid a Communist Revolt

Ebrahimzadeh’s youth coincided with the rise of the Azarbaijan Democratic Party under Pishevari's leadership. Just as she was studying at high school, her future husband, Reza Ebrahimzadeh, became one of the members of The Fifty-Three: a group of 53 Iranians arrested in Tehran for involvement in communist political activities and sent to Qasr prison.

On August 24, 1941, the Allied Forces attacked Iran. The Russians occupied the north and the British took the south of the country. In her memories, Ebrahimzadeh writes that her father was an excellent cook and before the war his salary had been 60 tomans a month: not bad, if not enough for their large family. But the war cut that salary dramatically and forced the family to disperse. Together with her parents, Razieh moved to Tehran.

The family’s life in Tehran took place under the shadow of war, famine and scarcity. Together with her sister, Ebrahimzadeh weas under pressure to marry. But unlike her sister, she did not allow her family to choose a suitor for her, and chose her husband herself. By that time she had come to know Reza, a man the same age as her father with a few hard years of imprisonment and hunger strike behind him. Razieh calls him "the Master" in her memoirs, describing him thus: "He was forty years old, with an ugly rough face, but an extremely beautiful nature."

She met her husband at her neighbor's house and was soon infatuated with his mannerisms and behavior. She married him at the age of 16.  In a later interview, she would reflect: "I was only 16 when I married, which was also the result of living in a particular social and economic time. I had numerous questions at that young age and was searching hard for the answers. Life conditions forced me to marry. Maybe it was just an accident that Reza Ebrahimzadeh, one of The Fifty-Three of Reza Shah's era, appeared in my path. He answered my questions and actually trained me as a social-political woman. He was 23 years older than me, but we loved each other."

 

Turning Family Tragedy Into Political Zeal

Reza had been sentenced to five years of penal servitude. After his release from prison he had taken a job as a locomotive driver. He was also devoted to politics, chairing the Railway Workers’ Union and maintaining close links with the Tudeh Party's Central Committee. On May 1, 1944, the Central Council of Workers' Unions, led by Reza Rusta, the Laborers’ and Farmers’ Union, led by Khalil Enqelab and Yusef Eftekhari, and the Railway Workers’ Union, led by Reza Ebrahimzadeh, gathered in one of the gardens in Shemiranat district of Tehran and formed the United Council of Workers' Unions.

During this period, Ebrahimzadeh tragically lost her eldest son to malnutrition. It took place in the midst of internal party conflicts and the arrest of active members of the Tudeh Party. According to Ebrahimzadeh, this son, whose name was Damir, was born during a period of “bewilderment” when the young family did not have sufficient income to survive. She could not breastfeed him because she herself had nothing to eat, filled their stomach only with the bread that a neighbor provided them with. The bread was not good for the infant's stomach and he died of gastric bleeding in his 18 year-old mother's arms – on the very same day the United Council of Workers' Unions was formed.

This did not lead the couple to abandon politics, which had an impact on their love life as well. While Reza was engaged in armed struggles, Ebrahimzadeh busied herself with forming the Women Workers' Unions, which later joined forces with Maryam Firuz's Women’s Democratic Organization.

The couple’s second son, Victor, died of fever and inflammation at the age of three. At the time of his death, both of his parents were busy holding meetings. The death of her second son only encouraged Ebrahimzadeh to devote herself with ever more fervour to political activity and propaganda for the Tudeh Party.

 

A Life of Wandering

Ebrahimzadeh later became the first woman political prisoner in the history of Iran, and was sentenced to multiple long terms of imprisonment. "During the early years of the constitutional movement,” she recalls, “before Reza Shah's enthronement, a number of women were arrested by police officers on charges of activities that would lead to the awakening of girls and women, and liberating them from backwardness and ignorance.

“I have not managed to find any documentation to show long they were detained for. But according to existing books on the constitutional and women's Movements, one can conclude that Ms. Sediqeh Dolatabadi and Mohtaram Eskandari were repeatedly attacked and arrested. However, under Reza Shah's reign, Ms. Shokat Rusta and Jamileh Sediqi, who were among the activists of Peyk-e Sadat Nesvan, were also arrested and condemned to four years in exile.”

In an interview, Ebrahimzadeh said she was arrested for the first time in 1946: "I was arrested in Takestan in mid-March and imprisoned for a month in Qazvin prison."

She is also the first woman known to have gone on hunger strike in prison, which proved to be an effective approach and led to her release within a fortnight. But her joy did not last long. When she arrived back in Tehran, Ebrahimzadeh was met with terrible news: "My mother was told that the gendarmes had handcuffed her daughter and broke her arm and chest. My mother heaved a sigh, fell into bed, and died in hospital a little while later."

After mourning for her mother, Ebrahimzadeh continued her political activities anew. Later on that same year she would be arrested again and detained for a week during national railway workers’ strikes. Her longest period of imprisonment, though, began in January 1947, when she was pregnant again.

"I was arrested in January,” she writes, “and was in the prisons of Tehran and Tabriz until early March 1952. I was tried four times: by a military court in the first instance, and then by the courts of appeal in Tehran and Tabriz. The appeal courts condemned me to two years; in the courts of Tehran I was first sentenced to four and later five years. My defense was that I was defending women's rights. At that time, however, there were still no prisons for women. They had rented a house and turned it into a women's prison ward."

Ebrahimzadeh gave birth to a baby boy on September 25, 1947 at a police hospital in Tabriz, and nicknamed him "Fugitive." She was later sent to a different prison in Tehran, in Hoquqi Street. In her memoir, Ebrahimzadeh says there were no other women prisoners there until 1952: "I was the only woman. At the end of that year 16 to 17 female pupils and students protested and distributed leaflets against the Shah during the November 25 ceremony [to mark the Shah's birthday] in Amjadieh Square. They were arrested and brought to the prison.”

Ebrahimzadeh herself was finally released together with her son in March 1952 after another hunger strike. After that, she led a low-profile, clandestine life for a few years before finally leaving Iran for the Soviet Union to join her husband. She first travelled to Vienna, and then to Poland, before finally arriving in Moscow on September 1, 1955. There she met a contact who told her Reza was living in a camp near Stalinabad – modern-day Dushanbe – in Tajikistan. There, the family were finally reunited after many years apart.

Ebrahimzadeh’s son “Fugitive” was sent to a boarding school for communist children in Ivanov and saw his father only once before his course ended. He remained there for seven years, studying mechanics, and rejoined his parents in the Soviet Union after graduation.

But through no fault of his own, Reza Ebrahimzadeh would soon leave his wife and son alone once more. He faced residency problems in the Soviet Union during the 1960s, then fell sick and became paralyzed, and died of a stroke. Before his death, his wife recounts, he had three wishes. The first was to give his memoirs to Taqi Shahin, official historian of the Tudeh Party. The second was to burn his corpse and pour the ashes on the outcrops of the Alborz Mountains whenever practicably possible. The third was to invite his friends, known as the 36 Brothers, to gather around his corpse.

After his father's death, “Fugitive” soon married and moved away from his mother. Ebrahimzadeh remained in the Soviet Union for another 26 years, studying and later becoming a teacher.

Meanwhile in Iran, after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Tudeh Party had resumed its activities. Ebrahimzadeh finally returned to Iran full of hope, and tracked down the remaining members of her family. But the tables were soon turned and her nomadic existence resumed. "I stayed in my homeland for seven years. Following attacks on the Tudeh Party, I continued to live for three and half years in my country, which had turned into a prison, until they decided to arrest me. With a bleeding heart and endless nostalgia, I was forced to emigrate for the second time."

Ebrahimzadeh traveled to Azerbaijan, which was still a Soviet republic. A short time later she made her way to East Berlin. There, she witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. In her memoirs, which she penned in Berlin, she writes of her longing to see Iran again and kiss its soil – right up until the winter of 2012, when she died in isolation, bequeathing her memories of years of struggle for the Iranian people to a foreign land.

 

Read other articles in this series: 

The Women's Clandestine Union, Anonymous Political Agitators

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

Ashraf Bahador-Zadeh, Iran’s Mother Teresa

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