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Iranian Women You Should Know: Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh

May 30, 2020
Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
8 min read
Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh, the mother of Mohammad Mossadegh, who was prime minister from 1951 to 1953, is also known for founding Iran’s first modern hospital
Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh, the mother of Mohammad Mossadegh, who was prime minister from 1951 to 1953, is also known for founding Iran’s first modern hospital

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, and 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.

 

Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh is remembered for two reasons: for founding Tehran’s first modern hospital and being the mother of Dr Mohammad Mossadegh, who served as prime minister of Iran from 1951 to 1953.

Najm ol-Saltaneh, a Qajar princess, donated her own personal assets and wealth toward the establishment of the Najmieh Hospital in 1927. A year later, the hospital was endowed to the city's poor and needy. It was also where her son spent his last hours. 

She was born in 1854 and, as was the custom for the noble families in those days, was schooled in the family’s backyard by a private tutor. Although the first girls' schools had already been established in Iran, including the Dushizegan school run by writer and feminist Bibi Khanum Astarabadi, girls from religious families were still not allowed to attend these public schools.

Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh’s noble connections were extensive. She was the granddaughter of Qajar crown prince Abbas Mirza and the daughter of Qajar prince Firouz Mirza Nosrat ol-Dowleh. Her brother Mozafar ol-Din was shah from 1896 until his death in 1907, and her brother, Qajar prince Abdol Hossein Mirza Farmanfarma, was an influential politician in the early 1900s.

"If you had seen her, you would have loved her and, and like others, you would have called her Dear Princess,” Mosaddegh's daughter Mansoureh wrote in her memoirs of her grandmother Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh.

Najm ol-Saltaneh married Morteza Gholi Khan Nouri, a vakil al-molk, or minister, and a man she had never met, at the age of 16, becoming one of his many wives. The marriage was arranged by her father, who was the war minister at the time. Khan Nouri ruled Kerman province and had received military training in Russia, so Najm ol-Saltaneh’s dowry comprised of a quarter of Ismail Abad village in the province. After the wedding, she was sent to Kerman accompanied by a number of servants.

During her time in Kerman, Najm ol-Saltaneh gave birth to two daughters, Eshrat ol-Dowleh and Showkat ol-Dowleh.

But Kerman brought unhappy days for her. Her stay in the city coincided with her husband falling into debt, exacerbated by the annual drought. The taxes resident paid were only enough to maintain the city and did not reach the central government. Times had become unkind to the region, and as workers and the hungry began to revolt, the price of bread and grain rose. As the famine worsened, textile workers looted merchants' houses in Kerman.

Senior authorities ordered that the looting workers face discipline, but her husband refused, insisting that the looting had been carried out by an isolated group who had been driven by extreme hunger. He resigned and left for Tehran, where he died shortly after. Najm ol-Saltaneh became a widow at a young age. 

Shortly afterward, in 1881, she married another member of the royal family, Mirza Hedayatollah, whose family had been in charge of the Qajar dynasty's finances for many years. He served as both minister of finance and of the army. With a solid education in modern sciences and religious texts, he also became famous for his interpretations of the Koran.

The marriage between Najm ol-Saltaneh and Mirza Hedayalloah is remembered in history because of the son they had together, Mohammad Mosaddegh, a man who changed the course of Iran's history.

When Mirza Hedayatollah died from cholera at the age of 76, Najm ol-Saltaneh, who was 40 at the time, mourned his death for two years. Mohammad Mossadegh was 10 and her daughter, Daftar ol-Moluk, was eight years old.

Mohammad Mosaddegh had been very close to his father, and this loss brought him closer to his mother. She was said to have had a significant influence on him, in terms of character, manners and even the way he spoke. Some accounts say she influenced his decisions and the actions he took, and that he was loyal to her wishes and followed her advice.  

 

The Birth of Najmieh Hospital

Najm ol-Saltaneh remarried, this time to Fazlolah Khan who had long been an envoy in St. Petersburg, Russia, and whose first wife had died. Khan was Minister of Confidential Affairs for the court of Muzaffar ol-Din Shah. The couple lived in Tabriz.

Fazlolah Khan died at the age of 57, leaving Najm ol-Saltaneh and his son Abolhasan Diba valuable property in Tehran. 

One of the buildings he left her later became the Najmieh Hospital in Tehran and remains so to this day. The hospital, situated at the end of Hafez Street in the Old Gate of Yusefabad neighborhood, has been registered in Iran’s list of National Monuments since 2003, and Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh is commemorated in the list of philanthropic women in Iranian history for founding it. After the 1979 revolution, however, Najmieh Hospital was taken over by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and is now a subsidiary of Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences.

At the time of its construction, Najmieh Hospital was considered a modern and unique medical center, and its innovative approach demanded substantial funding. As a result, Najm ol-Saltaneh, determined to ensure the hospital continued to support the community, sold the properties that had been left to her by her three deceased husbands and her father to buy the necessary equipment for the hospital and maintain its upkeep. From the opening of the hospital on December 6, 1961 until her death in 1932, Najm ol-Saltaneh lived in a small house on the edge of the Najmieh Hospital complex and, together with her daughters, personally supervised the affairs of the hospital and the wages of workers and medical staff. She also advocated for free healthcare, urging the hospital's admissions department to treat patients for free if they could not afford the medical fees. Upon her retirement, she left the running of the hospital in the hands of her daughters, a responsibility that was rare for women to have in Iran during that time. 

Najm ol-Saltaneh and her brother Abdol Hossein Mirza Farmanfarma, who briefly held a powerful position in government, had a close relationship. Their love and support for one another was famous, especially when Najm ol-Saltaneh made the long and difficult journey to visit her brother when the government sent him into exile after the political leadership of the country shifted. 

Najmal al-Saltanah's niece Maryam Firouz described her aunt: "A little woman who answered our bow by moving her head and quickly passing away. White pink face with bright greenish eyes. Her nose was thin and curved. She had a clear mind and a sharp and somewhat harsh language. At the age of 80, she personally supervised the Najmieh Hospital. My father was very fond of her and always respected her.”

 

A Woman of Letters in Changing Times

In 1896, Nasser ol-Din Shah was assassinated and Muzaffar ol-Din Shah, the husband of Najm ol-Saltaneh's sister, became the new king. Najm ol-Saltaneh was said to have had a very good relationship with him, and there are stories of her mediating between the couple when they were at odds with one another. 

Najm ol-Saltaneh's detailed, pointed letters to her brother reveal the depth of her wisdom and her awareness of current affairs, including Russia’s influence over Iran and the financial crisis. In them, she spoke openly of what was going on in the country, and did not hold back criticism of the government of Iran, or even of the actions taken by the king. 

Mohammad Mosaddegh later said repeatedly that he owed everything he had to his mother and the way she raised him. "My mother explained to me that the importance of the individual in society is equal to the suffering they make for the sake of the people," he wrote.

Najm ol-Saltaneh had dreams for her son Mohammad, and hoped he would marry the king's daughter, his cousin, but Najm ol-Saltaneh’s sister did not agree to the match. She then encouraged her son to marry Zia al-Saltanah, the daughter of Tehran's Friday prayer imam and whose mother was the granddaughter of the former shah, Nasser ol-Din Shah. The couple were married soon after. 

When she was older, Najm ol-Saltaneh traveled to Switzerland with her son, and their relationship remained strong. 

A champion for the rights of women and children, and a fierce advocate for healthcare, Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh died in 1932, and did not live to see her son become prime minister in 1951, or witness his later imprisonment and exile following the coup against him in 1953. Revealing the strength of the bond between Mohammad Mossadegh and his mother, he once said: "In this world, I love two things; my mother and Iran, my homeland."

Today, a  copper plaque on the east side of Najmieh Hospital commemorates her life and work, and the words engraved express a philosophy that inspired her throughout her life: ”You reap what you sow.” She will be remembered for her contributions to modern-day Iran, for her tough resilience, her candid way of speaking and dealing with the public, and for her benevolence.

 

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

Nahid Pirnazar, Professor of Iranian and Jewish History

Ashraf Bahador-Zadeh, Iran’s Mother Teresa

Razieh Ebrahimzadeh, Wanderer and Communist Firebrand

 

 

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