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. TheseÂ articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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Despite allegedly playing a role in the assassination of her only son-in-law, Malek Jahan Khanom – better known as Mahd-e Olia – is a famous, rather than infamous, figure in the contemporary history of Iran. As a Persian princess in the midst of the masculinist Qajar dynasty, she managed to run the country in crisis for 40 days and nights in 1848 with no-one hurt and no attempt at rebellion.
This formidable woman sits taller than her crowned son on the peacock throne, staring at Abdollah Khan Qajar’s camera with an authoritarian and determined look in her eyes.
When the king, Mohammad Shah Qajar, drew his last breath at Mohammadieh Palace in Tajrish after a 14-year-long reign, his widow Malek Jahan Khanom wasted no time. Instead of wailing, she went straight to her room and wrote her first state order, calling on her only son, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, to come to Tehran along with his entourage to succeed his father as Shah.
In her second order, Mahd-e Olia dismissed the then-prime minister Haji Mirza Aqasi and named herself as the new incumbent, in effect becoming the crownless ruler.
Granddaughter of a King, Teenage Bride of a King-in-Waiting
She was herself the daughter of Amir Mohammad Qasem Khan Qajar, nicknamed Zahir ol-Doleh, of the ruling Qovanlu tribe, and the maternal granddaughter of Fath-Ali Shah Qajar, the second king of Qajar Iran. Her parents called her Malek Jahan (“Queen of the World”) at birth.
When Malek Jahan was just 15 years old, her uncle, Abbas Mirza, asked her father for permission to his son, Mohammad Mirza, to marry her. Zahir ol-Doleh accepted without hesitation, for not only was Abbas Mirza a great general in the two Russo-Persian wars and the bravest and most intelligent of the king’s sons, but he was also widely next in line to the throne. As Mohammad Mirza was his eldest son, he would almost definitely be the fourth Qajar king.
Abbas Mirza, along with his authoritarian prime minister, Mirza Isa Ghaem Magham Farahani, had laid down the foundations of reformism by sending a number of young Iranians abroad to study while running the country from Tabriz. But his fate took a cruel turn. He had been ill for some time before going to war with the British over Herat, together with Mohammad Mirza, who now had a son after a few years of marriage to Malek Jahan.
News of Abbas Mirza's death arrived in Tehran shortly afterward. According to some historians, Abbas Mirza's illness was the side-effect of the terrible shock of defeat he endured during the Russo-Persian wars, witnessing the death of his soldiers and knowing that he had lost a part of Iran to the Russians. Other sources, though, claim that he died of urinary failure.
Abbas Mirza's death changed the order of succession in the Qajar family. Fath-Ali Shah, whose life was intertwined with that of his brave crown prince, could not believe the news and was utterly bewildered.
During an official ceremony barely a month after Abbas Mirza's sudden death, Fath-Ali Shah violated the royal convention of choosing one among his more than 140 sons as his successor, and named Mohammad Mirza as the next king instead. This was motivated not only by his deep love and attachment to his son but by the last paragraph of the Treaty of Turkmenchai, a historic agreement that stipulated the Russians would support the Qajar kingship so long as it remained in Abbas Mirza's family. With Mohammad Mirza on the throne as Mohammad Shah, the family would benefit from the continued support of the country’s northern neighbor.
A Rightful Queen Undermined
With the naming of Mohammad Mirza as crown prince, it seemed Malek Jahan's position as future queen was secured. A short while after appointing Mohammad Mirza as his successor, Fath-Ali Shah fell sick, out of sorrow for his son's death. He died in Tehran a few months later, leaving the crown to his grandson. With Mohammad Shah as king, his now two-year-old son with Malek Jahan, Naser al-Din Mirza, was announced as the crown prince.
Malek Jahan was pregnant with her second child at the time. But she never became the queen of Mohammad Shah's court. Her husband’s newfound love for a woman from Kurdistan descended from Naqshbandi sheikhs, Khadija Begum, closed the door of the king's bedroom to Malek Jahan forever. Khadija Begum was by all accounts an ambitious woman who took the opportunity to involve herself with politics from behind the scenes.
After the assassination of Mirza Isa in Negarestan Palace, Malek Jahan faced another new rival as the king appointed his svengali, Haj Mirza Aqasi, as the new prime minister. Mohammad Shah no longer lifted a finger without Haj Mirza's permission, and on this man’s guidance he then chose to break the law of the Qajari royal family and appoint his son with Begum, Abbas Mirza Molkara, as prince regent instead.
The decision deepened the rift between Malek Jahan and her husband, turning them into enemies. Malek Jahan appealed to the family's elders for help. She also reminded her husband that the king’s mother must have the blood of the Qovanlu tribe, making her the only acceptable queen of Mohammad Shah’s then-three wives, and making their only son, Naser al-Din Mirza, the only prince worthy of becoming the Qajar family’s regent.
This caused Mohammad Shah some embarrassment. In retaliation, he placed their five-year-old son in the custodianship of Mirza Taghi Khan Farahani, a former family retainer and confidante of Abbas Mirza, and sent the pair to Tabriz.
It was hard for Malek Jahan to be away from her son, but she did not surrender. While her husband was crown prince, she had come to know a French woman who was the wife of Haji Abbas e-Golsaz, the official painter of Mohammad Mirza who had travelled to France on the prince’s order to learn how to make artificial flowers.
His wife, whose first name is unknown but who was known as Madame Abbas e-Golsaz, was from Orleans and was familiar with flower-making techniques herself as well as hairdressing and sewing. She had studied Persian and Arabic and was also familiar with Music, read the Koran with a fine voice, head beautiful handwriting and had stealthily learned the fundamentals of politics from her husband.
These skills saw her earn the affection and respect of Malek Jahan. In time, Madame Abbas e-Golsaz would become Mahd-e Olia’s most important advisor when she ran the country. The king’s wife entrusted her with the upbringing of her son and daughter, Naser al-Din and Malekzadeh Ezzat ed-Dowleh.
Taking the Reins – and Taking Revenge
After 14 years of kingship, Mohammad Shah died of gout on September 5, 1848 at Mohammadieh Palace in Tajrish, aged just 44. When the physical condition of the king had first begun to deteriorate, his wife had taken the reins.
She sent a letter to the British and Russian embassies, and via the British Embassy was able to inform Tabriz that the King was not well and they should make preparations to bring Naser al-Din Mirza back to Tehran.
In the meantime, contrary to all the customs of the Iranian monarchy, Mahd e-Olia took the position of regent and became vice president of the royal council along with the elders and statesmen of the Qajar family. According to historical sources, during these 40 days, a curtain was set up in the main hall of the Golestan Palace and Malek Jahan, known as Mahd-e Olia because she was the king's mother, sat behind it and composed state orders using her own stamp and signature.
After seizing power, she dismissed the hated prime minister and ordered the killing of Khadija Begum and her son. But Mohammad Shah's Kurdish wife claimed asylum in the court of Farhad Mirza Motamed ol-Dowleh, Mahd-e Olia's other uncle, and in this way saved both her own life and that of her son.
Naser al-Din Shah's coronation did not force Mahd-e Olia back to the harem. She was displeased with her son’s decision to appoint his trainer Mirza Taghii Khan Farahani, nicknamed Amir Kabir, as prime minister because she saw him a selfish man. Unable to block this move outright, she instead arranged a marriage between Amir Kabir and her daughter Malekzadeh.
Despite this attempt to neutralize the prime minister, the animosity between Amir Kabir and Mahd-e Olia worsened on a daily basis, to the extent that Amir Kabir asked the Shah to prevent his mother from interfering in affairs of state. The power struggle between mother-in-law and son-in-law reached such a pitch that on one occasion, according to an unconfirmed narrative, Amir Kabir called Mahd-e Olia a “bitch”. Not long after this he was exiled to Fin Garden in Kashan and murdered on the order of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar on January 10, 1852: allegedly at the instigation of his mother. Mahd-e Olia then forced her daughter Malekzadeh, who had had two daughters with Amir Kabir, to marry the son of Mirza Aqa Khan Nuri, her puppet Prime Minister.
A Queen by Proxy For Life
Until 1911, that is for more than half of Naser al-Din Shah's reign, Mahd-e Olia remained the most authoritarian woman in the court of Iran and held the position of Queen of Iran. Throughout her lifetime she was barely if ever opposed by Naser al-Din Shah, and his own harem was managed under her shadow. Foreign visitors who came to Iran during those years have described her as a powerful woman, who wore heavy make up and jewelry and asked them, for instance, about how the British Queen Victoria ran her country. Madame Abbas e-Golsaz acted as her translator in these meetings.
Mahd-e Olia, like all powerful women, attached a great importance to construction and endowment. The creation and renovation of such buildings as the Shah's Mother's Garden in a corner of the Shah Abdol-Azim Shrine in Rey, the Hakimbashi School, Zobaydeh Khatun's court and mausoleum and Amir Qasem Khan Mosque, in memory of her father, carried out by her order. She was fond of reading and her private library was filled with books of poetry and history.
Mahd-e Olia died on April 2, 1873 at the age of 70 in Tehran while her son was away in Europe, and was buried at Mohammad Shah's mausoleum in Qom. Her gravestone is now preserved next to that of Mohammad Shah at the Astane Museum in Qom.
Read other articles in this series:
The Women's Clandestine Union, Anonymous Political Agitators
Roshanak Nodust, Headmistress of Saadat School
Ghamar Aryan, Pioneering Scholar of Literature
Ashraf Bahador-Zadeh, Iran’s Mother Teresa
Razieh Ebrahimzadeh, Wanderer and Communist Firebrand
Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh, Founder of Tehran's First Modern Hospital