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Special Features

Iranian Women You Should Know: Zeynab Pasha

June 7, 2020
Zohreh Zolqadr
7 min read
Zeynab Pasha emerged from Iran's traditional Qajar-era society to become a leader in rebellions against economic injustices against merchants and peasants at the turn of the 20th century and later
Zeynab Pasha emerged from Iran's traditional Qajar-era society to become a leader in rebellions against economic injustices against merchants and peasants at the turn of the 20th century and later

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.


The name of Zeynab Pasha is intertwined with revolution and Iran’s labor movement. In the 1930s, during an upheaval related to food prices and as the Iranian government was threatening reprisals against merchants for closing the Tabriz bazaar, or marketplace, Zeynab went to the bazaar to block attempts to break the strike and to drive Cossack forces away.

If we had to compile a list of Iran’s ten most influential women, Zeynab Pasha would be in the top five. Zeynab emerge into Iranian public life from the closed society of the Qajar dynasty and became a leader in Iran’s 1890 Tobacco Protest and later the 1905 Constitutional Revolution.

There is little information about Zeynab Pasha's childhood and teenage years. All we know about this militant woman is that she was born in the Amu Zeynedin district in Tabriz. Her father, Sheikh Salman, was a poor farmer, who owned no land of his own like many other villagers. Sheikh Salman worked other people's land and had a hard life. Zeynab only comes into view during the Tobacco Protests – a revolt against a tobacco concession granted by the Qajar king Nasir al-Din Shah to Britain.

Wishing to travel abroad but faced with an empty treasury, Naser al-Din Shah was forced to borrow funds and grant trade concessions to foreign companies.

Tobacco was, at the time, one of Iran’s most important agricultural and commercial products; many earned their livelihoods from its cultivation and sale.  But in granting the concession to a Britiah company, Regié Tobacco, this source of revenue was suddenly denied to the Iranian people; this led to protests against the concession, starting in Iran and spreading to other cities.

The protest reached a peak when a political activist, Siyyid Jamaledin Asadabadi,  called on Ayatollah Mirza Hasan Shirazi, who was the religious source of emulation for numerous Iranians and lived in Najaf, to issue a fatwa addressing the matter. Ayatollah Shirazi issued his fatwa which called on his followers to boycott tobacco. Hookahs (water pipes) were smashed and smokers gave up their habit.

Tabriz – Iran’s second city, and the seat of Iran’s Crown Prince, Mozafaredin Mirza – joined in the protests. Sheikh Javad Mojtahed invited Tabriz residents to close their own bazaar in solidarity with Tehran’s merchants who had already taken the same action.

Soldiers connected to the Crown Prince tried to force the bazaar to re-open with threats as well as promises of rewards. Merchant representatives were told that, if they did not reopen, the hundred-year-old bazaar would be demolished. Swayed by the threats, some shopkeepers decided to reopen; but this crossing of the picket line was rejected by a group of protestors, including Zeynab Pasha. 

Zeynab had heard about the fatwa and reached the conclusion that she should not allow the re-opening of the bazaar. In less than half a day, she mobilized a large group of women in Tabriz and, after arming some of them, led them to the bazaar.

Iran had never before seen such a large gathering of women. Some had removed their head-coverings, some held their children in their arms, or holding their hands, and all of them walking toward the bazaar. 

According to certain sources, three thousands armed women accompanied Zeynab, who spoke for the group. A poet of that time, Mirza Farrokh, described Zeynab Pashah's rebellion in the bazaar in a 22-verse poem in Turkish. He wrote: "On that day, I [Farrokh Mirza] did not dare to leave home from fear." 

Officials repeatedly tried to open the bazaar but Zeynab's group flooded the bazaar with weapons, stones, and batons, frustrating their plans. A series of clashes continued until it was announced that Naser al-Din Shah had cancelled the tobacco concession and Mirza Hasan Shirazi annulled his fatwa.

In his book Azarbaijan's Rebellion, Karim Taherzadeh Behzad recounts the rebellion and Zeynab Pasha's activities. He named the women who were her main companions in mobilizing the the so-called Zeynab Pasha army. But only a handful of the names could be found; Yuzbashi Khavar, Nayebe Kolsum, Fatemeh Nesa, Atli Shah Bebim, and Soltan Baygom.

Original sources suggest that Zeynab Pasha was a robust woman, who unlike her contemporaries never wore a black veil over her face. She tied her chador around her waist and always carried a baton made of nails and metal. And maintained her activist group after the Tobacco Protest, rebelling once more in 1934, in Naser al-Din Shah's final year of reign. Her second rebellion was against Iranians (especially officials) who hoarded flour to artificially inflate bread prices in the winter.

Western Iran saw a famine in 1934 even as these profiteers had hoarded wheat. There were long queues in front of bakeries and bread was hard to find; when it could be found, it was expensive. But the hoarding of wheat was almost an official activity; from the Crown Prince, the ruler of Tabriz, to commissaries and clerics in Tabriz, everyone had a hand in the practice.

Zeynab Pasha swung back into action and came to Tabriz with her companions. The group forced open the doors of the wheat storehouses. Government forces were called in and ordered to suppress the rebellion; five women and a siyyid, a so-caled descendant of the Prophet, were killed. A number of protesting clerics then joined the women’s uprising – taking refuge in the Russian consulate. Demonstrations continued into the next day when three women and several others were injured. An uprising for fair food prices turned into a denunciation of the Qajar monarchy itself; the government, meanwhile, retreated and retreated again.

Zeynab Pasha and her companions continued to attend people’s gatherings after the second rebellion where they called on men to fight against oppression. Her fiery and provocative speeches have been recorded for posterity. The book Women in the Constitutional Revolution said: “Zeynab went to public gatherings where, addressing men, she would say, ‘If you do not dare to retaliate against the oppressors, if you are scared to cut off the hands of looters and thieves of your property, wives, honor and homeland, then put on a chador, sit in the corner of the house and leave the struggle to us women.’"

Little is know of Zeynab Pasha's later life – just as with her earliest days. But it is thought that, together with a group of her companions, she undertook a pilgrimage to Karbala, a holy city for Shia Muslims. But in Khanaqin, in Iraq, controlled by the Ottoman Empire at the time, police inspecting the pilgrims instead mistreated them. Zeynab Pasha – who never surrendered to oppression – was so offended that she attacked the police in protest.

Zeynab Pasha vanishes into history after this last act of rebellion against the injustice of men – she may even have died during this journey. We do not know even if her was body returned to Tabriz, or to her birthplace in Amu Zeynedin, or whether it was buried far away in Karbala.

Read other articles in this series:

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

Mahd-e Olia, Proxy Queen of Iran


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