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.
In the era when prevailing narratives still portrayed women as “weak”, the lyric poem once sent to an Iranian newspaper by Fakhr-Ozma Arghoun spoke for itself, and posed a cogent question: "If the weak is me, why is it on my shoulder / the task of bringing up a robust man?".
Arghoun was one of the first recognized Iranian feminist poets. She made tremendous efforts to reshape and charge the literature of Iranian women, even predating the famous Forough Farokhzad, and refused to interpret femininity as no more than the home-making impulse. As well as writing poetry, she co-founded the Women’s Patriotic Society and tutored more than 100 Iranian girls on how to fight for their rights as representatives of one half of society. One of those was her own daughter, Simin Behbahani, who went on to become one of the most canonical five first poets in contemporary Iranian literature.
A Progressive Education
Fakhr-Ozma Arghoun was born in 1899 in Tehran. Her father was a senior officer under the Qajar dynasty and her mother, Qamar Khanum Azemat ol-Saltaneh, was the granddaughter of the Master of Ceremonies at Fatali Shah Qajar's Court and the military governor of Azarbaijan, himself the son of Amir Heydayatolah Khan Fumani, a famous authoritarian governor of Gilan.
Qamr Khanum believed their daughter should be literate, as well as their two sons. She and her husband hired an Iranian teacher and a French teacher to teach Fakhr-Ozma and their two sons at home. The children studied old Persian poetry and texts along with the Arabic language, faqih (Islamic jurisprudence), French and modern sciences.
When the prestigious Jean d'Arc French School for girls opened in Tehran in the early 1900s, Arghoun was one of the few who attended and received her graduation certificate there.
She then studied at the Iran Bethel School, an American Presbyterian school run by missionaries, where she studied music. Her teacher in that subject was a Jewish woman called Jan Moshtaq, who taught her the Persian musical scales. During this period Arghoun also came to learn about and sympathize with one of the first Iranian feminist societies, the Mokhadarat Vatan Association.
Her career as a teacher began at the Namus School for girls, which had opened in 1907 under the famous Iranian educator Tuba Azmudeh. Arghoun was one of the first women to accept a position there, teaching French and Persian literature. It was at this time that she began to compose her own lyric poetry.
Fighting for Self-Actualization in Wartime and Peacetime
Arghoun was 17 when the Second World War broke out. The young Reza Shah had tried to maintain a position of neutrality but Iran was of strategic importance to the British government, and after a period of strained relations Iran was invaded and occupied by Allied forces. This was a bitter event for a young, sensitive girl like Arghoun, and many of her poems were written under its influence.
One begins with the verse: "The country must be filled with tulips with the blood of traitor / a river of blood must flow from every side of the country." Arghoun sent it to Eqdam newspaper and on reading the poem, the then-editor in-chief, Abbas Khalili, invited the young revolutionary to the newspaper office.
Their meeting not only led to a long collaboration between Arghoun and the newspaper, but also their marriage in 1924. The fruit of this marriage, in time, was a talented daughter called Simin.
Arghoun also joined the radicalist Patriotic Women's League, which was established in 1922-3 and would become one of the most active organizations in the Iranian women’s rights movement, as a co-founding member.
Her marriage with Khalili lasted until 1931. After her divorce, while still teaching at schools in Tehran, Arghoun began to write for the Ayandeh Iran (Future of Iran) newspaper. In a stunning coincidence, her appointment at this newspaper also led to her subsequent marriage to its editor-in-chief, Adel Khalatbari. They had three children together: Adelnejad, Adeldokht (also known as Taraneh Sohrab) and Adelfar.
After Reza Shah Pahlavi banned hijab in 1936, a new committee for women’s affairs, Kanun-e Banovan (Society for Women), was established to bring together the disparate women’s groups and prepare Iranian women for unveiling. Arghoun was an active presence on the committee and was one of the first to give repeated numerous speeches on women's rights under its banner, encouraging women to fight for the right to education and suffrage.
She also launched Majaleh Banovan (Women's Magazine), which was one of the pioneering journals to be published after the unveiling decree, and composed poems about that emphasized her and others’ demand for equal rights for women.
Arghoun also played a key role in the establishment of the girls' schools. She taught French and was an officially-sanctioned teacher by the Ministry of Education, working for years at Namus, at teacher training center Dar al-Moalemat (House of Teachers) and at Nobavegan (Teenagers) high school.
In her poems she vigorously encouraged women to study. One reads: "A woman's beauty lies not just in curly hair / neither a face like flower, nor a mouth like blossom / Neither skirt of silk, nor a dress of Crepe Georgette / neither shining shoes, nor plaited dress / A woman's beauty lies in her truth and piety / such a woman shines everywhere like a candle / You zephyr, ask men on my behalf / why should 'weak' be my name in this country / If the "weak" is me, why is it on my shoulder / the task of bringing up a robust man? / Try you woman to wear the dress of knowledge / beautiful is the time when you wear this dress."
Following the re-occupation of Iran by the Allies in August 1941, Arghoun joined the Democratic Party of Iran and continued to press for the advancement of women's rights along with other activists.
Arghoun retired in 1958 and traveled to the United States to be nearer her children, and died eight years later in 1966. In accordance with her will she was buried in the Ibn-e Babvieh Graveyard, south of Tehran. Behind her she left hundreds of educated and inspired girls and two poet daughters, Simin and Taraneh, as well as more than 150 poems in the form of lyric, quatrain, and elegy published in the newspapers of her time.
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