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.
The deposed Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, once infamously remarked that there had only ever been “one and a half men” in the Qajar dynasty.
The “whole man” the Shah referred to was Princess Ashraf, whose full name was Ashraf ol-Moluk Fakhr ol-Doleh Amini: a semi-legendary princess and daughter of Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar whose son, Ali Amini, had become Reza Shah’s prime minister. The “half man”, in his view, was Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, the founder of the Qajar dynasty who had ruled almost 200 years before.
Despite Reza Shah’s unimpressive casual sexism that glibly equated power with maleness, this sarcastic appraisal had a point. Fakhr ol-Doleh was undoubtedly one of the most influencial and powerful Iranian women of the past 150 years.
In addition to her political, cultural and charitable activities, Fakhr ol-Doleh took control of her husband’s huge wealth and steadily grew it, eventually making them the most financially powerful family in the country. They practically owned Tehran’s Elahieh district, and Fakhr ol-Doleh personally founded Tehran’s taxi service. Had her son Hossein Amini not suddenly died, she would have almost definitely initiated the first Iranian national stock market as well.
Illustrious Beginnings as Daughter of a Qajar Prince
The daughter of Mozzafar al-Din and Sarvar ol-Saltaneh was born in 1883 in Tabriz, during her father’s long period in waiting as crown prince. On her mother’s side she was the grand-daughter of Firuz Mirza Farman-Farma, and the niece of Abdolhossein Mirza Farman-Farma and Najm ol-Saltaneh.
Sarvar ol-Saltaneh and Najm ol-Saltaneh were so close that the latter wanted Ashraf to be married to her eldest son, Mohammad Mosaddeq, who would go on to have a prominent Iranian politician and serve as the country’s 35th prime minister. But the union never came to pass because after the assassination of Nasr al-Din Shah in 1986, her father opted to move his family to Tehran.
Mozzafar al-Din took the throne in 1898 and appointed Mirza Ali Khan Amin ol-Doleh as his prime minister. In a gesture of goodwill, he offered the hand of his now 14-year-old daughter Ashraf (now already nicknamed Fakhr ol-Doleh, or “honor of the government”) in marriage to his eldest son, Mohsen Amin ol-Doleh – on the condition that Mohsen divorce his current wife before marrying the king’s daughter.
Fakhr ol-Doleh was soon a popular figure in her husband’s family. She particularly attracted the attention of Mirza Ali Khan Amin ol-Doleh, her new father-in-law, who had lost all of his children except for Mohsen and a daughter called Nosra. He seemed to recognize that his son was not of a sufficiently strong character to manage a family and a wife like Fakhr ol-Doleh. For this reason he tried to compensate by lavishing attention on her himself.
Becoming the Family Figurehead
Fakhr ol-Doleh too loved her father-in-law so much that when he was later dismissed and exiled, she was the only one to take a stand against her father’s decision. Her son, Ali Amini, writes in his memoirs: “To quote my mother: ‘The day after my father-in-law and my husband left, I was informed by my father’s inner circle that they may be taken from Qazvin to Ardebil, and their lives may be in danger. On hearing that, I immediately went to Qazvin, arriving there at night. My father-in-law and husband were shocked by my sudden arrival, but I did not tell them what I had heard; I just told them that I had decided to accompany them to Rasht, and then go back. The next day a messenger came from Tehran, stating that by order of the king, Fakhr ol-Doleh must return to Tehran. I did not surrender. That is why our stay in Qazvin was prolonged for a few days. Several messengers arrived, and returned empty handed.’
“Finally my mother was threatened, and told that if she did not return as the king had ordered he would send a mission to take her back by force. But finally the court relented, and so my mother went to Rasht with the exiled and settled down on her properties in Lasht-e Nesha.”
In the city of Lasht-e Nesha, Fakhr ol-Doleh managed to find a young woman, named Leyla Zia Kulaksari, to marry her father-in-law. The fruit of their marriage was a son called Hasan, born around the same time as Ashraf ol-Moluk’s children. For her part, Fakhr ol-Doleh had nine children with Mohsen Amini; the third son, Ali Amini, would go on to become Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s prime minister in the early 1960s.
A period of great difficulty for Fakhr ol-Doleh began with the death of her father-in-law in 1904. All this time she had resisted her father’s calls for her to return to Tehran, but finally gave in after this and settled in the huge expanse known as Amin ol-Doleh Park, behind the then-Iranian parliament building.
In June 1908, when the then-ruler Mohammad Ali Shah ordered the bombardment of the Iranian parliament, several well-known liberal reformists including the activist journalists Malek ol-Motekalemin and Mirza Jahangir Suresfrafil fled to Amin ol-Doleh’s park from the back door of the consultative assembly. The Bagh-e Shah garrison was tipped off about the dissidents’ location by none other than Mohsen himself. Due to this act of good citizenry, the next day, Mohammad Ali Shah ordered the dissidents’ arrest and brutal execution.
Mohsen himself was later arrested by the revolutionaries of the Jangal (Jungle) Movement in Gilan, who were rebelling against the monarchist rule of the Qajar central government. This time Fakhr ol-Doleh intervened herself, appealing to the group’s elders to spare his life. After this episode Mohsen was largely confined to his home and Fakhr ol-Doleh took charge of the family’s affairs.
“My father realized that he was not strong enough for political struggles,” Ali Amini would later write, “and left the management of family affairs to my mother. He spent the rest of his life in isolation. My mother said to me, ‘When I decided to get involved in political agitation, I went to [Iranian prime minister] Mostowfi-ol-Mamalek and told him that due to the weakness of the government and absence of justice, I had to join the struggle to protect my rights and my own, as well my children’s, lives. As I am a woman, my enemies will never be short of insults and unmanly attacks. But relying on God Almighty and with faith in my own righteousness, I will not be afraid of anything, and believing in victory, I will join the struggle.”
An Unlikely Partnership With Reza Shah
Mindful of the family’s unstable situation, together with her husband and children Fakhr ol-Doleh left for Qom on 23 February 1921. There was a great deal of snow on the journey and the carriage was only able to cover a short distance each day, becoming stuck in the snow several times. Finally after much tribulation the family reached Qom and rented a house near the Masumeh shrine, thinking they could perhaps take shelter there if they ran into any trouble.
The very next day, a summons arrived in relation to the family’s properties in Lasht-e Nesha. There had been a conflict over ownership of these properties – first at the Ministry of Justice in Rasht, then in the courts of Tehran – between Fakhr ol-Doleh and a key compatriot of Reza Shah. Fakhr ol-Doleh’s non-attendance at court meant the properties were awarded to the other party.
Despite her husband’s protestations, Fakhr ol-Doleh then immediately returned to Tehran with her daughter Masumeh. On returning to Tehran she went to see Reza Shah – then known as Sardar Sepah, as Commander-in-Chief of the army – and made an impassioned appeal for her property back. At the subsequent court hearings she was accompanied by her uncle, the Qajar prince Abdol-Hossein Farman Farma.
Their support would later lead to Fakhr ol-Doleh helping Reza Shah depose Seyyed Zia ol-Din Tabatabai: an Iranian statesman who had led the coup d’etat of 1921 and had since become an uncooperative prime minister who, after just three months in power, Reza Shah wished to see removed.
Quoting his father Ali Amini in his book On the Wing of Crisis, Fakhr ol-Doleh’s grandson Iraj Amini writes: “Sardar Sepah came to Elahiyeh early in the morning and sat down on a piece of chopped-down pine. He expressed his concern that if crowds gathered they might lose control and that would lead to chaos. My mother assured him that nothing of the sort would happen. After that meeting the idea crossed my mother’s mind to do something to scare Seyyed Zia so that he would volunteer to leave the government.”
The idea was for Fakhr ol-Doleh’s entourage to circulate a rumor that both Reza Shah and Seyyed Zia had been arrested. The trick worked and Seyyed Zia was frightened into both resignation and voluntary exile.
After the enthronement of Reza Shah, Fakhr ol-Doleh maintained good relations with him for years to come. Disregarding the fact that Reza Shah had staged a coup against her own nephew, she always helped him carry out his plans.
In his oral memoir recorded at Harvard University, Ali Amini remembers: “At the beginning of Reza Shah’s reign, one day the news arrived from the court that Reza Shah wanted to come to see my mother.
“My mother immediately ordered the necessary arrangements to be made to welcome him, and set the sofas out in such a way so that Reza Shah would sit at a lower level than she. She also ordered that one of the pairs of double entrance doors to the garden be closed, so that Reza Shah could not enter in his carriage or car, and had to walk to the building.
“I was ten or twelve at the time. She sent me to welcome the king at the door. Reza Shah came inside with me but did not sit on the sofa, beginning to talk while walking around and then leaving the building. My mother was forced to follow him.
“Once in the garden he sat on a tree trunk. He then spoke about his main purpose for the visit. He said, ‘Fakhr ol-Doleh, I have heard that the Qajar’s princes are inciting people against me in every corner. They think I dethroned Ahmad Shah. I have come to tell you to tell them to stop it – otherwise I will kill them....’ After that, Reza Shah stood up and while saying goodbye to my mother, he said, ‘I respect you. I wanted to inform you beforehand. Otherwise it is easy for me to destroy these incitements.’”
“When Reza Shah left, my mother called the Qajar princes and invited them to come to our house the next day. She told them, ‘The past is over and Reza Shah is now on the throne; resistance is useless. Moreover, I know this person, and he is neither resilient nor forgiving. If we do not yield, he will ruin our entire family. So it is better not to err and withdraw.’ In this way, she saved her family from Reza Shah’s wrath.”
Building a Charitable Legacy in Tehran
After retrieving her properties in Lasht-e Nesha, Fakhr ol-Doleh devoted most of her time to charity work, establishing important charitable foundations in Tehran and Lasht-e Nesha. In 1933 she convinced Butul, daughter of the Qajar-era prime minister Hassan Vossug ol-Dowleh, to marry Ali. It was a strong marriage and influential in Ali Amini’s later life and career.
Fakhr ol-Doleh was also thrifty and strictly monitored all household expenditure, including her children’s tuition fees and clothes. She gave her children monthly pocket money only after they signed a receipt.
Ali Amini has said that even when he became finance minister under prime minister Fazlollah Zahedi, he was still paid according to his mother’s stipulations. On one occasion he went to receive his monthly pocket money from her, and startled to find that she would only pay him 2,000 tomans for his three months. When he asked the reason, Fakhr ol-Doleh told him: “One of the staff at the finance ministry took a bribe of 6,000 tomans from my tenant. I returned the money to the tenant and deducted it from your monthly pocket money so that in the position of minister of finance, you realize how people suffer at the hands of the finance minister’s staff: that is, you.”
Fakhr ol-Doleh founded the first modern taxi service in Iran in the 1950s, putting several imported black Ford automobiles into use on the streets of Tehran as replacements for the old horse carriages. She reportedly planned to launch the first stock exchange in Iran as well, but this never came to fruition.
In addition to building and endowing several mosques and schools in Amin ol-Doleh’s garden, including the Fakhr ol-Doleh Mosque, she arranged support for orphaned children from childhood through to marriage. She paid full dowries to orphaned girls on reaching puberty and helped make the necessary arrangements for them to marry. She also supported between 30 and 70 talented young people to complete their academic studies. She cooked food for the orphans and the poor on Thursday nights in Amin ol-Doleh Mosque.
The death of Hossein Amini, Fakhr ol-Doleh’s eldest son, however, pitched her into a severe depression. After this she closed the door of her famous garden in Elahiyeh district and did not leave the house again until her sudden death aged 73, from a cardiac arrest, in December 1955.
In her will, Fakhr ol-Doleh instructed that no commemoration be held for her, and the money that would have been spent on her funeral put towards orphans’ services instead. Even though she had bought a grave for herself in Karbala, she instructed that she be buried at the Ibn Babevei cemetery next to her son.
Today, Fakhr ol-Doleh’s tombstone at Ibn Babevei is in a poor condition. But her endowed house and the Fakhr ol-Doleh Mosque, in her namesake Fakhrabad street in Tehran, still stand today and the mosque is considered a key part of the identity of Tehran.
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