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.
More than by her given name, Shahindokht Sanati was known by the nickname conferred on her by the people of Lalehzar village in the province of Kerman: Lady of the Roses. It was later also aptly chosen as the name of a documentary on her life that the famous Iranian Mojtaba Mir-Tahmasb produced after her death. Sanati founded the Zahra Rosewater Company alongside with her husband Homayoun Sanatizadeh, henceforth replacing the cultivation of opium poppies in the area with Damascene roses.
From Books to Botanicals
Sanati was born on April 19, 1933 in Esfahan. After obtaining her diploma, she moved to Tehran to study philosophy. It was there she came to know Homayoun through his sister, Mahindokht Sanatizadeh. By that time, Homayoun was already a known personality among devotees of culture and art. He was the niece of Mirza Yahya Dolatabadi and Sediqeh Dolatabadi, who had set up the Iranian branch of The Franklin Publisher. This firm which circulated some the most important American and European cultural and literary works in Iran for several decades and by the late 1950s was already on the way becoming a cultural institution
After marrying Homayoun, Shahindokht helped him establish two firms that complemented the work of his parents: the Pocket Books Company and the Pars Paper Manufacturing Factory. Eventually she would become custodian of the orphanage created in the city of Kerman by the Sanatizadeh family. Though Shahindokht and her husband never had any children themselves, they took care of a large number of abandoned children in the orphanage as though they were their own.
In the late 1970s, a couple of years before the Islamic Revolution, the couple decided to move from Tehran to Kerman. It was on arrival there that they would make the most important decision of their lives.
Zahra: Tentative Beginnings in the Middle of the Revolution
Homayoun had inherited an estate from his father, in Lalehzar region in Kerman, where opium poppies were cultivated. Once the pair had settled in the area, they began to consider cultivating roses instead of opium poppies and obtain the necessary apparatus and machinery for making rosewater. Homayoun had had pleasant memories of producing rosewater that were rooted in memories of his grandfather. Despite knowing that huge profits could be reaped from the cultivation of poppies, the couple resolved to change their path.
Zahra Rosewater was officially established in 1979: just as other companies they owned, including Franklin Publishing and Pocket Books, were closed down due to the Islamic Revolution.
Despite the disruption in the country due to the revolution, the factory became operational during this period through Shahindokht’s efforts. The company’s name, Zahra, meaning flower, was also the namesake of Shahindokht’s niece. The couple used roses from their own plantation and soon became the first ever manufacturer in Iran to obtain a certificate for organic produce.
Though the company was officially a joint venture, Homayoun writes in his letters to his sister that it was Shahindokht who was shouldering the “heavy burden” of most of the operation: “I do not know how to thank Shahin. She is indeed a heroine. Last week, the annual Industrial Agriculture Exhibition was opened at Sanati Museum. Zahara Rosewater had a booth there. As I was sick in bed, I could not attend the opening ceremony. Instead Shahin attended it. The Friday Imam and the governor-general thanked her and she spoke about the problems of industry and agriculture so eloquently that they invited her to participate in a seminar on how to solve the problems of the industry and agriculture of the province.
“She is a good mate and despite her bitter moods and childish mischief, she is a lovely and pleasing companion. One of the things she had to do while in Tehran was to purchase a large volume of bottles, tops, and other equipment required for the production of rosewater. What is amusing is that she had to purchase the equipment for a few other companies who needed them too. May God increase her capability.”
One day, in the early days of her work at Zahra, Shahindokht noticed a rare phenomenon: despite not being irrigated in the hot, dry climate of Kerman, the buds on the rose bushes were growing and blossoming. Homayun pronounced it a miracle.
A Household Name
With the efforts of Shahindokht and her husband, the small rosewater-manufacturing workshop soon grew into an industrial factory – still with no chemicals used in the production process. In addition to rosewater, five percent of the world’s rose oil used in cosmetic products is produced in this factory. Even the petal residues are turned into bricks used for heating and lighting fire.
In time, Zahra became the largest producer and exporter of rosewater and rose essential oil in Iran. During the bitter days of the Iran-Iraq war and despite tremendous problems, the company was able to transform the whole area in Lalehzar region and its neighboring areas into rose gardens. Shahindokht had devoted her life to this endeavour and employed a large number of local women and men in the factory. Along with her work there she also wrote books, such as one called Aromatherapy, and conducted research on new products they might produce at the factory.
Zahra also supervised the upbringing of the children at the orphanage, providing what they needed for their education and marriage. She was so drowned in her work that sometimes Homayoun, in his letters to his sister Mahin, asked her to tell Shahin to take a few days off.
Tragically, after three decades of hard work for the prosperity of the Lalehzar region and Zahra Rosewater, Shahindokht died in a car accident on February 10, 2004. She was buried in Lalehzar village of Kerman, where the couple still lived.
Read other articles in this series: