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.
Tuba Azmudeh was fortunate enough to die just as she had lived: on the morning of September 26, 1936, in a room just next to the office where, for the past 29 years, she had worked headmistress of Namus High School. The school’s founder passed away just after the morning bell, as the corridors filled with the noise and laughter of young girls on their way to their firsts lesson of the day.
The Tehran newspapers were lavish in their praise for “a devoted woman with strong determination who laid the foundations of Iran’s first girls’ high school”.
Namus was the second girls’ school to open in Iran after Bibi Khanum’s in 1906, which was for primary school-aged pupils only. Just like her fellow trailblazer in girls’ education, Tuba Khanum endured the pressure and dissent of hardliners and the narrow-minded people in order to extend the offering for young women across Iran.
Just one photograph of Tuba Azmudeh can be found in the history books. It depicts a middle-aged woman with her head covered by a black shawl, looking severely into the camera as through scrutinizing the future itself.
Tutored at Home and Escaping From Child Marriage
The daughter of Mirza Hasan Khan-e Sartip, a prominent intellectual during the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar’s, Azmudeh’s education was prized above all things by her father and he began to teach her at home when she was five. Once she had mastered the basics, he hired tutors to teach her French, Persian and Arabic.
Evan after marrying Abdolhossein Khan Mir-Panj at the age of 14, the young Tuba was able to continue her education. The significant age gap between the pair and the fact that they did not have any children meant she managed to persuade her husband to let her continue her studies.
Fortunately for Tuba, their marriage did not last long, and she soon returned to her father’s home. There, she decided to make use of her hard work acquiring literacy to lay the groundwork for other girls to study too. As she did not have any children, she decided instead to become the mother to thousands of girls: those who often came of age behind closed doors, without access to any form of education with which to build and enrich their own lives.
A Rising Tide of Calls for Girls' Education
By the time Azmudeh came to this decision, it had been five decades since Dar ul-Funun, Iran’s first European-style higher education institution, had been established and pioneers such as Mirza Hasan Roshdieh, Estesham ol-Saltaneh and Yaya Dolatabadi were beginning to lay the foundations of modern elementary schooling in Tehran and other cities, with the Shah and prime minister’s blessing.
Children in the middle and lower classes were able to study at these schools – but even now, they were only for the boys. Just a few religious missionary schools accepted girls from religious minority groups and, occasionally, the daughters of the aristocracy and other influential families. The vast majority of Iranian girls were deprived of the right to education.
The Constitutional Movement was accompanied by a widespread flourishing of women’s movements in Iran, and by an unprecedented level of women’s visibility in public spaces. Among their ranks, it created the minimum expectation that if they were to be deprived of the right to vote, they should at least have the right to education.
Bibi Khanum’s school for girls, Astarabadi, was established in 1906 and met with vehement opposition. She was told by the minister of education to remove the “for girls” stipulation within the first school year. Azmudeh had been among the teaching staff at Astarabadi and learned a lesson from the defeat: that was, never to capitulate.
The Birth and Expansion of Iran's First Girls' High School
Namus was launched at the very beginning of the next academic year in September 1907. It began in Azmudeh’s own home close to Hasanabad Square in Tehran. It was named Namus – which means wife, mother or sister – perhaps as a subtle dig at the deep-rooted patriarchy in Iranian society.
Just like Bibi Khanum, Azmudeh received a barrage of criticism and threats from reactionaries. But her insistence on maintaining the school won out in the end, and she managed to keep it open. To keep the school running, she attracted the attention of religious figures and clerics, helping them gain an insight into the school’s ethos and goals.
With the help of two of her pupils, she drew together all the Qur’anic hadiths that encourage the acquisition of knowledge and decorated the walls with them. One of the core parts of the school curriculum was knowledge of the Qur’an and on religious occasions, girls also Teaching the Quran was also one of the main classes of the school. On religious occasions, the girls recited the names and sufferings of the Shiite Imams.
Azmudeh is said to have been very cautious about employing male teachers. She relentlessly encouraged the girls’ families to allow their daughters to attend and study. In the first year, the school worked with just a handful of seven- to twelve-year-old girls. But the number snowballed over time and Azmudeh went on to open four other schools which, according to published figures, were attended by some 3,474 young women in eight years.
Among the first girls to graduate in her high school diploma program were some well-known figures including graduating her high school with diploma included well-known women such as Fakhr-Ozma Arghoun, Gilan Khanum, Farkhondeh Khanum and Mehr-Anvar Samiei. Azmudeh also set up literacy classes for older women.
Just as the chief obstacle to women’s self-actualization in Iran seemed to be mealtime away, and Iranian women had finally been granted the right to go to university, Azmudeh became very unwell with an uncertain – but incurable – illness. She died in one of the rooms of Namus High School in late September 1936 and was buried among the great and the good at Zahir ol-Doleh Cemetery.
Tuba Azmudeh is one a handful of women who, in her time, had both the tools and the drive to pursue her only goal in life. In her case, this was to educate women and girls. She followed this calling to the end, and changed the both fabric of Iranian society and the course of Iran’s history.
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