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 name Fatemeh Sayah is recorded as that of the first woman to teach at an Iranian university. Born in Moscow six years after Japan defeated Russia, Sayah studied European languages at Moscow University of Literature and went on to secure two important titles in the unwritten and little-known history of notable Iranian women.
The famous academic Simin Daneshvar, who was a pupil of Fatemeh Sayeh’s, cited her teacher’s name with enormous respect throughout her career. Daneshvar often said that had it not been for her mentor at Iran University, she might never have pursued writing at all. When Sayah read her first ever short story, she said, she told her in a voice lightly touched by a Russian accent: “Ms. Simin. Continue on this path. You will be a great writer."
The biographical details of Fatemeh Sayah’s life are scant. What we do know is that she was Iran’s first female university lecturer – but also, and even lesser-known, is the fact that she was first woman sent by Iran on a diplomatic mission. She was also an early proponent of the women’s suffrage movement in Iran: one that would eventually lead to women being granted the right to vote, 15 years after her death.
A Multilingual Childhood - and a Disappointing Husband
Fatemeh Rezazadeh Mahalati was born in 1902 to an Iranian father and a Russian mother in Moscow, where her father taught oriental languages for more than 45 years. Her childhood coincided with the Russian Revolution and the total upheaval of the political system. Nevertheless, she continued both her secondary and higher education in Moscow, entering Moscow University of Literature and eventually obtaining her doctorate degree in European Literature before beginning to teach at the same university.
Mahalati returned to Iran in 1934 and married her cousin, Hamid Sayah. But their union was not a happy one due to Sayah’s low level of education, and the pair soon divorced. The only lasting trace of this marriage is the surname engraved on her tombstone in Ibn Babawayh Cemetery, Greater Tehran.
The author Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh would later recount the reason for the divorce, as Sayah gave it in a letter to him. “I asked Ms. Fatemeh,” he said, “‘Why did you get divorced from Hamid and live as a single woman?’. She said, ‘Mr. Jamalzadeh, I was ashamed of living with a man less educated than me. One should not replace freedom with anything. I now feel much more comfortable and peaceful compared to the time when I felt I had someone in command of me’.”
Rising Star in Iran's Educational, Literary and Diplomatic Fields
A few months after the end of her marriage, Sayah was employed by the Ministry of Culture as the deputy for women’s education. This coincided with Kashf-e hejab (the unveiling decree) in 1936. Sayah was one of the university lecturers who attended the official unveiling ceremony held at Iran’s House of Teachers.
Work on Tehran University was still underway at the time. Although women were allowed to study at the House of Teachers, it was still not clear whether they would be allowed to study at the new university or not. When Sayah, who was fluent in French, German, Russian and English, was invited to teach at the training college, the appointment was met with several objections. But because of her impressive academic background, these went nowhere, and she began teaching Russian to male would-be teachers.
Previously Sayah had also spoken at the 1934 Ferdowsi Millennium Congress – again, despite objections to her presence – and stood shoulder to shoulder with such literary titans as Mohammad Ali Foroughi, Saeed Nafisi and Rabindranath Tagore. In the end, she presented one of the most powerful papers at the whole congress on Ferdowsi, Iran’s most famous medieval poet.
With the establishment of the Kanun-e banovan (the women’s committee] in 1936, Sayah, along with the activist Sediqeh Dowlatabadi and others, formally joined the ranks of pioneering women agitating for female freedom in Iran. Due to her knowledgeable and tactful manner, she was granted a place in the Iranian delegation to the 17th summit of the League of Nations in Geneva: the first Iranian women to take part in a political expedition abroad.
Fighting for Recognition at Tehran University
Once Tehran University had finally opened its doors, its newly-anointed professor of literature, Badiozzaman Forouzanfar, and its first chancellor, Dr. Ali-Asghar Hekmat, invited Sayah to teach there. As such, she was also the first woman to teach at an Iranian university.
Sayah, who had savored the taste of higher education herself, wanted to see Iranian woman enjoying an equal right to education, and to help the young women eager to earn their place at Tehran University. Her position there, teaching foreign languages, caused the predictable uproar. But she held her nerve, fighting for a whole five years to be recognized as a full professor by members of the Higher Education Council. She finally secured the title at the same time as the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941.
During these years Sayah also became a board member of the Iran-Soviet Cultural Center, sitting on its music, theater and cinematography committees and writing articles for its Payam-e No (“New Message”) journal. She also often travelled abroad, to countries such as Turkey, as a speaker and representative on behalf of Iranian women.
Pioneer of Women's Suffrage Movements in Iran
While in Turkey Sayah became acquainted with the Turkish women's movement, which had initiated some years before its equivalent in Iran. On returning to Iran, she announced in an interview that the main reason for Turkish women’s progress had been their being afforded equal rights with men. “If women are allowed to participate in a multitude of affairs,” she said, “they will value this, will try not to abuse it, and will work to prove that women can also work hand in hand with men for the transcendence and progress of their country and culture.”
In 1943, Sayah along with Safieh Firuz, founded the Council of Iranian Women: one of a proliferation of women’s organizations calling for women’s suffrage in the country. Its manifesto was a call to arms: “You, liberalist women and men, who aspired for a long time to see women entering social and political affairs like men! The time has come to rise and cooperate with others. Without their participation, we cannot defend the liberal movement.”
The party’s main goals included “improvement of the economic, social and political situation of Iranian women, prohibition of polygamy, hygienic care for mothers, improvement of education standards, teaching childcare, the establishment of equal rights for men and women, and women’s right to vote”. To attain its goals, the Council held rallies, gave speeches, and consulted with MPs.
The first issue of the Council’s journal, with Sayah as its editor-in-chief, was published in January 1945. Sayah traveled to Paris with Firuz later that year to attend the International Congress of Woman and Peace Congress in Paris. Her fluency in several languages led her to be interviewed by multiple newspapers there, giving the opportunity to talk about Iran’s domestic women’s movement.
Despite being little-known, Sayah appears to have been one of the most active and effective participants in Iranian women’s struggle for suffrage and equal rights. Despite being hampered by diabetes and other physical ailments, she took every opportunity that arose to promote their position.
In 1948, though, Sayah’s health took a turn for the worse. That year she traveled to Europe again for treatment. On returning to Iran, she gave what would turn out to be her final lecture: on the subject of Dostoyevsky’s influence on French literature, delivered at the Franco-Iranian Cultural Society. Her funeral was attended by many members of Iran’s elite as well as countless students grateful for what she had given them.
Read other articles in this series: