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 earliest known photograph of Taj ol-Saltaneh depicts a nine-year-old girl with listless eyes, looking pointedly away from the camera, her hair stuck through with flowers and hairpins. Naser al-Din Shah Qajar’s most rebellious daughter posed for the picture as she meant to continue and could rightly be dubbed the Princess of Iranian Feminists.
In time, this pugnacious young girl would become the first princess to exit the shadowy world of the traditional harem, the first to take off her hijab and don Western clothes, and the first to speak fearlessly of women’s rights in the country, co-founding an underground women’s movement in 1910. She criticized the draconian laws laid down by her father, brother and nephews that limited women’s right to self-determination in Iran. These criticisms appeared in her memoir, which was penned in 1914 and published in 1996, and which now stand as an important socio-political document in its own right from Iran’s contemporary history.
Growing Up Railing Against Men’s Demands
According to her diaries, Zahra Khanom “Taj” ol-Saltaneh was born in 1883 in Golestan Palace as the 15th daughter and 29th child of Naser ol-Din Shah Qajar. Her mother, Turan ol-Saltaneh, was one of the king's several official wives and the daughter of Naser al-Din Shah’s uncle, Khosro Mirza: a devout and submissive woman, according to Taj, who placed her daughter in the care of a maid who in turn spoiled her and gave her whatever she wanted.
Despite the position she would take in later life, Taj adored her father and was, in her telling, one of his favorite daughters. This might be the reason for Naser al-Din Shah having procured a teacher from Gilan especially to teach her literature and the sciences, and bestowing upon her the nickname Taj (Crown) that was to stick for the rest of her life.
This mutual affection, however, did not prevent Taj from criticizing her father’s policies. In her memoirs Taj is explicit in denouncing the main cause of Iran’s domestic problems as the king’s incompetence, childishness and indulgence in worldly pleasures.
As a young woman Taj was one of two girls chosen by her father as favourites to marry “Malijak” Aziz ol-Soltan, a pageboy in the king’s court for whom Naser al-Din Shah had become curiously fond. The selection enraged Taj’s mother, Turan. As Taj narrates it, “My mother was present and shouted, ‘Ah! I will poison my daughter and kill her. I will never accept this man as her groom.’”
Evidently Turan’s reaction did not please the Shah, who promptly expelled her from the harem and left Taj’s upringing to his favorite wife, Anis al-Doleh. Anis was able to use her influence with the monarch to rescue Taj from this unwanted union with Malijak. For Taj, who dreamed of traveling abroad in order to see what her father had seen, there was a better husband waiting on the horizon. On reaching puberty she instead married Sardar Hassan Shojah ol-Saltaneh, an aristocrat and the son of the then-defense minister.
There are two slightly divergent stories of Taj ol-Saltaneh’s wedding. One is her own account, and one is that of a woman named Hajieh Khanum Kermani, a middle-aged woman in charge of procuring dowries and preparing the daughters of rich families for marriage, who was hired to oversee Taj’s wedding proceedings by the groom’s family. Kermani’s account is more detailed and probably more reliable than that of Taj herself, who was infected with chickenpox on the eve of her wedding and married the next day while running a high fever.
Following a magnificent – if somewhat hazy – ceremony Taj moved straight into Shoja ol-Saltaneh’s household and in time, the pair would have four children. But although their courtship had begun with a passionate love affair, it ended bitterly due to ol-Saltaneh’s infidelity. Taj thus became one of the first royal Iranian women to get a divorce.
The marriage had left Taj’s education unfinished, so she took the opportunity to bury herself in historical books and poetry. Taj is unabashed in her memoirs, stating plainly that despite enjoying all the privileges of a Qajari princess, she did not have a happy life. Her profound desire to acquire knowledge, and to see the world beyond the walls of the house, left her disquieted and angry.
A Feminist Trailblazer Finally Goes Abroad
Following Naser ol-Din Shah’s assassination in 1896, his son Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar was the natural successor. At his coronation ceremony, Taj protested that 12 months had not yet passed since their father’s death and opted to wear a black dress instead of the colorful one her brother had picked out for her.
Taj’s opposition to Mozaffar’s appointment increased with the passage of time. Eventually she became one of his undisguised critics, railing against what she saw as ignorance and incompetence, and accusing her estranged brother of having destroyed the country with irresponsible lending and ministerial appointments. "Under the reign of my dear brother,” she writes, “prime minister-ship and minister-ship were very much similar to Ta'zieh [passion plays], with the performer constantly leaving and returning onstage in a new costume. This dear brother of mine dismisses a prime minister on the recommendation of a two-year-old child and overthrows another on the recommendation of a clown."
Following her divorce Taj traveled to Europe to pursue her aspirations and continue her education. She learned fluent French and also became acquainted with Western feminist activists. It was this experience that would lead her to become a trailblazing advocate for women’s rights in Iran.
In around 1910, Taj became a founding member of Anjoman Horriyyat Nsevan the Society of Women's Freedom), an underground feminist organization striving for equal rights for women. It was set up as a counterbalance to Anjoman-e Okhovat (the Brotherhood Society), which had been set up ten years before by male Persian intellectuals. Taj secretly organized and attended meetings of the women’s group, telling her children and grandchildren that she was attending religious sessions, and even organized a women’s march to parliament in support of their cause.
In her memoirs, Taj insists that the most significant detriment to women in Iran is their own ignorance of their rights. "Alas,” she wrote, “Iranian women are separated from the human species and are among the beasts and wild animals. From morning until night, they live despairingly in an enclosed space and spend their lives suffering from immense pressure and misery.
“They read in newspapers how the egalitarian women of Europe defend their rights, and of how seriously they demand them. I want to travel to Europe and meet these women, and tell them, ‘While you are blissfully and nobly defending your rights and victoriously attaining your goals, cast a glance at Asia; take a look at the houses with their high walls, with just one opening, which is the entrance door, guarded by a doorkeeper... [In these houses, women live] under the chain of captivity and unquestionable power, some with broken heads and hands, some pale, some hungry and naked, some waiting, moaning all the while.
“I’d tell them again: ‘These are all women. These are all human beings. They are all respectable and worthy of appreciation. See what a life they are living.’"
Taj ol-Saltaneh was the first woman in court to remove her veil and adopt Western clothing. She was a fearless woman who expressed both her ideals and love outspokenly, in words and in prose. It is said that she finally met the famous Persian poet, Aref Qazvini, at a party; the pair fell profoundly in love, and though they never married, their affair was immortalized in the poem he wrote for her, Ey Taj.
Taj ol-Saltaneh died in 1936 at the age of 54. She was buried at Zahir ol-Doleh Cemetery in accordance with her will, a stone’s throw away from the graves of two of her sisters. It would be another 60 before her memoir was published and for her to be recognized as one of the most important feminist pioneers of the early twentieth century.
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