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Iranian Influential Women: Varto Terian (1896-1974)

August 4, 2023
Shadyar Omrani
7 min read
The only remaining picture of Varto Terian, Iran’s first theater actress
The only remaining picture of Varto Terian, Iran’s first theater actress

The only remaining picture of Varto Terian, Iran’s first theater actress, is a black-and-white portrait of her wearing a large, patterned headscarf. Her name is now mostly forgotten, but she was the one who opened the doors to the stage for many women after her.

In 1921, Terian and her young daughter appeared on stage in a play called Adam and Eve to raise funds for a women’s school. Religious zealots prevented the second act from going ahead, and for a long time after the performance, Terian faced harassment. But she was more than a match for religious bigots and refused to be driven offstage.

At this time, theater was neither for the Iranian public nor for women. It was for the king, his courtiers and aristocrats. Women were not only denied an education; they could not even leave home without the permission of their male guardians or husbands. As with Ta’zieh, traditional Shia passion plays, or in plays in pre-modern Europe, boys played the parts of women.

Modern theater first appeared in Iran in 1885, when a playhouse was built in a corner of Dar ul-Funun, the first modern school for higher education in Iran, established in 1851. Mirza Ali Akbar Naghash Bashi, one of the first Iranians to go to Paris to receive a western education, founded the theater. A French music teacher at the school called Monsieur Lumaire assisted him in running it.

The playhouse planted the seeds of modern theater in Iran, which expanded after the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and the return of western-educated Iranians from Europe. Still, women could not appear on stage and were not allowed into theaters.

Varto Terian was born in 1896 to an Armenian family in Tabriz. She was still a child when her family moved to Tehran. After finishing high school, she was sent to Switzerland where she studied literature, elocution and acting. Her return to Iran coincided with the founding of a number of theater companies in Tehran, including the Young Armenians Theater Society. At that time, Armenians were more liberal than the surrounding Muslim society. They did not have the same taboos around mixing genders in schools or at gatherings, provided it was not done in a public space. It was at a theater society meeting that Varto came to know her future husband, Arto Terian.

Born in 1892, Arto Terian was also an Armenian who studied at the same Armenian school in Tehran as Varto. He had also studied in Tsarist Russia, where he learned about theater and became passionate about it. After their marriage, Terian launched her career on stage.

In 1921, he joined a theater company set up by a group of educated young Iranians, including the scholar, writer and poet Saeed Nafisi as well as future cinema actor and director Gholam Ali Fekri Ershad.

Defying the Ban on Women on Stage

Together, they staged Parichehr and Parizad, a romantic play written by Reza Kamal Shahrzad and directed by Terian. Arto Terian gave the lead role to his wife — despite women being still banned from theater. The news that a woman, and not a boy dressed up as a woman, was appearing on stage drew in large audiences, as did Terian’s performance.

The play’s success encouraged the company to take it on the road. It was well received in the northern city of Rasht and the Caspian port of Bandar Anzali. But the ramparts of the traditional Iranian society were not easily conquered. To protect her family from harassment, Varto Terian chose the stage name of “Lala” instead of using her real name.

After initial successes, the couple joined the Young Iran Society theater group, which was founded by European-educated Iranians led by Abdolhossein Teymourtash. As king Reza Shah’s court minister, Teymourtash was to play an important role in modernizing reforms in Iran. At a time when most public spaces were closed to them, the Young Iran Society became a magnet for Iranian female artists such as Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri, the first Iranian woman to sing in public.

As in many parts of the world, Iran in 1921 was an exciting time in terms of culture and progressive politics. A number of women founded the Society of Patriotic Women, which aimed to promote women’s rights and above all the right to education. These female activists successfully launched several girls’ schools in Tehran throughout the 1920s, but they did not stop there. They wanted to create schools for adult women who had never had a chance to study — at the time, this meant the majority of women. To this end, they needed capital.

One of the society’s members suggested staging a play for women to raise the necessary funds, as well as to provide entertainment. Society member Noor ol-Hoda Mangeneh had a big house with a large pool that could be covered and converted into a stage — a traditional venue in Iran for private shows and music. The Society of Patriotic Women asked Varto Terian to direct the play, Adam and Eve, and perform in it. And they decided that, instead of boys playing women, women would play men.

Notices were printed in the format of wedding invitations and distributed by society members among relatives and friends. The date was set for Ramadan of 1929, because during this month women were allowed to be out at night to participate in religious and prayer gatherings with other women. Each woman was to bring an oil lamp or a lantern to light up the stage. On the night, between 300 to 500 women wrapped in black chadors came to see the play.

The first act went well. Refreshments were being served during the intermission when there was a loud bang on the door and police officers rushed in. A number of women tried to escape by climbing over the rooftops. Having considered the possibility that religious zealots might intervene, the organizers had prepared a couple to assume the roles of “bride and groom” so the facade of a wedding could be upheld. But someone had informed the police about what was going on and the tactic did not work.

Attack on Hijab, Gender Segregation 

The performance aborted, but Varto Terian did not give up. One of the most memorable plays she appeared in was Mahpar by Ali Akbar Siassi. Siassi later became education minister and played an important role in the drafting and enforcement of national compulsory free education in Iran.

This four-act play was a no-holds-barred attack on the hijab and chador. Gender segregation was still being enforced, and in the hall where the play was staged, women were seated in the balcony, separated from men. 

Varto Terian played the lead role of Mahpar, a beautiful and learned woman whose seemingly modern husband treats her with disdain, although he is very friendly toward his friends’ hijab-wearing wives. One day, Mahpar dresses herself in a chador, covers her face and “accidentally” runs into her husband without him knowing who she is. The husband professes his ardent love and begs her to be with him. The dénouement comes when Mahpar removes her hijab and reveals her face, shaming her husband for ignoring her as his wife but falling in love with her when he thinks she is another woman.

At the time, the story struck a chord with many women, some of whom told Varto she had given voice to their frustrations.

Varto Terian was also the first woman to recite Persian poetry on stage and taught French and elocution at Tehran’s Teachers School.

Her daughter, Alenush Terian, grew up to become the first Iranian woman astrophysicist. She founded the Tehran State University of Geophysics and Astrophysics and is regularly referred to as “the mother of modern Iranian astronomy.”

Varto Terian never left the stage for 25 years and was praised, not only in the Iranian press but also in the prestigious French gazette Mercure de France. Arto Terian died in 1954 and his wife 20 years later, in 1974.

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