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Iranian Influential Women: Shahindokht Sanati (1933-2004)

November 15, 2023
4 min read
Shahindokht Sanati co-founded an organic rosewater factory, earning her the nickname of “the Lady of the Roses”
Shahindokht Sanati co-founded an organic rosewater factory, earning her the nickname of “the Lady of the Roses”

Shahindokht Sanati was better known by the nickname bestowed upon her by the villagers of Lalehzar in the southeastern province of Kerman: Lady of the Roses. It was later chosen as the name of a 2016 documentary about her life that the Iranian filmmaker Mojtaba Mir-Tahmasb produced after her death. Sanati founded the Zahra Rosewater Company with her husband Homayoun Sanatizadeh and replaced the opium poppies being cultivated in the area with damascene roses.

Shahindokht Sanati was born in Isfahan on April 19, 1933. After obtaining her high school diploma, she moved to Tehran to study philosophy. 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 the arts. He was the niece of Mirza Yahya Dolatabadi and Sediqeh Dolatabadi, who had set up the Iranian branch of Franklin Publisher. This firm published some of the most important American and European cultural and literary works in Iran for several decades and, by the late 1950s, became an important cultural institution in Iran.

After marrying Homayoun, Shahindokht helped him establish two companies that continued the work of his parents: the Pocket Books Company and the Pars Paper Manufacturing Factory. Eventually she would become the custodian of an orphanage created in the city of Kerman by the Sanatizadeh family. Shahindokht and her husband never had any children, but they took care of a large number of orphans.

A couple of years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the couple decided to move from Tehran to Kerman. Upon their arrival there, they made the most important decision of their lives.

From Books to Roses

Homayoun had inherited an estate from his father, in Lalehzar rural district in Kerman, where opium poppies were being cultivated. Despite knowing that huge profits could be reaped from poppy cultivation, they began to consider planting roses and obtaining the necessary apparatus and machinery for producing rosewater. 

Zahra Rosewater was officially founded in 1979, as other companies they owned, including Franklin Publishing and Pocket Books, were shut down after the Islamic Revolution.

Despite the disruptions caused by the revolution, the factory became operational during this period thanks to Shahindokht’s efforts. The company’s name, Zahra, meaning blossom, was also the name of Shahindokht’s niece. The couple used roses from their own garden 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 wrote in 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 opened at Sanati Museum. Zahra Rosewater had a booth there. As I was sick in bed, I could not attend the opening ceremony. Shahindokht attended it instead. The Friday Imam and the governor-general thanked her and she spoke about the problems facing the 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 amount of bottles, caps 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 reinforce her capability.” 

Iran’s Largest Producer of Rosewater and Rose Oil

With the efforts of Shahindokht and her husband, the small rosewater-manufacturing workshop soon grew into an industrial factory that didn’t use chemicals in the production process. Besides 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 oil in Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war and despite tremendous problems, the company was able to transform the Lalehzar region and its neighboring areas into rose gardens. Shahindokht had devoted her life to this endeavor and employed a large number of local women and men in the factory. Along with her work,  she also wrote books, including one called Aromatherapy, and conducted research on new products.

Zahra also supervised the upbringing of the children at an orphanage, providing what they needed for their education and marriage. She was so absorbed in her work that sometimes Homayoun, in his letters to his sister, asked her to tell his wife to take a few days off.

Tragically, after three decades of hard work to bring prosperity to the Lalehzar region and Zahra Rosewater, Shahindokht died in a car accident on February 10, 2004. She was buried in Lalehzar village, where the couple lived.


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