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TITLEFeminist Movements in the Late Qajar Period
AUTHOR 1Janet Afary
AUTHOR 2 et al.
TITLE_PARENTEncyclopaedia Iranica
PUB_THISColumbia University
ABSTRACTBrief excerpt, with link to article offsite.
NOTES The following is an excerpt of the article at
TAGSEquality; Gender; Iran (documents); Qajar dynasty; Women

Persia of the 20th century saw a number of popular, often small and short-lived, women’s rights activities which had been mobilized in the 1900s-1920s and again in the 1940s-50s.


The principle concerns of the women’s rights movement in Persia have been equal access to modern education; improvements in health and hygiene; removal of the veil and other changes in traditional gender roles and household relations; greater employment opportunities for women, specifically in the professional arena; greater participation in different spheres, including women’s suffrage and political representation; and changes in marriage and family laws. Many of these goals were generally achieved and maintained with the help of the state, while others became the subject of heated political debates in the past decades.

The women’s rights movement in Persia has been influenced by the interplay of adaptive and reactive responses of important social and political forces to modernity in the 20th century. The adaptive secular response to modernity includes the liberal-nationalist orientation of the Constitutionalists, the authoritarian-developmental outlook of the Pahlavi state, and the radical vision of left-wing organizations. Also included in the adaptive response to modernity are the liberal and left-wing religious forces who often have a women’s rights agenda similar to their counterparts in the secular camp couched in their own religious and political discourse. While the adaptive response to modernity helped the enhancement of women’s rights, the reactive response of religious conservatives and fundamentalists (see FUNDAMENTALISM) has remained the main obstacle to the improvement of women’s rights and life conditions in Persia.

Persia of the 20th century saw a number of popular, often small and short-lived, women’s rights activities which had been mobilized by liberal and left wing authors, journalists, and political organizations in the 1900s-1920s and again in the 1940s-50s. Engrossed in modern state building, social mobilization, and economic development at the expense of civil society and political participation, the Pahlavi state adopted and implemented programs related to women with minimum participation by independent women’s associations. Through these programs, the state prepared the foundation for considerable improvement of women’s rights and life conditions in the 1960-70s, including development in women’s education, equal employment opportunities, welfare programs, family protection law, and grant of suffrage to women. All these, however, were realized without much grass roots participation by women’s associations and popular political organizations, a factor which had important reverberations and implications for the long-term survival of these reforms under new circumstances and a different regime. Nevertheless, the preservation and enhancement of women’s rights in certain spheres which had become established in the Pahlavi period also became part of the agenda of women’s struggles in the postrevolutionary Persia of the 1980s-90s.


The history of the women’s rights movement in Qajar Persia was intimately linked to other social, religious and intellectual movements of the era such as liberalism, nationalism, social democracy, and Babism (q.v.). An early manifestation of feminism took place in June 1848 in Badašt, a village on the border of Māzandarān and Khorasan, where Qorrat-al-ʿAyn (1814-1852), the outspoken Babi woman leader, removed her veil before a bewildered audience. European liberal ideas, as well as social reforms taking place in Turkey, Transcaucasia, Egypt, and India, also influenced late 19th century intellectuals who condemned the practices of veiling and other forms of women’s oppression. Mīrzā Fatḥ-ʿAlī Aḵūndzāda (q.v.; 1812-1878), noted for both his polemical writings and plays, spoke of the need for women’s education and an end to polygamy. Mīrzā Yūsof Khan Āštīānī Eʿteṣāmī, Eʿteṣām-al-Molk (q.v.; 1874-1938), editor of Bahār (q.v.) in Tabrīz, translated Taḥrīr al-marʾa, the classic work of the Egyptian reformist Qāsem Amīn, into Persian as Tarbīat-e neswān (Tabrīz, 1900). Bībī Ḵānom Astarābādī (1858-1920) wrote Maʿāyeb al-rejāl (Vices of men), the most extensive feminist text to have survived from this period. Written in the style of advice manuals (andarz-nāmas), it was a response to Taʾdīb al-neswān, an earlier treatise by an anonymous Qajar aristocrat. Bībī Ḵānom penned an angry denunciation of contemporary educated men with a double standard. She pointed out that these men wrote admiringly of the relative freedom enjoyed by urban middle class European women, while at the same time they upheld traditional patriarchal relations at home. Persian journals published abroad, including Aḵtar (q.v.; published in Istanbul), Ḥabl al-matīn (q.v.; published in Calcutta), as well as Ṯorayyā and Parvareš (published in Egypt), devoted editorials and articles to women’s education and advocated their greater participation in society.

The Qajar era provided several examples of powerful women who influenced court politics through sheer force of character and connections with the royal harem. Among them were Mahd-e ʿOlyā, Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah’s mother, and Faḵr-al-Dawla, Moẓẓafar-al-Dīn Shah’s daughter (and wife of Amīn-al-Dawla), who later reportedly won even Reżā Shah’s grudging admiration for her entrepreneurial skills. The activities of these women often stemmed from personal and family motivations. An early incident of nationalist protest occurred during the episode of the Tobacco Régie when royal women in the harem of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah joined the tobacco boycott and, much to the shah’s chagrin, refused to smoke. During the Constitutional Revolution of 1324-29/1906-11 (q.v.), women’s participation in the nationalist movement developed a mass character and eventually addressed concerns specific to women.

Women joined the boycott of foreign textiles and contributed to the national bank project (Kasrawī, 1978; Nāhīd). Constitutionalist men, who spoke against autocracy, poverty, lawlessness, and immorality, appealed to the collective sense of honor among men in urging them to join the movement and protect women. The Tiflis-based social democratic journal, Mollā Naṣr-al-Dīn (Browne, Press and Poetry, p. 16) written in Azeri Turkish, and many leading Persian social democrats associated with the Ejtemāʿīyūn-e ʿāmmīyūn (q.v.), became vocal advocates of women’s rights, raising the debate to a new level. Soon activist women, many from the upper classes, began specifically to address women’s concerns. Despite their small numbers, they organized themselves into societies and anjomans and established new girls schools, adult education classes, health clinics, and orphanages. Meanwhile the new government refused to extend suffrage to women in the electoral laws of September 1906. The issue of women’s anjomans was debated in the First Majles, with the support of men such as the social democrat Sayyed Ḥasan Taqīzāda, Ḥājj Shaikh Tāqī, and Wakīl-al-Raʿāyā who publicly called for women’s suffrage in the Second Majles in the summer of 1911. Women’s organizations were permitted to continue their activities, though they received no other backing from the Majles. Between August 1906 and April 1910, fifty girls schools were opened in Tehran and a women’s congress on education had taken place. All these schools relied on private contributions and none received government funding (Afary, 1996, pp. 182-83). Bībī Ḵānom Astarābādī opened one of the first elementary schools for Muslim girls, Dabestān-e dušīzagān (Tarqī and Najmābādī, 1995, p. 2). In 1907, the Anjoman-e āzādī-e zanān (also known as Anjoman-e ḥorrīyat-e zanān, or Association for the Freedom of Women) included in its ranks two daughters of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah, Tāj-al-Salṭana and Efteḵār-al-Salṭana. Mary Park Jordan and her colleague Annie Stocking Boyce, two American Presbyterian missionaries, also participated in this association. Anjoman-e moḵaddarāt-e waṭan (Association of the Ladies of the Homeland), formed in 1910, included wives, mothers, and daughters of many prominent constitutionalists (Bāmdād, 1977, p. 34). Ṣadīqa Dawlatābādī (q.v.), whose father was the leader of the Azalī Babi community of Persia, was both a member of the Association for the Freedom of Women, and the Association of the Ladies of the Homeland. She became a leading feminist during Reżā Shah’s era (see ii. bellow).


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