Slavery in early 20th century Iran
October 2, 2002
Monir Joon is one of those rare women who appear once in a while and will be remembered
for long after they are gone. The sort who can bring up five happy children as though
there is no work involved, endlessly entertain never ending influx of family and
friends, are legendary cooks and have the time at the end of the day to sew, knit,
read and even compose poetry. In her 80's her memory is clear and she remembers names,
details and circumstances. Our families have known each other for generations and
I regard it best of luck that I am able to sit with her and listen to some of her
Belonging to an aristocratic, modern and progressive family, she went to a missionary
school in Tehran and as a teacher in training she was present at the Teachers Training
College when the emancipation of women officially started in 1936. She remembers
every detail of the occasion and knows every word Reza Shah uttered on that historic
day that became the proudest moment of her life. The last time we talked she told
me about an old servant and her story as the maid told it. I find the story significant
since it involved a topic hardly ever discussed in our culture: slavery a common
institution in the area up to early 20th century.
Chaman Andam was born in Africa; she did not know where
or when. All she remembered was the day when armed men attacked their village, killed
many adults and took the young and the children. The haunting memoirs of the assault
were the only memories left of all she was before that gory day. With her siblings
she was taken to Mecca the most flourishing slave market at the time where they were
sold separately. An Iranian merchant while on pilgrimage bought her; he was to be
known as Hajji. She was so young that she lost her language and most memories of
her past. The Hajji gave her a new name, Chaman Andam. Once in Tehran, she lived
with the other servants in squalid quarters outside the main house.
When she was 10 or 12, she did not know the exact age. One day she was given the
task of taking Hajji's bath accessories to the private bathhouse somewhere near the
outer walls of the expansive garden. She was terrified, this had never happened before;
furthermore Hajji was going to the bathhouse alone without her sons or other male
servants. She walked behind the seemingly huge man while carrying the accessories
in her little hands. The normally short distance seemed miles away and with every
step her heart was pounding louder and louder. When at the bathhouse, she was ordered
to bath and wash the old man, in tears and shunned she did as she was told and resisted
little when she was raped by the Hajji. The memory of the incident was as horrific
as that bloody day in Africa and wounded her little soul even more.
Hajji's sexual adventures with the little slave girl created resentment in the family
and turned Hajji's wife and their children against her with increased humiliation
and abuse. Hajji continued his sexual abuses but never treated her like a lover or
a favorite concubine or even a person. She got pregnant and gave birth, the newborn
girl never received any attention, kindness or money from Hajji. Chaman Andam called
her little daughter Jahan and as soon as she turned 9, Jahan was married off to a
construction worker who would not want to have anything to do with a black African
slave as his mother in law. Chaman Andam never saw her daughter again.
Soon after her daughter's wedding, just before No Ruz,
Hajji died from a heart attack. Right after his death, she was kicked out of the
house without a penny or any compensation. Desperate with nowhere to go she knocked
on neighbors' doors and asked for help. No one wanted to have a young slave girl
in the household and she was refused until she got to Monir Joon's house. Her father
a patriotic diplomat and an advocate of modern political systems was furious with
the situation, he took Chaman Andam in and threatened to sue Hajji's family for practicing
slavery that was against the new constitution of 1907.
Chaman Andam joined the household and no one noticed that she always stayed in the
kitchen and never came into the house. Just before No Ruz as was the custom Khanum
Jaan the matriarch of the household went shopping and bought new cloths, shoes and
treats for every one. Again no one noted when Chaman Andam did not join the other
servants and stayed away. Once every one had received their presents Khanum Jaan
realized that Chaman Andam was absent. She sent for her, she came frightened and
shaken, they asked what was wrong and told her they wanted to give her the new cloths.
She exploded and burst into tears and told them that in Hajji's house they only called
her in when they wanted to punish her or humiliate her. She held the new fabric to
her face and chocked with tears and emotion and told them "no one had ever bought
me anything new".
They calmed her down and gave her tea and sweets; she became a permanent member of
the household and was called Hajji Khanum as a sign of respect. She was asked a few
times if she wanted to marry and each time she had said "It is all trouble Khanum
Jaan," and refused any suggestions of the kind. She died peacefully in her middle
age and was remembered by the children of the family as the kind but sad black servant
Slavery has been a major institution in our area
both before and after Islam. Its history has not been narrated in Iran and in fact
most Iranians have no knowledge of it. The institution of slavery existed in all
the ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe, and pre-Columbian America. It
had been accepted and even endorsed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well
as other religions of the world.
The Quran, like the Old and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery.
It regulates the practice and thus implicitly accepts it. Prophet Muhammad and those
of his companions who could afford it also owned slaves; some were acquired by conquest.
One account about Prophet's death names a female slave, who was captured after the
battle of Khaibar, as the one responsible for poisoning the Prophet. An Iranian slave
called Pirouz known by Arabs as Abu Loulou, assassinated Umar the second caliph.
The Quran recognizes the basic inequality between master and slave, and the rights
of the former over the latter (Quran 16: 71; 30: 28). It urges without actually commanding,
kindness to the slave (Quran 4: 36; 9: 60, 24: 58) and recommends without requiring,
his liberation by purchase or manumission. The rapid conquests of early Islam created
some of the most flourishing and largest slave markets ever seen in the area.
The early legislators were compelled to regulate the institution through legislation
that actually improved the position of slaves as compared to antiquity. For example
children born from slaves and war captives remained slaves while orphaned and abandoned
children could no longer be adopted as slaves, as was a common practice in antiquity.
Military slaves also existed and some managed to rose to positions of power, most
were freed at some stage of their career and their offspring were therefore free
and not slaves.
Mamluk rulers of Egypt belonged to this group. The enslavement
of free Muslims was discouraged and eventually prohibited. This limited the supply
of slaves once most conquered countries converted to Islam. Slaves had to be imported
from other countries mainly African territories not under Islamic rule. Islam also
prohibited castration of slaves and as a result eunuchs were also imported for the
harems. However conversion to Islam by a non-Muslim slave did not require his liberation.
His Islam did not affect his slave status.
Slaves were excluded from religious functions, or from any office, involving jurisdiction
over others. Their testimony was not admitted at judicial proceedings. In penal law,
the penalty for an offence against a person, a fine or blood wit, was for a slave,
half of that for a freeman. In civic matters, the slave had no legal powers or rights
whatsoever. He could not enter into a contract, hold property, or inherit. While
maltreatment was deplored, there was no fixed Shari'a penalty, which meant the slaves,
remained at the mercy of their masters.
A slave could marry, but only by consent of the master. Theoretically, a male slave
could marry a free woman, but this was in practice prohibited. A master could not
marry his own slave unless he first freed her but he had sexual rights over her as
a slave or war captive (Quran 23:6; 33: 49-52; 70:30). Eunuchs and performers such
as musicians and dancers and military slaves were the most expensive to purchase.
There were domestic and commercial slaves and many were employed in agriculture,
mining and other similar tasks. The records indicate high mortality rate and slaves
employed in the rural areas had the most difficult lives and died in greater numbers.
The institution of slavery survived until early 20th century and was banned by the
Europeans under their mandates. Wealthy Iranians like most Muslims going to Mecca
purchased slaves on the way, mostly to have sexual partners and domestics for the
long journey. Many such families had black slaves and nannies know as dadeh siah,
are still remembered by the elderly belonging to these families.
Photographs from Qajar period show some of these slaves
and the eunuchs serving women at the harems. The constitution of 1907 banned slavery
all together and the practice gradually went out of fashion. The worsening of economy
in Iran, Afghanistan, and most African countries has created new forms of slavery
mainly in the sex trade. Poor families in these countries sell their children and
in many places in Africa the militants abduct children and the young in large numbers.
Most are sold in underground slave markets and virtually all young female slaves
are to be used in the sex trade.
Slaves like Chaman Andam were not given Muslim names deliberately to make it clear
that they were not Muslims and therefore remained slaves and masters maintained their
sexual rights over them. Why was she called Chaman Andam? She was tall, thin with
shiny dark olive skin. Hajji knew what he was buying when he spotted the frightened
little girl at the slave market in Mecca!