I have a confession to make. It is not a sin that one shares with clergy. It is an apology. For years, I have eagerly sought and selfishly absorbed the various stories written on this site, without contributing back to the community. I have been a freeloader and for that I am sorry.
Up until now, my inaction has not been as a result of apathy, but rather rooted in a sense of terrible inadequacy on my part. Earlier this summer, an event occurred as impressionable as an insight one develops after reading a memorable book. As I sat in the ballroom at the Marriott in Washington DC, the legacy and influence of a historical Iranian figure was becoming apparent in an unexpected way. An echo from a bygone age could be heard. Her voice some 150 years ago was ringing throughout the room. “You can kill me as soon as you like but you cannot stop the emancipation of women…”
The banquet, A Woman’s Life, A Child’s Future: A World of Possibilities, was sponsored by the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization dedicated to our Persian heroine, Tahirih Qurratul-Ayn, with the mission of promoting justice for women and girls worldwide. The evening honored Hauwa Ibrahim, a prominent Nigerian lawyer, recognized for her work on Shariah related cases and internationally known for her defense of Amina Lawal, the Nigerian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock.
Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, former Ambassador of the Arab League to the United Nations and Professor at American University, presented the evening’s award. Conversation ceased. Hauwa Ibrahim accepted her recognition. All eyes were directed toward the podium. In a voice, the warmth of which resonated with each of the participants, she called to remembrance the life and victories achieved by Tahirih. The audience sat transfixed.
Commenting that she was only two years older than Tahirih at the time of her death at the age of 35, she articulated the correlation between the advancement of women and the progress of civilization. She appealed to the dignity latent in humanity and recognized, in the midst of the global chaos, an inspiration for new behavior emerging in the world.
I sat in my seat, toward the back of the room, designated for those of us that procrastinated our registration. I positioned my chair forward. My umbrella still somewhat wet rested on my feet. I feverishly looked for a pen and paper to record my observations — hearing, seeing, thinking, and feeling.
My senses seemed to sharpen. The emerging clarity developing in my mind gave rise to new questions. Who would have imagined that the achievements of a woman from Qazvin would 152 years later be recognized as milestones in the global women’s suffrage movement? Beyond the penetrating beauty of her poetry, did I grasp the significance of Tahirih’s actions? Could I appreciate the role that she played in the grand drama that marked 19th century Persia? The relevance of the words of Dr. Farzaneh Milani became apparent, “It is unfortunate that this woman who unveiled herself so many years ago still lives such a veiled life in the memory of her own people.”
The story of Tahirih inspires a sense of awe and admiration. It is a life of heroism, perseverance, honor and tragedy. With her public unveiling in 1848, at the age of 31, Tahirih firmly announced, “The trumpet is sounding! The great Trump is blown”. Her life exemplifies the trials and hardships encountered by those unique and rare individuals that challenge the corruption of their society and remain steadfast to their ideals.
Born in Qazvin, in 1817, Tahirih was nurtured in a world where women were shut out as by a veil from any significant arena in society. The voice of the common woman was as mute as her presence was absent. Under the unique tutelage of her father, Molla Saleh, her education in the fields of Quranic thought, law, and Persian and Arabic literature was cultivated. Her outward sense of equality emerged by taking part in debates, ironically, from behind a curtain in her father’s classroom. By the age of 25, Tahirih was recognized for her eloquence and scholarship in Islamic text and doctrine.
While her fame spread, Tahirih’s marriage to her paternal cousin became a source of anxiety and unhappiness. His orthodox and traditional views bitterly contrasted with her inner emancipation and sense of mission. She would later confront one of the most difficult decisions: either leave her husband and children or be suffocated and relegated to a life of domestic captivity.
During a trip to Karbala, accompanying her husband for religious training, Tahirih became familiar with Siyyid Kazim Rashti, whose Shaykhi movement foretold the unfoldment of a new era coinciding with the time of the Promised Qaim. It was Siyyid Kazim who gave her the title of Qurratul-Ayn (Solace of the Eyes).
Two years later, in the summer of 1844, Tahirih became one of the first 18 disciples of the Bab, whose Babi faith would quickly spread throughout Persia. It was Bahaullah who later bestowed on her the name of Tahirih (The Pure). His call for spiritual renewal emboldened her purpose and she traveled throughout her motherland — from Kermanshah to Tehran — meeting with groups of woman, poor and rich, tribal and Qajar royalty, educating them on their equality and noble station. It was in the hamlet of Badasht that Tahirih, in the presence of a group of men, unveiled herself. The event so horrified those around her that one man cut his own throat in horror.
Her growing fame came to the attention of Nasser al-Din Shah, who, it is stated, proposed marriage to her. In her refusal, Tahirih replied, “Kingdom, wealth, and power are for thee. Beggary, exile, and loss are for me. If the former is good, it’s thine. If the latter is hard, it’s mine.” Her actions precipitated a flurry of commotion. Her admirers pledged their devotion, while her opponents sought her destruction.
By order of the court of the Shah, Kalantar, Chief of Police of Tehran, arrested, imprisoned, and subsequently had her killed. In 1852, at the age of 35, Tahirih was strangled to death and her body thrown into a well. Her last words were, “You can kill me as soon as you like but you cannot stop the emancipation of women…” This final episode of her mortal life was a heart-wrenching testimony to her strength and dedication.
Referred to as the “Persian Joan of Arc” by Sarah Bernhardt, her life inspired a diverse array of people, the likes of which include Sulayman Nazim Bey, Edward Browne, Comte de Gobineau, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Mariana Hainisch, and Muhammad Iqbal. Many throughout history have honored Tahirih’s life, referring to her as a “rare phenomenon”, “prodigy”, “noble”, “greatest ideal of womanhood”, and “fearless”.
In writing this piece, my greatest challenge has been this conclusion, the lasting impression of a figure hailed as the inaugurator of Iran’s contemporary women’s movement. As I was typing at my desk, listening to Shajarian’s “Tasnif Chehre-be-Chehre,” one of Tahirih’s most recognized poems, it came to me to end with Tahirih’s own words:
I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face-to-face we meet.
To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.
In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.
This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.
— Translated by Moin ed-Din Mehrabi.
(Source: Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers by Farzaneh Milani)
Jian Khodadad recently presented “Tahirih Qurratul-Ayn: Inaugurator of the Iranian Women’s Movement” at the International Conference on the Iranian Diaspora (April 2004). His interests also include the impact of economics on racial policy in Southern Africa, early Babi and Bahai history, and the application of ethical and spiritual principles to corporate leadership and management.
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