First Iranian Women who established the Girls Schools in Iran

Originally Published Online in 2005

Introduction: Women’s challenge for an improved lifestyle in general and to obtain a better education in particular has a long history. The Industrial Revolution (IR) of the 18th and 19th Centuries and the materialization of machinery to the work force sparked the women’s movement in Britain. In the 19th Century the IR spread throughout Western Europe and North America, and it eventually impacted the rest of the world. In fact the excuse of the physical difference between male and female was no longer legitimate and women could easily enter the work force. This was a turning point for women’s socio-political, educational, and cultural roles. The financial independence resulted by this development led women to gain more confidence in society and created a condition for breaking the barriers towards freedom and more advanced lifestyle. Those social changes of the IR together with the Bolshevism Revolution in Russia in October 1905, and the Constitutional Revolution in Iran during 1905-1911 had a great influence on history of the women’s movement for a better status in Iran.

Early Efforts: In 1848, American Presbyterian missionaries opened one of the first girls school in Orumieh, the capital city of West Azarbaijan (a northwestern province of present-day Iran), and the religious minorities, mainly Christians, attended the school. Similar schools had opened in Tehran, Esfahan, Tabriz, Mashhad, Rasht, Hamedan and other cities of the country. Muslim girls, however, were not allowed to attend the missionary schools by the religious authorities and public pressure. Coincidentally, these girls schools established in Iran almost on the same time of the Declaration of Sentiment (DS) in the USA. (The DS is a document signed in 1848 by sixty-eight women and thirty-two men, delegates to the first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York, now known to historians as the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention. The Sentiments followed the form of the United States Declaration of Independence. The principal author of the Declaration of Sentiments was Elizabeth Cady Stanton).

The Traditional Learning Centers: Apart from those schools opened by the missionaries, there was not any systematic schooling in Iran until Mirza Taghi Khan-e-Amir Kabir; the premier of Iran during Nasser-e-Din Shah (the fourth Shah of Qajar dynasty) founded the educational institution of House of Sciences & Techniques (in Persian: Darolfonoon) in 1851. On those days until the establishment of relatively modern primary-school (in Persian: Dabesstaan or Madresseh), Iranian girls and boys used to attend the Traditional Learning Centers (in Persian: Maktab Khaaneh) where pupils between 4 to 14 years old could sit next to each other on the floor (sometimes covered by rug or mat) and listen to the teacher. There was not any age limitation for boys. Girls were only allowed to attend these centers till age 7. They had then to stay home to help the family or get a private female mentor to continue their educations.

First Primary Schools in Iran: In the course of Constitutional Revolution some Iranian reformists started to open separate schools for girls and boys in different cities of Iran. These reforms were led by a couple, Alavieh Khaanom and her husband Hassan Roshdieh, with the first Primary Schools (in Persian: Dabestans), using blackboards, instruction books and maps, opening in Tabriz (in 1887) and in Tehran (in 1898). Some documents also reveal that in 1902 Tooba Roshdieh, daughter of the Roshdieh couple, opened a girl school in her own house in Tehran and named it as Training School (in Persian: Madresseh-e-Parvaresh). This school lasted only for four days and it was closed upon the order of some clergies. Similar schools in other cities were also closed. The radical fraction of clergies considered these schools as undermining Islam and the schools were routinely attacked by thugs dispatched by the clergies burning and destroying the books and supplies and shutting down the schools. 

Establishment of the New Schools in Iran: It is documented that in 1902 Zainel-Aabedin Taghizadeh, an Iranian businessman in Tabriz and Baku and possibly a friend of Roshdieh family, send one of his employees to Najaf (in Iraq) to ask if Iranian Muslim girls could enroll at the newly established schools. High spiritual authorities there, after a long four days discussion issued a positive religious verdict (in Persian: Fetwaa). Upon this positive verdict, the establishment of the new schools became popular among a certain segment of urban households, notably the middle classes. A group of radical clergies who were against Constitutional movement were also against the new schools establishments. Shaikh Fazlullah Noorie issued a Fetwaa saying that girl schools were against Religious Laws and Regulations (in Persian: Shar-e-Yat). Another clergy, Shaikh Shushtari organized protests, which included women from the least privileged classes against women’s education and distributed a leaflet entitled “Shame on a country in which girl schools are founded”!

New Girls Schools: Disappointed with the outcome of the Constitution (since it did not support the right of women to vote and also to facilitate the establishment of girl schools), Iranian women decided to organize by themselves and the issue of education became the priority. On January 20, 1907, a women’s meeting was held in Tehran where ten resolutions were adopted, including one that called for establishing girl schools and another that sought the abolition of dowries so that the money could be spent on educating the girls instead. Dowry (in Persian: Jahaaz) is an amount of money or property which the woman’s parents give to the man she marries, and it is a tradition in many countries. In 1907, Alavieh Roshdieh opened a girl school in Tehran and named it as Chastity School (in Persian: Efaaf). Also in 1907, Bibi Khanom-e-Vazir Zadeh, who was one of the intellectual women of the time, opened a girl school and named it as Mademoiselle School (in Persian: Madresseh-e-Dooshizegan). At the same time Tooba Azmoodeh opened a girl school in her own house located in Hassan-Aabad Square of Tehran, and named it as Chastity School ( in Persian: Madresseh-e-Namoos). Despite threats and abuse by the mobs and some clergies the efforts continued. The opening of another girl school named Chastity and Modesty School (in Persian: Madresseh-e-Effatieh) by Safieh Yazdi, the wife of the pro-constitution clergy, Mohammed Yazdi in 1910 encouraged other women and more schools were opened. In 1911 Maahrukh Gohar Shenass started Progress School (in Persian: Madresseh-e-Taraghi). In the same year Maah Sultan Amir Sehei opened Training School (in Persian: Madresseh-e-Tarbiyat).
In 1912 Banoo Attaaey and Mozayanol Saltaneh opened Sun School (in Prsian: Shamssol-Madaaress) and Adorned School (in Persian: Madresseh-e-Mozayanieh) respectively. (Mozayanol Saltaneh was the daughter of Dr Razi Khan Tabatabaa-e-Semnani Raissol Atteba, and she was also possibly the first woman who published the first illustrated daily publication dedicated to women in 1915. Her publication was called as Blossom (in Persian: Shokufeh). By 1915 there were 9 Women’s Associations and 63 girl schools in the city of Tehran and about 2500 students were enrolled. The curriculum of these schools consisted of Persian Literatures, Foreign Language, Sport and Physical Education, Music, Painting, Calligraphy, Sewing, Knitting, Cooking, History, Geography, Mathematics, Holly Book of Koran, Jurisprudence and Religious Laws and Regulations. Among interesting things about these schools were the speeches delivered by students and teachers during the examination periods and other occasions. In the text of the speeches, the role of GS to educate those mothers of future who will bring up and train zealous and patriotic female and male Iranians was highly emphasized.

Two Special Schools: During Reza Shah (reigned 1925-1941) several girl schools were also founded by some Iranian-Christians, and among them two should be recalled:
1. Yelena Avedisian, an Iranian citizen known as Madame Yelena, opened a Dance School first in Tabriz and then in Tehran in 1927. She was actually born in Istanbul, Turkey, on January 25, 1910. She then emigrated from Turkey to Armenia and after her marriage, in 1927, she moved to Iran to settle in the city of Tabriz, and she established her own school of dance where many girls attended. She then moved to Tehran in 1945, and started her new dance school, which was officially recognized by the country’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. A large number of graduates of Madam Yelena’s Dance School followed in her footsteps by teaching dance at various schools. At the same time, several other graduates established their own dance schools in Tehran. In 1979 shortly after the Islamic Republic took over, Madame Yelena emigrated from Iran to the USA and resided in California. (RIP: She passed away on July 2, 2000 in Glendale, Los Angeles). It should be noted that Madame Yelena was one of the eminent dance teachers in Iran and trained more than thirty thousand dancers during her 65 years of teaching career. Here are a few lines that one of the students wrote about her: “I remember a lady who was simply called Madame Yelena…She affected our lives by her natural grace and encouraging attention, which prepared us for our future artistic careers”.
2. Bersabeh Huspian, a Christian lady born in Chahar-Mahaal-e-Bakhtiari (a southern province of Iran), established Bersabeh Kindergarten (in Persian: Koodakestan-e-Bersabeh) in 1930 in Tehran. Later, the Kindergarten was expanded to a complex including primary- and high-schools where all Iranian girls regardless of their faiths could be admitted. The official language of Bersabeh complex was Persian and its curriculum was similar to the schools already mentioned. Bersabeh Huspian closed her educational premises and emigrated from Iran to the USA when the Islamic Republic took over in 1979. (RIP: She died in the USA in 2000). Shireen Bakhtiar who attended the Kindergarten described online how she was doing in that play school: “I walked to my kindergarten, Bersabeh, in the early morning sunlight….Bersabeh was an old walled palace that now was my kindergarten across from the iron grill-gated Parliament (in Persian: Majlis)…Bersabeh would stand on the second floor balcony and look down on us. Always dressed in black like a black bird watching over her flock… In the sewing class we embroidered handkerchiefs with colored silk thread pulling the needle into shapes of rose’s violets and knots of blue bells”.

In contemporary Iran governed by a system that legally permits sexual apartheid and misogyny, women are still seeking their human rights for equality and respect. Many women in Iran now get caught, regrettably, in a web of conflicting forces as their looks, activities, and behavior become closely monitored. The momentum of the demographic changes that are taking place in the country, however, strongly suggests that the situation may alter in the days to come. After all, approximately two-thirds of the population is under 30, and more than half the country’s university students are now females. If and when they become politically active, these educated women could whole-heartedly struggle to affect the substantial reforms.
We should remember that any progress in Iran is directly linked to the women’s right to participate freely in all socio-economic, cultural, and political activities.

Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD

Girls and boys at Maktab-Khaaneh during Qajar period
An Iranian Girl School in Late 1940s: Watch for that ball!
Madame Yelena
Many girls learned how to dance in Madame Yelena’s School of Dance

Cloud, W. (1998): Online Article on “Too sweet to be true”, as referred to Khanom Bersabeh
Davoudi Mohajer, F. (2005): Online Article on “My country, Iran”
Kiann, N. (2002): Online Article on “Persian Dance and its Forgotten History” as referred to Madame Yelena
Price, M. (2004): Online Article on Women’s Movements in Iran (1850 – 2000)
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Online Article on “First Girls Schools in Iran”
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Various Articles on Persian History & First Iranians.
Various Sources (2005): Notes and Articles on Establishment of the New Schools in Iran, in English and Persian.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2005): Online Articles on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, History of Feminism, and History of Education in Iran.


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