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Women's rights advocates were rare in 1962

By Abbas Atrvash
July 19, 2001
The Iranian

It was a winter 1961. The two-engine DC-3 flew over high mountains and I saw Shiraz through the small window. From above, it resembled a bonsai garden.

I was looking forward to my stay in Shiraz. Although my parents were Shirazis, I had never lived in Shiraz before. I had only visited during school holidays in the summer when we used to escape Abadan's killer heat. Few days earlier my would-be boss, who was assigned as the Iranian Airways regional manager, had flown in from Tehran and I was joining him to take over the airline's representation from Irantour, the company's long time general sales agent, and to open the airline's own office.

In my life of 60 years, I have lived in many cities in Iran and aboard. But nowhere have I enjoyed every moment than in Shiraz, and Athens. I still daydream about the sweet memories of the days I lived in these two cities. They have many qualities in common: friendly people, pleasant springs and good wine. The inhabitants enjoy life regardless of their income.

Springtime in Shiraz, the city of poetry and dark-eyed women, intoxicating fragrances and music fill the air, elevating men and women to an ambiance of ecstasy, tenderness and love for life. The mountains, trees and roses make picturesque post cards under the bright sunshine.

Even newcomers, who are there on assignment or to study, cannot resist its carefree life-style. Influenced by the natives in no time, they too join the old tradition of Friday picnics in gardens and orchards, where they sit by a stream, cooling their feet in the running water.

The new airline office was opened at Falakeh Setad. It was a time when a growing number of foreign tourists were visiting Iran. Shiraz was one of the most attractive destinations in the whole country. So it was no surprise that our office soon became very busy. We needed to hire more people.

All employees were expected to speak fairly good English to handle the tourists. In those days English-speaking applicants were rare. We were always in search of qualified staff and one way was through friends. One day, a friend told us that he knew a young woman who spoke good English and was interested in working with the airline. An appointment was set up.

One day, in the summer of 1962, a tall, slim and energetic young woman walked into the office. She was well dressed, with light make up and a sweet infectious smile. Subsequent to normal greetings and a preliminary introduction, we began talking about the job.

She had a clear, eloquent voice. Everything about her was simple, yet she had a touch of elegance in every move she made. She became the first female member of our staff in Shiraz. But at the time we were not sure whether she would survive the male-dominated office.

The interview was brief because the primary qualification was knowledge of sufficient English, and she spoke better English than expected. She started work the next day. Her name was Shahla. At twenty-one, she was married to a young engineer at the Shiraz cement factory, where her father was a senior engineer. It did not take her a long time to prove her abilities. To the utmost surprise of senior staff, she mastered the job in just a few days.

Despite her young age, she was extremely knowledgeable in social and political matters, dare I say one of the most broad-minded women of her time and a brave advocate of women's rights, a rare thing in those days. In fact, she was very uncompromising on this issue.

Shahla was hardly seen without carrying a book around. She had a popular talk show about Iranian literature and poetry at the local radio station and her own articles and poetry were regularly published in the city's leading newspapers. She hardly missed activities related to women. She organized many of them herself. She adored Forough Farrokhzad, who was the symbol of women's independence and liberty. Shahla, in many ways, was outstanding and exceptional.

The other night, when I was going through, I read this news: "Sunday April 30, 2000 -- The Islamic Republic of Iran formally indicted and imprisoned Mehrangiz Kar, a lawyer, writer, and human rights advocate, and Shahla Lahiji, director of Roshangaran, a prominent publishing house of women's books..."

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