Persian Joan of Arc
August 12, 2004
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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