Women's Role in the Constitutional Movement of Iran

Hamshahri, Daily Newspaper
Vol. 8, No. 2224, Sep. 30th, 2000
By: Maryam Fathi

Although women constitute half of the population in every society, historically the influence of this half of humanity on the social development is either ignored or given less value than it truly deserves. During the Constitutional movement however when one pauses to examine all the different issues relating to that period thoroughly, one can clearly observe women's valuable influence on the movement through their political, social and cultural activities.

When one embarks to analyze the historical events in Iran, the Constitutional movement era seems to have left a very deep impression on the Iranian history. By some interpretations, the constitutional movement in Iran can be referred to as the beginning of the Iranian contemporary history. The role of the Iranian women in the past one hundred years and especially during the constitutional movement is a highly sensitive issue which has found a distinct place in the contemporary research of the history. The following article attempts to evaluate the women's part during the heyday of the Constitutional movement, because of the significance attributed to it in the study of the contemporary history of Iran.

The intellectual and cultural development of the Iranian women during the Constitutional movement was to some extent because of Iran's assumption of a position in the international relations arena from the early years of Qajar dynasty. Upon the creation of such conditions, some Iranian intellectuals and statesmen began to hastily run down the conditions of the Iranian women in their comparison to those of their European counterparts. This went so far that Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi Shirazi gave the Iranian women the moniker of a blindfolded and fully veiled person just like a bird in a cage. Teymur Mirza went as far as saying that ten Iranian women were worth as much a single English woman.'

Tajolsaltaneh, Nasseredin Shah's daughter, who, too had begun to find the roots of the Iranian underdevelopment, came to the conclusion that women's sufferings originated from their illiteracy. A European tourist, Carla Serna had also given her attention to this issue and wrote: Within the walls of the harems, women write less and read very few books. Books and pen holders have been replaced by mirrors and Sormeh Dan (a type of container for natural mascara).
Bibi Khanom Estarabadi, who was an educated lady and familiar with the noble Iranian culture, while lamenting the miserable conditions of the Iranian women, she would embark on defending their honors. So, in response the writer of the Tadibol Nesvan (educating women), in which women had been highly disparaged, she wrote the book Maayebol Rejal (the faults of men) and she enumerated the names of outstanding female personalities of different religions and concluded that absolute virtue boils down to humanity and not gender.

It was in the wake of such events that women began to actively participate in the Tobacco Movement and the Famine Strike of the 1894 as well as the 1860 riots in Tabriz . So during the Constitutional movement, women rose to struggle alongside their men.

The active presence of women in the political and cultural arenas.

Different sources refer to several instances when women actively participated in the struggle to bring realization to the objectives of Constitutionalism. For instance, it has been said that during the minor migration of women and their participation in the street demonstrations, they would demand the repatriation of religious scholars. Mirza Jahanguir Khan Soor Esrafil's aunt was commissioned by a clandestine association to carry a threatening letter to the shah of the time, and a number of women led by the wife of Heydar Khan Tabrizi were charged with the safeguarding and protection of the lives of those religious scholars in favor of the constitutional movement.

Upon the culmination of the Constitutionalism victory, women refused to go back into seclusion. By sending a large number of telegrams from Tehran and Tabriz they demanded the speedy approval of the constitution of the country. Although the constitution had failed to consider women's basic rights such as the right to vote and the right to be elected, all the same, women hardly backed out of supporting the parliament. Under such circumstances when there was not enough money available to establish the National Iranian Bank, and rumors were abounding about Iran having to obtain a hefty loan from Russia or England, women started selling their jewelry to help finance this national plan.

During the battles of proponents of Constitutionalism in Tabriz with the troops of Mohammad Ali Shah, women were fighting alongside the men while they were heavily engaged in assisting those in the rear guards. In addition to their presence in political and military arenas, women gave birth to many original activities in different fields which left very impressive and long enduring impacts. Among such activities was the establishment of women schools, associations and publication of newspapers.

The newspapers and magazines of this period were replete with letters and articles about the necessity of education for young girls as well as women's and girls' tales of sufferings, who were eating their hearts out to get an education and become learned. In 1906, when there was a large gathering in Tehran, women issued a resolution consisting of two paragraphs. The first paragraph underscored the need for the establishment of schools for women and the second paragraph favored the omission of a heavy dowry for brides to be. The reason behind the latter demand was the fact that the money spent on buying dowry for a young woman about to be married could much better be used in the way of girls' education. 35 years later, 50 girls only schools were establish in Tehran.

The first girl school was inaugurated at the same time Constitutionalism came into effect. It was called "Dooshizegan (Maidens)" and the head principle was Bi Bi Khanom Variov, who was one of the intellectual women of the time. Another girl school by the name of Namoos (Honor) was established in 1907 under the management of Tooba Azmoodeh. The curriculum consisted of Persian literature, Arabic, Geography, Arithmetic, and of course Quran was also tutored.

There were also religious gatherings to honor the martyrdom of the Shiite's third leader Imam Hussein and other household members of the holy prophet AS,(called Rozeh Khani ,readings of elegies and eulogies). Among interesting things about these schools were speeches and lectures made by the students and teachers about the usefulness and effects of women's education and the positive scientific influences they would entail during the examination periods and on other occasions.

In one of these lectures made at Namoos school, it was said: With the grace of God, the brave holy, zealous, and indefatigable warriors would put oppression in confinement and would help the sponsors of scientists and scholars spread science and the rejuvenation of the Iranian life. That's right, The sacred job started by the selfless combatant of the war, will culminate in peace by the efforts of the teachers and students. the roots of autocracy that has spread in Iran will be withered through the propagation of knowledge and in this connection the girls' schools will play a more important part than the boys' schools. This is mainly because these schools will educate those mothers of future who will bring up zealous and patriotic men.

Women's Political and Social Associations
Political and social associations and circles were women are other arenas of serious presence during the Constitutional movement era. Notwithstanding the outlooks and in some cases the affiliations of some of these circles to intellectual groups and circles dependent on ideals of their own time, by and large, the existence of such organizations gave rise to the demonstration of abilities and the forwarding of views by educated women of that time which on the whole had a special place for itself. Among some associations that could be mentioned were "the association of free women, the association of the motherland's, ladies association, the invisible union of women, women's committee and in Tabriz the association of blossoms."

It suffices to say that in the parliament's first round of discussions a part was allocated to this issue in order to give an account of the large scale activities of these associations and their repercussions on the society.

Among the measures adopted by these associations was the criticisms leveled at the performances of the representatives of the parliament and their lack of a distinct plan for the administration of the society. In this connection a newspaper by the name of the `call of the motherland' had said something which was extremely interesting. The writer of the article who had put down her signature as the invisible union of women, had embarked on criticizing the performances of the MPs and had asked for that the approval of the law, in order to make the situation clear for the people of the society, be expedited. The aforementioned had considered women to be privileged with the same rights and dignity as the rest of the society. She had also written: "It is not a secret that every widow has a right in this national assembly and we demand that our right be given to us today. Today a boy child has one brain, and I, as a representative of women do have one brain too. The difference is that he is the king and I am the pauper. In conclusion, while reminding everyone the mentality of the society as regards women, she set a deadline for the MPs and urged them if they fail to do so they should leave the administration of the country to women for only 40 days.

Women's publications of the Constitutional Movement era The publication of newspapers was another valuable activity taken up by women during the Constitutional Movement era. This issue becomes especially important when we regard this activity on their part within the period they were living.

The first women publication "Danesh (Knowledge)" came out under the management of Doctoress Kahal. this paper used to come out on weekly basis ever since 1910. It was mainly concerned with family problems and would keep well away from getting embroiled in political affairs.

This magazine, although the first experience of women in journalism, had achieved a lot of its perceived objectives and left a very impressive influence in identifying women to the society. Among other important publications, published and printed by women was the pictorial magazine Blossom. This magazine came out in 1912 under the management of Mrs. Mozayanolsaltaneh, the principle of Mozayanieh school. Most of the articles and issues of Shokoofeh (blossom) were concerned with women schools and ladies affairs.

Among the issues discussed in Shokoofeh publication was an article headlined "Awareness or the Truth ". In this article, the writer, while enumerating the advantages and disadvantages of correct upbringing of women, she considers the creation of love for one's country, serving humanity, national dignity, religious honor and sacrifices in the way of motherland to originate under the shadow of a knowledgeable mother.

Years after the Constitutionalism and at the same time with the rule of Reza Shah, the publication of women's papers and the establishment of women's associations took on added speed. However, regrettably, the penetration of many dependent elements in them and their efforts to promote the cultural objectives of Pahlavi rule gave rise to their losing credit and value as the pioneers of women's movement in the Constitutionalism.

By and large, women's role in those fields that have already been enumerated were highly valuable, in another word the Constitutional Movement gave women the opportunity to better show their potentials and their latent talents and thus the decayed crust of the erroneous traditions was cracked wide open. As a matter of fact, the women of the Constitutional Movement era demonstrated to everyone that when the field is left wide open to them, they know perfectly well how to bring promotion and progress to themselves and their society.

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