Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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Tahereh Qurratu’l-Ayn was born Fatimah Baraghani sometime between 1814 and 1817 to a Muslim religious family. Her father and her uncles were well-known Shia clerics in Qazvin, 150 kilometers northwest of Tehran. Their descendants are still prominent figures in Qazvin and have bequeathed the city with a large mosque and a school named Salehieh.
Qurratu’l-Ayn was educated by her father and learned about poetry and literature from her mother. She took part in discussions at school and at family gatherings, always surprising and impressing people with her knowledge. Her father and uncles were extremely pleased with her intelligence, knowledge and progress.
Whenever she read or heard a poem that she liked she would write it down and use it later in conversations. She was articulate, and her notes and poetry reflected her considerable mastery of Persian literature.
When she was in her teens, Qurratu’l-Ayn married a cousin. They had three children together. But soon she began gravitating towards Sheikhism, a Shia sect founded in early nineteenth-century Iran. The followers of the sect believe in the existence of intermediaries between the people and the Hidden Imam, or the Shia Messiah.
Qurratu’l-Ayn’s uncle, Sheikh Mohammad Taghi (who was also her father-in-law), was a staunch opponent of Sheikhism, as was his son, her husband. This led to the breakdown of their marriage, which ended in divorce. Another of her uncles supported Sheikhism and supported Qurratu’l-Ayn’s right to follow the sect.
After her separation from her husband, Qurratu’l-Ayn moved to the holy Shia city of Karbala in present-day Iraq to proselytize Sheikhism. But when Seyed Mohammad Ali Shirazi, who later took the title Tahereh Bab (“Pure Gate”), launched his own messianic movement, known as Babism, she converted to the new religion. She never met Bab but traveled to many places to promote his religious teachings.
At the time, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. Her religious activities were not appreciated by the populace or the authorities. The people of Karbala stoned her home and the city’s governor exiled her to Baghdad. But Qurratu’l-Ayn continued her activities and was eventually sent back to Iran.
Her family, especially her former father-in-law, were staunch opponents of Babis and Sheikh Mohammad Taghi, as the city’s high religious authority, ordered the suppression of the religious group.
Then a Babi by the name of Mirza Abdollah attacked and killed Sheikh Mohammad Taghi as he was praying in a mosque. Qurratu’l-Ayn’s ex-husband believed that she had been behind the assassination and announced this belief in public. The governor of Qazvin put her in prison. She escaped with the help of another prisoner and set out for Tehran.
In June 1848, as the suppression of Babis in Iran worsened, approximately 80 Babi leaders gathered for a conference in the village of Badasht, near the northeastern city of Shahroud. Qurratu’l-Ayn, who appeared at the conference not wearing a hejab, delivered a speech in which she declared that the Babis could no longer abide by the edicts of Islam and that from then on the faith would be considered a separate religion from Islam.
Historians believe that Qurratu’l-Ayn was the first Babi woman to refuse to wear the hejab. She believed that women must engage in society and enjoy equal rights with men, a concept that was certainly unheard of in nineteenth-century Iran.
The Badasht conference and Qurratu’l-Ayn’s refusal to wear the hejab during it led to confrontations between government agents and the Babis. Qurratu’l-Ayn was forced to go into hiding, but authorities eventually apprehended her and charged her with the murder of her uncle. For three years, she was a prisoner at the house of Tehran’s police chief.
In the meantime, Bab was executed. As revenge for his death, Babis made an attempt on the life of the Qajar king Naser al-Din Shah. The assassination attempt failed and the king ordered that all Babis must be killed.
One account says that the king, who had met Qurratu’l-Ayn at the start of her detention, wrote her a letter and promised that she would be granted an exalted position in his harem if she denied Babism. According to this account, she rejected the king’s offer with a verse and request a visit with him. Some historians say that courtiers were afraid that the king would be impressed by Qurratu’l-Ayn’s beauty and eloquence and took the decision to begin her trial.
Qurratu’l-Ayn was the first Iranian women to be executed on grounds of “corruption on earth,” a charge regularly invoked by the Islamic Republic today. Male Babi leaders were executed in public but Qurratu’l-Ayn’s execution, in August 1852, was done in secret in a garden. She was choked to death with a piece of cloth at the age of 35.
Also in the series: