Pari Khan Khanum (1548-1578 AD) was a well-known princess and the daughter of Tahmasp, the Iranian Safavid Shad. Highly educated in Islamic sciences and an accomplished poet, she proved herself to be an influential politician.
Though engaged, she never married, preferring the bureaucratic life in the capital. When Shah Tamasp became ill without choosing a successor, the powerful Qizilbash, who had brought the Safavid monarchs to power, had to decide who should rule next. Some favored Haydar Mirza, the Shah’s third son, while others including Pari Khan Khanum favored another son, Ismail Mirza, who wrongfully accused of treason had been imprisoned by his father.
In their eagerness to bring Haydar Mirza to power, his supporters tried to kill Ismail Mirza in prison but Pari Khan Khanum uncovered the plot and sent a group of musketeers to safeguard him. Two years later, the Shah died and Haydar Mirza prematurely announced himself king, creating a series of events that finally led to his downfall. Attacked by his brother’s supporters, he took Pari Khan Khanum as hostage in the palace. She convinced him to release her, promising him her support. But upon release, she broke her oath and opened the gates to his enemies who finally killed him.
As the supporters of the brothers struggled for the throne, Pari Khan Khanum became the de facto ruler of the country. The chieftains of all clans took orders from her—whether fiscal, financial or political. And it was she who ordered top ranking members of the realm to gather and confirm Ismail Khan as the new Shah.
But Ismail Khan showed her no gratitude. After being in prison for almost 19 years, he had become a bitter angry mad who did not like his authority questioned. He forbade officials to visit Pari Khan Khanum’s palace, dissolved all her duties and seized her properties. Furious at his behavior after the support she had given him, she planned her revenge. A year later, Ismail Khan died abruptly, and the court physicians announced that he was poisoned.
The Qizilbash decided to pass the crown to Khodabandah, Ismail Khan’s older brother, who was nearly blind and unfortunately also quite incompetent. The agreement was that he would remain Shah in name only while Pari Khan Khanum ruled. However, over time, weary of her incredible influence, the Qizilbash decided to put an end to her rule. One day while she was walking home, she was seized and strangled. Thus, ended the rule of one of Iran’s most powerful female politicians.
Alenush Terian (1920-2011) was an Iranian-Armenian astronomer and physicist who has been called “The Mother of Modern Iranian Astronomy.” In 1947, Alenush graduated from the Faculty of Science at the University of Tehran and went to work in the physics laboratory of the university. A year later, she was elected the Head of Operations of the laboratory.
She signed up for a scholarship to further her studies in France but was not accepted because she was a woman. This did not deter her from going to Paris with her father’s financial support. She studied at the Faculty of Atmospheric Physics of the Sorbonne and obtained a PhD in 1956. Though she was offered a job there, she rejected it with the aim of bringing her services to Iran. She came back and became assistant professor of Thermodynamics at the Faculty of Physics in Tehran University. In 1964 she received the grade of full professor and became the first female Professor of Physics in Iran.
In 1966 she became a member of the Geophysics Committee of Tehran University. Soon, she was named elected Chief of the Solar Physics studies at the University and worked in the Solar Observatory of which she had been one of its founders. She retired in 1979.
She did not marry and devoted her entire life to her studies and students. As one former student said, “She always said that she had a daughter called Moon and a son called Sun.”
Alenoush Terian passed away in March of 2011. She left her home to the Armenian community and to those students who do not have a proper place to live.
In the pre-Islamic Iran, not only were there female rulers and warriors, but women became guardians of disinherited sons, and went to court on behalf of and against their husbands. So, though Islam brought revolutionary legal rights for women in Arabia, it did not elevate the position of Iranian women, and in fact eliminated some of the existing rights and customs to the detriment of Iranian women.
After the Islamic conquest of 651 AD, women in Iran never again participated in politics officially nor ruled directly. However, the situation got worse after the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736 AD) moved away from Sufism and established Twelver Shiism as the state-sponsored religion of the country.
Reports by Italians travelers indicate that at the beginning of the Safavid reign, women were neither veiled nor secluded. In the Italian account of the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 AD between Ottoman Sultan Selim and the first Safavid Shah Ismail, it has been reported that “The Iranian ladies themselves follow in arms the same fortunes as their husbands, and fight like men....” Another account by the Venetian Michele Membre who went on a mission to the court of the Safavid says, “The Shah’s maidens pass on fine horses; and they ride like men and dress like men, except that on their heads they do not wear caps but white kerchiefs...and they are beautiful.” As an example, Tajlu Khanum, one of Shah Ismail’s wives, is reputed to have been an able fencer and wrestler who participated in the battle of Chaldiran.
However, 100 years later, as the Safavids became more orthodox, and made Twelver Shia the state-sponsored religion, women began to lose their remaining rights. During the reign of Shah Sulayman (1667-94 AD), Sir John Chardin reports Iranian women to be totally secluded and veiled. The head-to-toe covering by then had become a custom and continued throughout the Qajar era to this day.
The veiling and secluding occurred because of Shia clergy’s orthodox interpretation of the Islamic position on women, which superimposed itself completely upon all past customs and traditions. Subsequently, the role of women became that of a housekeeper, bringing up children and providing the husband with sexual and culinary pleasure.
Forough Azarakhshi (1904-1963 AD) established the first elementary and secondary schools for girls in Mashhad, Iran. The school which would later be known as Forough’s school, had a tremendous impact on the education of women in Iran. Like most Iranian women who dared to break barriers, Forough Azarakhshi received death threats from Islamic extremists and conservatives within her society. There were even those who threatened to burn down the school.
In a show of strength, her family, including women, took up arms and protected the school for two years. Despite the threats, Forough never closed the school nor canceled any of the classes. There are many women in the religious city of Mashhad who to this day remember Forough Azarakhshi fondly and speak of her with utmost respect.
Forough financed the school with her own savings, but over time, as budget became an issue, the government began to provide financial support. One of her students was Farokhroo Parsa who would one day become not only a physician but the first female cabinet minister prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Forough was also President of the Children Orphanage of Khorasan, of the Association for the Protection of Mothers and Children, and the Charity Commission. She also became the honorary president of the Red Lion and Sun Society of Iran in Mashhad.
In 1910, the French Raymonde de Laroche, became the world’s first licensed female pilot. Seven other French women followed her, earning pilot’s licenses within the next year. Iran followed suit. In 1925, Reza Shah, formed the Iranian Aero Club and in 1939 began to advertise for prospective pilots. 630 young people signed up and to the surprise of the club officials 22 of them were women. Out of those women, 7 were admitted into the club and only three passed the requirements to join.
These three were Effat Tejaratchi, Ghodsieh Farokhzad Naraghi and Ina Ushid, who would become the first Iranian female pilots. Effat Tejaratchi’ story is the best documented.
She had a dream of becoming a pilot. When she saw the Aero Club’s advertisement she was excited, but then she realized that no other woman had ever done this before. Intimidated she went home and told her father about it. He had intervened. “What is wrong with you becoming the first Iranian female pilot?” he had asked. With his encouragement Tejaratchi had returned to the club and was surprised that the Officials of the Club praised her for applying, and the press applauded her. She became the first to qualify for a solo flight in 1940. She piloted a DH-82 Tiger Moth. She was only 23 at the time.
With the Second World War and the Allies forcing Reza Shah into exile, the Aero Club was also abandoned. It was only after the war, with the encouragement of her husband, that she returned to the Iranian Royal Air Force as a flight officer. She eventually became the Director of the Club until the 1979 Islamic revolution.