Bibi Khanum Astarabadi (1858-1921 AD) was one of the pioneering figures in Iran’s women’s rights movement. She was born to Mohammad Baghar Khan Astarabadi, a military commander, and Khadijeh Khanum, a companion to one of Nasser al-Din Shah’s favorite wives. At the age of 22, she married and had seven children, most of whom grew up to make a name for themselves.
It is through her love for education and the founding of the first school for girls that Bibi Khanum is best known. In 1906, with the excitement surrounding the Constitutional Revolution, Bibi Khanum succeeded in getting the consent of authorities for opening a girl school. To address the religious sensitivities of the time, she assured parents that all teachers were women and no other man—except for an aged doorman—would be in school. However, Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, a mullah who later sided with anti-Constitutionalists and was eventually hung following a civil war, issued an edict saying girl schools were against Islamic law, and another cleric published a pamphlet that stated, “Pity the country which has girl schools.” This prompted a group of men to attack the school and break its windows while the girls were in class. Bibi Khanum temporary closed down the school but did not give up and the following year opened a new one.
Bibi Khanum was also a satirist. When in 1895 AD, an anonymously-written booklet called “The Edification of Women” was written by a Qajar prince, she decided to write a rebuttal to it. The booklet was a crude manifesto of patriarchy and was published at a time when society was becoming more exposed to Western ideals. It said that among other things that a woman is like a child and should be educated by a man, she must not speak during meals and walk slowly, like an ailing individual.
Bibi Khanum called her book “The Imperfections of Men” and used satire to get her point across. She wrote, “To sum, yours truly does not believe that she is able to edify men, so I wrote [this book] to disclose their shortcomings so that perhaps they would stop trying to educate women and instead edify themselves.”