Teaching Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Primary Sources
with Discussions and Activities


Three Transforming Persian Poets

Iran (13th, 19th and 20th Centuries)

In Iran’s traditions poets are honored. While most classical poetry has been written by men, there are some outstanding women who are celebrated for their literary skills and for giving Iran work that reflects the female point of view. Iranian Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has written that women’s words have been “the most powerful tool we have to protect ourselves, both from the tyrants of the day and from our own traditions....Feminist poets of the last century who challenged the culture’s perception of women through verse...have for centuries relied on words to transform reality.”

Here are three poets from different periods who, while reflecting different historic sensibilities, are remembered as heroes whose words have transformed Iranian women’s reality.

Padishah Khatun (Safwat al-Din Khatun): 13th Century
Tahirih (Qurratu’l-Ayn): (1817/20-1852)
Forugh Farrokhzad: (1935-67)

Padishah Khatun (Safwat al-Din Khatun): 13th Century

The poet Padishah was a member of the Mongol Kutlugh-Khanid dynasty, who ruled in Persia and reigned over Kirman (in south-west Persia) in the 13th century. This dynasty was part of the Ilkhanate, one of the four divisions within the Mongol Empire. In the Ilkhanid period (1256-1353), both religious and secular arts flourished. Women of the elite class were accorded great respect, had a public presence, and were educated.

Padishah’s mother, Kutlugh Turkan, after the death of her husband ruled Kirman for 16 years, until 1282. She married Padishah to Abaka Khan, great grandson of Genghis Khan and son of Hulagu. Abaka did not live long, dying in 1282. Padishah, considered a prize for her beauty and ability as a poet, married again, this time to Gaykhatu, the fifth ruler of the Ilkhan dynasty and one of Padishah’s former husband’s sons. The marriage shocked the Muslims, although it was a relatively common practice among the Mongols.

Upon her marriage to Gaykhatu, Padishah moved quickly to insist that her husband, known for his dissolute and extravagant ways, give her mother’s old throne of Kirman to her as proof of his love. This he did, and Padishah became sixth sovereign of the Kutlugh-Khanid dynasty. Hulagu added to her power by granting her the powerful privilege of khutba (prayer for the sovereign) proclaimed in the mosques, the ultimate sign of legitimate reign. She also had gold and silver coins made in her name.

One of Padishah’s first acts as queen was to imprison her half-brother, Suyurghatamish, who had coveted the Kirman throne and meddled in its affairs. When he tried to escape, she had him strangled, an act that led to her own downfall. Gaykhatu was assassinated in 1295 and his successor, Baydu, influenced by Suyurghatamish’s widow, had Padishah Khatun put to death. Her violent demise was noted by Marco Polo who wrote that a lady known as the Padishah Khatun was “an ambitious, clever, and masterful woman, who put her own brother Suyurghatmish to death as a rival, and was herself ...put to death by her brother's widow and daughter.”

Sovereign Queen
by Padishah Khutan

“I am that woman whose works are good.
Under my veil is kingly power.
The curtain of chastity is my strength
where the idle westwind travelers cannot pass.
I withhold the beauty of my shadow
from the sun that gads about in the marketplace.
I hold lordship over all the world
yet before the Lord my business is to serve.

Two yards of veil won’t make any woman a lady
nor a hat make any head worth of command.
For whom should I remove my veil
when in its place would be a priceless crown?
I am a ruler from the dynasty of Ologh Soltan.
If there is sovereignty in this world,
it takes after us.”
- Deirder Lashgari, translator

The Forgotten Queens of Islam, Fatima Mernissi.
Women Poets of the World, Joanna Bankier & Deirdre Lashgari, editors.
Illustration: Mongol Couple Sharing the Throne, 13th Century, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Tahirih (Qurratu’l-Ayn): (1817/20-1852)

Tahirih was a disciple in the Babi religion, a predecessor to the Baha'i Faith, which originated in Persia in the early 1800's. Baha'i has roots in Islam and is related in some ways to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, although it is a separate religion.

Tahirih was educated by her father, who was a mullah. Upon reading the writings of Shykh Ahmad-i-Ahs’i, or the Bab (a forerunner of the Babi religion), she became a devotee and later was appointed one of His closest disciples. The religion’s positive views regarding the equality of men and women, and its drive to reform existing Muslim laws appealed to her. Tahirih was the only woman in the movement who became a disciple. Over the opposition of her father, she taught the faith publicly, claiming that the Bab was the fulfillment of the prophesies which pointed to the return of the Twelfth Imam. Using traditional rhyming forms, she wrote eloquent, ecstatic poems of love for God, as well as those deeply critical of the traditional clergy, whom she debated in public.

Persecution inevitably followed. In 1848, during a conference at Badasht which was to proclaim the Bab’s elevation to Twelfth Imam, and during which leaders advocated reforms, Tahirih was supposed to have proclaimed it as the day “on which the fetters of the past are burst asunder.” She also appeared in public without her veil, a provocative act seen by the clergy as defiling both God and themselves. Some of her followers denounced this action as well. Shortly after she was arrested. Imprisoned under house arrest, she continued to preach. In 1852, she was sentenced to death as a heretic. It was then she proclaimed her most famous cry: “You can kill me as soon as you like but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!” She later was strangled to death.

Tahirih’s life and poems have been been retold throughout the years, most recently in public readings, a theatrical music drama, and a CD. In 1997 the Tahirih Justice Center was founded to address the acute need for legal service for immigrant and refugee women who have fled to the U.S. to seek protection from human rights abuses.

Selections from two Poems

The Morn of Guidance:
“Truly, the Morn of Guidance commands the breeze to begin
All the world has been illuminated; every horizon, every people
No more sits the shaykh in the seat of hypocrisy
No more becomes the mosque a shop dispensing holiness....
The world will be free from superstitions and vain imaginings
The people free from deception and temptation...
The carpet of justice will be outspread everywhere
And the seeds of friendship and unity will be spread throughout
The false commands eradicated from the earth
The principle of opposition changed to that of unity.”

Tahirih’s imaginary meeting with the Bab:
“If I met you face to face, I
would retrace - erase! - my heartbreak,
pain by pain,
ache by ache,
word by word,
point by point....

While I grieve, with love-your love!-I
will reweave the fabric of my soul,
stitch by stitch,
thread by thread,
warp by warp,
woof by woof.

Last, I-Tahirih-searched my heart, I
looked line by line. What did I find?
You and you,
you and you,
you and you.”

Tahirih in History: Perspectives on Qurratu’l-Ayn, Sahir Afaql, editor.
Tahirih: A Poetic Vision, translation by Hamid Hedayati and Bijan Yazdani, illustrations by Ivn Lloyd.
Illustration: 17th Century Persian Lady, Miniature, Museum des Kunsthandwerks, Leipzig.

Forugh Farrokhzad: (1935-67)

FFarrokhzad is a major voice whose work and life have influenced films, art exhibits, songs, and styles in twentieth century Persian literature. She came of age during the autocratic Shah Pahlavi regime. Educated in girls schools, she never received a high school diploma but at age thirteen or fourteen began composing poetry. In those years many Iranians were challenging traditional roles for women, who were expected to be modest in public, obedient, and, above all, not draw attention to themselves. In spite of more modern views, most women continued to be controlled by rules set by Iran’s traditional patriarchal society. Forugh herself suffered an arranged marriage at age sixteen, was divorced after three years, and then lost custody of her only child. According to Iranian law. she was never allowed to see her son again.

By living by herself, and in 1958 forming an on-going relationship with Ibrahim Gulistan, a married man, she gained a reputation as being “scandalous” and “immoral.” During her years with Gulistan, Forugh studied film production and filmed documentaries, sometimes acting, sometimes producing, sometimes editing. As a result of one made about a leper colony in Tabriz, she adopted a boy from his leper parents. She also made trips to Europe, learning to speak and read Italian, German and English.

Considered equally scandalous were Forughs’ secular views and promotion of the concept of female independence and right of women to assert their individuality. She rejected traditional Islamic dress in favor of tight western styles, and wrote often deeply personal poetry expressing female needs and sexuality. Some were clear protestations against Islamic law and Iranian social attitudes.

“God smiles on us,
However many paths to the shore of his favor
We haven’t taken.
Because, unlike the evil-doing, robe-wearing fanatics,
We haven’t drunk wine hidden from the eyes of God....”
- from “Pasokh” (Answer)

Forugh spoke out against the destruction of individuality when communal roles led one to cling without question to tradition, even though at the same time she opposed the wholesale westernization of Iran. Some poems criticize women who sacrifice their individual potential and self awareness by taking refuge in the security that men offer, and who refuse to actively engage in the world around them. To Forugh, their inability to see past their immediate comfort makes them indifferent to the truly needy in Iranian society.

“...And my sister...
In her artificial home,
with her artificial goldfish,
and in the security of her artificial husband’s love,
and under the branches of artificial apple trees,
she sings artificial songs and produces real babies....”
- from “I Feel Sorry for the Garden”

As she became well-known in literary circles, Forugh’s unorthodox life fascinated some and repelled others. Some of her poems reveal her loneliness and doubts about doing the right thing.

“....and a girl who rouged
her cheeks with geranium leaves...
ah! now she is a lonely woman
now she is a lonely woman.”
- from “Those Days,” translated by David Martin

Certainly it took enormous courage for Forugh Farrokhzad to continue to write and live a life that suited her, not society. For this she is an inspiration today for women who follow her path. Forugh died, tragically, in an automobile accident at the age of 32.

“Poetry for me is like a friend to whom I can freely
unburden my heart. It’s a mate who completes me,
satisfies me

...I don’t search for anything in my poems; rather
in my own poems I discover myself.”
- in “Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak”

  • A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry, by Michael C. Hillman.
  • “And This is I:” The Power of the Individual in the Poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad, dissertation by Dylan Livia Oehlet-Stricklin. Available on Internet.
  • Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea & Basima Quattan Bezirgan, editors.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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