Education: The First Step Toward Equality for Women in Iran

The Women’s Rights Movement of Iran during the first half of the 20th Century was primarily a battle for women to be considered as equals with men. There were many issues that the women of that period in Iran thought needed to be addressed, such as polygamy and suffrage.  However, what was most important to these women was that they had the same access to education as men. It was through education that they would be most able to fulfill roles outside of the home. Becoming educated was one of the only ways for women to participate in the government, because during the first half of the 20th century in Iran, women were viewed as incapable of the higher faculties that men inherently possessed. I will endeavor to reveal some of the difficulties in the struggle of women to earn their rights, some of the reasons why they decided to act as they did, and some of the outcomes of their actions. It is important to note before I begin, that I have found it exceedingly difficult to locate primary source documents written by women in this period, so I shall begin by framing the socio-political environment of Iran.

In the period between 1900 and 1940, Iran experienced many social, economic, political, and educational changes as the country sought to modernize itself, which by most definitions at the time meant to become more like the West. For instance, the Constitutional Revolution of Iran which lasted from approximately 1906 to 1911, sought to limit the authority of the Shah and to create a more democratic government. What is perhaps not well known is the amount of participation that women played in this movement, or the impact it had on them. Leading up to the Constitutional Revolution, Iranian women participated in the Tobacco Boycott of 1890’s, a protest of the Qajar Dynasty granting concessions and granting a monopoly of the tobacco industry to foreign interests. During the Tobacco Boycott, Iranian women engaged in public protests, and even violent attacks of public officials (Paidar, p 50-51). Then, between 1905 and 1910 secret societies were formed that were devoted to the formation of a constitutional government. In these secret societies women played an important role in the dissemination of information and protests (Paidar, 52-53). Many of the women who participated in the Constitutional Revolution were nationalists like their male counterparts. Yet, women, as a group, also began to form their own opinions, through the use of their communication networks and secret societies, about the state of women in Iran and the direction that modernization should take in regard to both women and the nation as a whole (Sanasarian p. 21-23). They were drawn to the call for equality and democracy because at the time, women were barred from most enterprises outside of the home, not allowed an education, not allowed to vote, were by law subjugated under the authority of men, and not granted liberty (Sanasarian, p. 21-23). Under these constraints, the agenda for the emancipation of women was conceptualized and communicated, with much of the primary focus placed on the education of women and girls. Thus, women both participated in the Constitutional Revolution of Iran and were influenced by struggle for a more democratic society.

During the Constitutional Revolution of Iran, Sadiqah Dawlatabadi (spelling varies depending on source) emerges as a major actor in both the development of Iran and was a focal member of the Women’s Movement. When Dawlatabadi was eighteen years old she was one of the founding members of the National Ladies Society in 1910, whose primary goal was the nationalization of Iran. The members also held concerns of the state of women in Iran, though they “blamed [the state of women] on the exploitation of Iran by foreign countries” (Sansarian, p. 35; Paidar, p. 69). Dawlatabadi was also the first female manager of the feminist Iranian newspaper Zaban-e Zanan or Women’s Voice first published in 1919, as well as the Persian representative for the International Advisory Council in 1926. Dawlatabi was an avid advocate for the literacy of girls and women, as is evinced by the pursuits of the Zaban-e Zanan, which “advocated the education and economic independence of women” (Sansarian, p. 32-33).  She did so at much risk to both herself, and the women who worked with her. Many of the women’s inequality issues that Dawlatabadi and many others fought for during the first quarter of the 20th Century came to pass after the Pahlavi dynasty came to power in the mid-1920s.

Thus far, for the framing of the first quarter of the 20th century in Iran I have had to rely on secondary sources, and although I was not able to locate a translated version of one of Dawlatabi’s own works, I have nonetheless located an article written in 1926, by an American woman who met Dawlatabadi in Paris named Mary Winsor. Winsor’s article titled “The Blossoming of a Persian Feminist” was published in the National Women’s Party magazine titled Equal Rights. Winsor’s article was primarily an expository composition, but she does report specific details from Dawlatabadi and some of it is even in Dawlatabadi’s own words. Given the difficulty of locating any works written by Iranian women from Iran during this period, this exposition of Winsor’s is quite valuable.

First and foremost, the existence of Winsor’s article provides evidence that Dawlatabadi did actually in fact live, that she was from Iran, and that she did fight for the rights of women. This is very important because many primary sources and historiographies have omitted the presence and activity of women during this period of history in Iran. For example, Edward G. Brown reconstructed the events that led up to, through and after the Constitutional Revolution in Iran in the book titled The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909 (1910), by piecing together telegrams from Iran to two newspaper companies in England: Times and Reuters. In none of the accounts was there any mention of the involvement of women, either in the revolution or in the telegrams. However, Sir Edward Grey, who was noted to be an active participant or at least an observer in the revolution both by Brown, Eliz Sanasarian, the author of The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement, and Repression from 1900 to Khomeini, and Parvin Paidar the author of Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran, all identify women in the revolution. Both Sanasarian and Paidar reported that women were highly active in the revolution and that the London Times published a response of Sir. Edward Grey’s to Iranian women with the Russian intervention in Iran in 1908 (Paidar, p. 58; Sansarian, p. 20-21). The omission of women from this important period in Iranian history not only fails to capture the extent to which the Iranian people had to work together to accomplish their goals, but also fails to recognize the role Iranian women played in shaping Iran’s modernization. The existence of Winsor’s article in which she writes about Dawlatabadi is evidence that Iranian women were politically active during that period of history in Iran and is also further evidence of Dawlatabadi’s actions in Iran during the Constitutional Revolution.

The second function that Winsor’s article serves is to place Dawlatabadi in the mid-1920s as an advocate for women’s rights and it reveals a radical shift in Iranian thoughts about women. Winsor states that she met Dawlatabadi in Paris while “lobbying the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance”, and they began to share experiences and interests. Winsor learned from Dawlatabadi that the Iranian government had sent her to Paris to get an education so that she could become the “inspector of a girl’s school in Tehran” (Winsor). When the Constitutional Revolution took place and Dawlatabadi helped to found the National Ladies Society in 1910, one of their primary goals was to secure the education of girls and women. Winsor’s observation reveals that in 1926, just over a decade later, the government not only sanctioned Dawlatabadi’s education, but was also promoting the education of girls. Further, Dawlatabadi was not in the “home” but was rather in another country to be trained for work outside of the home. This transformation of policy and social thinking is made more salient when Winsor relates Dawlatabadi’s own education. Winsor reported that Dawlatabadi told her what her father told her regarding the education of girls:

At six years of age her father said to her: “Thou knowest I do not love girls, for I do not think that they can study and acquire knowledge as men do. But the mother was enchanted that thou wert a girl and adores thee. For this reason I will bring up my daughter as I bring up my sons and will provide an education by one of the most eminent professors in Persia for all of you together. If thou studiest well, I will cherish thee as a son, but if not, I shall write in my journal that I do not love girls” (Winsor)

As can be seen in this short passage which are reported to be Dawlatabadi’s own words, education was typically a male occupation, and that in order for her to be educated she would have to be raised as a male. Further, women were typically not thought capable of learning, at least not in the same capacity as men could and she had to be trained privately because there was not a school for her to attend. What is perhaps not easy to gleam from Winsor’s account is that Dawlatabadi’s family was not one of the lower classes. Her father was “a priest of a high rank, holding the position second only to the Grand Priest of Tehran,” which is what allowed him to be able to educate his daughter in the manner in which he did. However, not all families had the capacity to do such, so many girls remained uneducated. Winsor’s article does not trace all of the steps that were taken by women seeking emancipation, or even Dawlatabadi herself. Nonetheless the article reveals that the actions of the women who were seeking emancipation in Iran had already had an effect, as at the time Dawlatabadi was in Paris preparing to be the inspector of the girl’s school in Tehran.

Winsor seems to have been particularly interested in Dawlatabadi’s publication Zaban-e Zana, Women’s Voice because she dedicated a third of her article to it. Winsor notes that Dawlatabadi had to obtain a “license to establish a feminist newspaper” while she was in Tehran. As was noted earlier, Dawlatabadi utilized the publication to promote women’s issues such as economic and educational equality, so the publication was no stranger to going against the grain. Winsor takes notice of a particular question that was published in Zaban-e Zanan about the veiling of women that caught the attention and retaliation of the religious elite. The question the publication asked the priests was: “Why are the peasant women allowed to go about unveiled, and why do they enjoy entire liberty?” (Winsor). The day after the publication her brother, who had assumed the position their father had held, met with Dawlatabadi on behalf of the priests and informed her that she had to give up on the paper. After which, when Dawlatabadi questioned her brother she was told “that it was not for her to ask the reason but to obey” for two reasons: she was under the authority of her brother who had become the head of the family after their father’s death, and that was the social order. However, as was shown in Winsor’s exposition, a male servant was allowed to question his ‘master’ because as Winsor explains “[t]he servant being a man was of course a privileged character” because he was a ‘man’ (Winsor). The response of Dawlatabadi’s brother was a prime example of the social norms she questioned, as she was not free, she was not equal. She wanted to know why but there were no answers to her questions, only opposition. Winsor’s article goes on to show that in order for Dawlatabadi to continue her publication without jeopardizing her brother’s position that she had to disown him and that she in fact did make that sacrifice. She continued both to question and to confront the socially stratified system. In the very next issue of Zaban-e Zanan she wrote an article titled “Long Live the Freedom of the Press”, wherein she blamed traditional thinkers for the death of liberty in Iran (Winsor). After that publication, Zaban-e Zanan published 2,500 copies each Saturday and influenced both women and men for the next two years about the issues that concerned women, in particular education, veiling, familial and economic. Evinced by the fact that Dawlatabadi studying abroad in Paris, her message was both heard and listened to, and the government was working to educate women and girls.

This is not meant to be taken as a complete history of the Women’s Movement, it was only my hope to shed some light on some of the causes, conditions and outcomes of the struggle women in Iran faced in securing their independence. Even with the lack of access to the primary documents written by the women who participated in Women’s Rights Movement during the first half of the 20th Century, there is no doubt that they were both politically active and influential in shaping Iran. Much like in American history, when women became involved in the national struggle for independence and democracy, those concepts conflicted with the reality of the subjugation faced by women. They used what they learned in the struggle for nationalism and applied it to the emancipation of women. One of the primary goals of the women’s movement was securing the education of girls and women, and by the mid-1920s, through perseverance and dedication they had helped the country takes steps toward that end. Those who were fortunate enough to have been educated prior to this transition, like Sadiqah Dawlatabadi, were the vanguards of the Women’s Rights Movement. These activists published many newspapers and periodicals, created secret societies, formed communication networks, taught one another, and risked death to help ‘modernize’ the nation of Iran,  by fighting for liberty and equality for both Iran and women. Mary Winsor’s article in the National Woman’s Party’s magazine Equal Rights helped to confirm much of what I discovered in secondary sources. She provided an insightful glimpse into the mind and the life of a woman who was one of the pioneers of feminism in Iran, and conveyed the message of how far Iran had come toward the emancipation of women, which began with their education.


Atabaki, Touraj, ed. Iran in the 20th Century: Historiography and Political Culture. New York:

I.B Touris & Co Ltd, 2009.

Brown, Edward G. The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1910

Paidar, Parvin. Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Sanasarian, Eliz. The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement, and Repression from 1900 to Khomeini. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982.

Winsor, Mary. “The Blossoming of a Persian Feminist” in Equal Rights, vol. XIII, no. 36 (Oct.

1926). Woman’s World in Qajar Iran Digital Archive. Middle Eastern Division, Widener Library, Harvard Library. (accessed Dec. 11, 2013). 

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