Nineteenth-Century Qajar Women in the Public Sphere

Conventional historiography has placed the beginning the burgeoning women’s liberation movement in Iran as an derivative of the 1905-11 Constitutional revolutionary period. This reductionist treatment has coincided with a dearth of scholarship on earlier, indigenous women’s movements. This standard narrative, however, overlooks the evidence that the roots of the modern movement stretch farther back to the early 1800s.

The origins of the Iranian women’s movement can be traced to girls’ education and women’s public political activity.The beginnings of girls’ education were the missionary schools that were started in the 1830s by Americans and Europeans. Though, at first, these schools were mainly populated with religious minorities, over time, Muslims began to represent a growing and significant proportion. Furthermore, the curricula of these schools broadened the landscape of acceptable subject matter for females. Political activity among women also began to take shape before the political unrest of the early 1900s as sizable segments of the majority lower-class female population, and a percentage of the growing middle class, set out daily to some sort of work or at least ventured to the bazaar. Both developments affected by three, sometimes overlapping currents: the growing knowledge of, and interaction with the West; the heterogeneity of Iranian women with respect to ethnicity, religion, lifestyles, life expectancies, and cultural values; and a mostly middle-and-upper class urban Muslim female reaction to and expression of a change in individual and national consciousness.

Susynne McElrone
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