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The Iranian woman who dared to read the sacred texts

· Táhirih Qurratu’l-Ayn ·

Dedicated to the memory of Táhirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, an Iranian poet and theologian, and focused on her last years in prison in Tehran between 1842 and 1852, the novel The Woman Who Read Too Much recreatesbetween reality and fantasy a portrait of the woman who was the first to challenge the ferociously closed nature of Muslim political and religious power in Persia. The author, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, is also an Iranian writer of international bestsellers, almost exclusively set in the land of her origins.

Under the domination of Shah Naseru’ddin, in a period in which women in Iran did not have the right to learn to read and write, Táhirih, born into a family of erudite mullahs, dared to study the sacred texts, discussing them competently in public and even courageously excelling over the men. Her father educated her “like a boy”, teaching her to read and write, thereby giving her access to the Qur’an and enabling her to express her artistic talent in poetry and in prayers. In reconstructing the complex figure of the most beautiful Táhirih, a figure virtually unknown in the Western world, Nakjhavani also retraces in this novel the obscure and complex events of a Persia that was bloodstained, treacherous and dangerous in the hands of an obtuse and violent patriarch, where a capricious Shah, ambitious grand-viziers and intransigent mullahs stifled any attempt to emancipate women.

The book is divided into four chapters, each of which is dedicated to a woman: the protagonist of the Book of the Mother is the Shah’s mother, the second chapter (The Book of the Sister) describes the actions of the Shah’s sister, while the third chapter (The Book of the Wife) paints the portrait of the wife of the first notable of the kingdom, and the last section (The Book of the Daughter) is about the woman poet of Qazvin and reconstructs her upbringing. The chapter titles show that rather than being described on the basis of their names, that is, on their personal identity, women seem to be recognized solely in terms of kinship and in any case always in relation to a man. If the Shah’s mother is a cruel, manipulating regent who has carved out for herself a hidden role of command in the patriarchal authority and hates the sister poet, the ruler’s sister is a mere passive puppet in a power game whose strings are pulled by the old Queen, the Shah, the ministers and the army. In contrast, the wife of the first notable of the kingdom is a “presumably” free woman, who looks with stupefaction, incredulity and reluctant admiration at Táhirih’s struggle for the emancipation of her country’s women but remains silent, preferring the invisibility to which she is condemned.

In the meantime Táhirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, whose name means “pure” and “consolation of the eyes”, became the leader of the Bábi faith, accepting the revelation of Ali Muhammad of Shiraz, the Báb, and – the only woman to do so – becoming his devout follower. The Conference of Badasht in July 1848 saw the split of this new belief and Islam, a rift deeply desired by Táhirih who interpreted Bábism as an autonomous religion with the specific intention of distancing itself from Islam, of which she recognized the Qur’an but not the sharīa: indeed, Táhirih, in fact, rejected above all the role of subjection and invisibility to which Muslim women were relegated. She was “the woman who read too much”, whose access to knowledge had caused an inevitable self-awareness to mature in her: she was the banner of freedom obtained through a knowledge that consisted of reading, reflection and creativity, a freedom which the male authorities had no intention of conceding to women. Writing, like reading, is a mediated act which entails reflection and deepening: it is closely connected to the inner life, to the journey of the spirit, to the passions of the heart and thus to self-awareness. Until about the 20th century Persian women were not authorized to “leave any trace of themselves” – no thoughts, not even their names or signatures. And yet in such a “desert”, the poet of Qazvin fought the patriarchal authority with steadfast confidence without ever abandoning her hope of future change; she challenged the status quo spectacularly, removing her veil in public at a male assembly; unflaggingly she taught other women to read, to write and to think so that they might be “autonomous”, hence free.

Following a failed attempt to assassinate the Shah by some young Bábi fanatics, the Shah’s mother unleashed a ferocious retaliation which led to the killing of thousands of innocent people. Táhirih, sentenced as an accomplice of the assassination attempt and a heretic, was incarcerated and executed in 1852 when she was only 38 years old: she was strangled in the garden of the first notable of the kingdom to the north of Tehran, having first been held there as a prisoner for three years. She went to her execution dressed in her best clothes, speaking words that ring out loud and clear in today’s world too: “You can kill me whenever you like, but you can’t stop the emancipation of women”.

Elena Buia Rutt

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