Tahirih Qorratol’Ayn – A woman ahead of her time

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 1 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of

Women's Union

Tahirih Qorratol’Ayn:
a woman ahead of her time

Nasim Mavaddat

Born in 1817 in Qazvin, Iran, Tahirih was the daughter of Molla Saleh, a
liberal scholar and an influential priest of his province. Tahirih
received the best education available at her time, and an education very
unusual for a woman in those days. First taught by her father, later by a
tutor, she studied theology, jurisprudence, and Persian and Arabic
literature. Tahirih’s father often discussed religious issues with her,
and allowed her participation, from behind a curtain, in his classes and
debating sessions.

In the society of mid 19thC Iran, any higher learning was reserved for
men. Most women had no access to higher education and women were excluded
from the public domains of discourse. Yet even after becoming a wife and
mother, Tahirih busied herself in libraries and classes, with writing and
public speaking. She challenged some of the most learned scholars of her
time, carrying out lengthy conversations and in every instance defeating
them. Her poetry, public lectures and intellectual debates are
unparalleled by any woman in these regions even to this day.

Tahirih’s keen knowledge and insight soon earned her a reputation
throughout the country. After reading a book written by the Persian
Prophet, The Bab she became a follower. She was the sole woman among the
first eighteen disciples of the Bab and the only one never to meet him
face to face, yet she soon became one of the most influential and
controversial figures of that Faith. The Bab gave her the title, Tahirih,
the pure one. She was venerated as a poetess; and named Kurratul’Ayn, the
pupil of the eye.

Wherever she went she attracted large audiences. Her beauty, joined with
her eloquence, it is said, was bewitching. Her persuasion caused many to
convert to Babism, despite the manifestly dangerous consequences of such a
conversion. People claimed that Tahirih’s words cast a spell.

The Poetry of Tahirih and Other Influential Women

An evening commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Persian Poetess


(1820 – 1852)

‘Alike in virtue of her marvellous beauty, her rare
intellectual gift she fervid eloquence, her fearless devotion, and her
glorious martyrdom, she stands forth incomparable and immortal’

Professor EG Browne, Pembroke College, Cambridge

8pm, Wednesday 20th October, Latimer Rooom, Clare College

Organised by the Cambridge University Baha’i Society

The Cambridge orientalist E.G. Browne writes: ‘The appearance of such a
woman as Kurratul’Ayn (Tahirih) is in any country and age a rare
phenomenon, but in such a country as Persia it is a prodigy- nay, almost a
miracle. Alike in virtue of her marvellous beauty, her rare intellectual
gifts, her fervid eloquence, her fearless devotion, and her glorious
martyrdom, she stands forth incomparable and immortal amidst her
country-women. Had the Babi religion no other claim to greatness, this
were sufficient – that it produced a heroine like Kurratul’Ayn.’

Influenced by the teachings of the Bab, she championed the cause of the
emancipation of women. Unprecedented in an Islamic society, she took away
her veil in a large assemblage of men, and declared the advent of a new
age of equality and enlightenment. This act so startled and horrified the
audience that the whole room was thrown into consternation. One man wanted
to strike her with a sword, while another, ‘aghast and deranged at the
sight, cut his throat with his own hands.’

Despite opposition by her family, arrest and imprisonment, she continued
to propogate her faith and the cause of women. She was stoned in the
streets, and exiled from town to town, threatened with death. Once she was
arrested by government agents and had an audience with the King, Nasseral-
Din Shah. Upon seeing her Nasseral- Din Shah is believed to have wanted to
marry her, should she stop believing in and advocating the new faith. Her
reply was a definitive, poetic, no! She was put under house arrest in the
home of Tehran’s chief of police, and in August 1852, secretly executed.
On the day of her death, she put on her very best robes as if she was
going to a bridal party. Dressed in her best clothes, made up and
perfumed, she was taken to a walled garden, strangled to death and thrown
in a well, followed by a heap of rocks. She was only thirty-six years of
age. ‘You can kill me if you like’, were her last words, ‘but you cannot
stop the emancipation of women’.

A collection of Tahirih’s poems was published for the first time more than
a hundred years after her death. Expressions of mystical love and
separation from ‘The Beloved’ dominate the poems. The themes are of love,
union, and ecstasy. It is ultimately of divine love and an intense
devotion to a divine manifestation she speaks. Her poetry passionately
depicts the heights of mystical and spiritual experience.

This short biography was compiled from various sources including a paper
by Farzaneh Milani entitled ‘Becoming a presence- Tahereh Qorratol’Ayn’,
the book by Martha Root, ‘Tahirih – the Pure One’, and ‘Memorials of the
Faithful’ by Abdul’-Baha



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