Force, the old standard, is losing its dominance, and intuition, insight, glimpses of cosmic consciousness and the spiritual qualities of love and service in which woman is strong are gaining ascendancy. And you see that this new epoch is an age in which masculine and feminine elements of civilisation are becoming more evenly adjusted. Man and woman are as the two wings of the bird of humanity and this bird cannot attain its highest flight until these two wings are equally strong and equally poised. One of the important teachings of the Baha’i Faith is that women should be regarded as the equals of men and should enjoy equal rights and privileges, equal education and equal opportunities. Tahirih had to die for these ideals but today our task is to live for them. – Martha Root1
To commemorate International Women’s Day, which falls on 8 March, I would like to honour a remarkable woman who lived a century ago. Her radical life was not only significant then but remains profoundly relevant today. She had passion, determination, guts and grit running through her veins. A warrior for the emancipation of women. A force to be reckoned with.
A life tragically cut short at the age of thirty-six, she was the first woman suffrage martyr. Put to death by strangulation, her immortal words ring through the ages:
You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.2
Her name was Tahirih – “The Pure One”.
Born in Qazvin, Persia in 1817, Tahirih lived at a time the Empire had sunk deep into dark savagery and callous brutality. It was against such a dismal and wretched backdrop that our heroine stood apart and stood out.
The appearance of such a woman as Tahirih in any country and in any age, is a rare phenomenon, but in such a country as Iran it is a prodigy…nay, almost a miracle. – Professor Edward G. Browne, Cambridge University3
A woman of noble birth and immense wealth, Tahirih was the daughter of the greatest High Priest of her province. Gifted, exceptionally eloquent and highly accomplished in the literary arts, she showed rare intelligence and a penetrating mind from an early age. She outdistanced her brothers and passed all the examinations in theological studies.
Famed for her startling beauty, almost every historical record makes allusions to it. Even the Imperial Majesty of Persia, Nasirid-Din Shah upon casting his eye on her fair beauty, asked for her betrothal. This was surely a woman who had the world at her feet. Yet, Tahirih chose to walk away from it all without a second glance.
Tahirih is most remembered as the woman who appeared without her veil before an assemblage of men at the Conference of Badasht in 1848. She caused such an electrifying and instantaneous outcry, that one man, so aghast by her action slit his own throat. In doing so, Tahirih broke away from the time honoured twelve-hundred-year-old tradition of Islam.
This single act was more than just to produce a shock-effect on men. This act, a “sudden, startling, complete emancipation from the dark and embattled forces of fanaticism, of priestcraft, of religious orthodoxy and superstition,” signified the turning point in the world’s religious history. It was the “trumpet blast announcing the formal extinction of the old, and the inauguration of the new Dispensation.”4
In studying the magnificent life of Tahirih, I have often paused and wondered at the significance of her bestowed title ‘The Pure One’. This was a woman unlike no other of her generation. There was nothing half-hearted about her. She was a pillar of towering greatness. She excelled men with her brilliant mind, charismatic eloquence, penetrating insight, extensive scholarship, formidable endurance and indomitable spirit.
Yet, Baha’u’llah chose to eternalize her legacy as ‘The Pure One’, the one single attribute deemed so worthy and precious. By bestowing such a title at Badasht, Baha’u’llah demonstrated in no uncertain terms that a woman’s purity and chastity are not conditioned by a veil.
In our contemporary society, purity is often viewed with scornful disdain or at best laughingly tolerated as being prudish and old-fashioned. Yet, even as Tahirih exemplified assertiveness and strength, what is most noteworthy was that underlying everything she did, was a spirit infused with purity.
For above all else, Tahirih was a “spotless emblem of chastity.”5
Purity in the Pursuit of Truth
Tahirih was unwavering and single-minded in her quest for truth. She was relentless and purely undistracted in her independent investigation of the truth. “The finest trait in Tahirih, or at least the one that helped the world most, was her fidelity in searching for the truth! She began as a little girl and continued until the day of her passing from this world.”6
Purity of Courage
Tahirih was stoned, imprisoned, and physically attacked by her own family but never once did she falter. Shoghi Effendi called her an “unsubduable spirit”7 in the face of attempted poisoning by her own husband Mulla Muhammad and violence from her uncle Mulla Taqi.
Purity from Man-made Tradition
She was openly defiant of the customs of her land which “relegated women to a rank little higher than animals and denied them even the possession of a soul.”8 Interrupting her friend Vahid when he was reciting Islamic traditions, she said “Cease idly repeating the traditions of the past, for the day of service, of steadfast action, is come.”9
Purity of Speech
She not only spoke with eloquence and without fear at a time when it was forbidden for women to speak up. She also openly challenged the clergy which meant certain death. Her talks drew large crowds especially those from the upper echelon of society. Once at a wedding, she spoke and guests flocked to listen to her, abandoning the merriment of the festivities.
Purity of Deeds
The heroism of Tahirih went beyond words. Tahirih laboured for social, cultural and religious reforms in her land. She condemned the perversity of her generation while advocating a revolutionary transformation in the habits and manners of her people. She said “Let deeds, not words, be our adorning.”10
Purity of Character
The Mufti of Baghdad, Ibn-i-Alusi, who later wrote a book in Arabic in which he speaks of Tahirih during her stay in his home states: “I see in her such knowledge, education, politeness and good character as I have not seen in any great men of this century.”11
Purity from Temptation
Tahirih mingled with princesses and the cream of high society in Persia. As a measure of their wealth, her father once presented a village to Tahirih as a gift which she named “The Abode of Happiness”. While mankind is obsessed with physical beauty and wealth, and narcissism is the idol of our age, Tahirih chose to walk away from the ease of life – aloof to attention, admiration and adulation.
Tahirih showed us all, both women and men, that our real strength lies in the excellence of our character, selfless service, independent investigation of the truth and the untiring promotion of universal peace.
Could it be that in this day and age, the advancement and progress which marks the force of any woman or man to move and shake the world is not a brutish and brazen force but the force of a pure heart?
- Martha Root, Tahirih the Pure, Iran’s Greatest Woman, p. 20 [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 75 [↩]
- Nabil (edited and translated by Shoghi Effendi), The Dawn Breakers, p. 651, footnote no. 38 [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 33 [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 32 [↩]
- Martha Root, Tahirih the Pure, Iran’s Greatest Woman, p. 21 [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 73 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Memorials of the Faithful, p. 72 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Martha Root, Tahirih the Pure, Iran’s Greatest Woman, p. 25 [↩]