Táhirih, Iran’s Mary Magdalene
Whether her appearance was as striking as her conduct is not known. But she who is remembered as Táhirih—the Pure One—provoked a collective gasp from society when she threw off the veil. One man was so befuddled by her unpredicted defiance that he slit his throat in shock and ran bleeding from the “apparition”. Táhirih herself was composed, confidently preaching before a secret congress “her appeal with eloquence and fervour”. The 80 men themselves remained conflicted—some were sympathetic to her cause while others frowned at her ambition. But for this sole woman in their midst, there was no going back. The die was cast.
The year was 1848 and the scene was the historic Conference of Badasht, where Iran’s leading Bábí leaders convened in a distant garden to chart the future of their resistance—to try and reconcile with Táhirih’s claim that Islamic practice as interpreted in the Sharia by fallible mortals might not, after all, be compatible with divine wisdom and the voice of god. In other words, they sought a new enlightenment, after old methods failed to answer unsettling questions born of modernity. Their leader, the Báb, was already in prison and would soon be shot for upsetting the mullahs. After all, the latter derived status precisely from those old ways, and were not particularly anxious to brook challenges from a maverick making messianic claims.
The Bábís, if we view them without Western prejudice, were modernizers. But, like the society that inspired their movement, their modernity was also expressed in the vocabulary of faith. Religion was of essence in Iran and, in what is still a familiar concept, the power of leading mullahs was not inferior to that of the reigning executive. As the only Shia state in the world, religious identity was infused through the region’s institutions, and “the clerical establishment”, historian Christopher de Bellaigue writes, “was too diffuse and autonomous for the monarch to bend”. Naturally, they weren’t going to bend to the Báb either when he proclaimed himself “that person whom you have been expecting for more than a millennium” and proceeded to promote radical ideas.
There had been other efforts to modernize Iran to face up to social and political threats emanating from the West—Abbas Mirza (1789-1833), the heir who never reigned, and the well-meaning son of a father who sired 259 children, attempted reform in the military and government. But his success even in these relatively less controversial areas was limited. That he lost wars and surrendered treasures only convinced the old guard that their time-honoured, familiar methods were better than dangerous experiments inspired by foreign ideas. A powerful minister, Amir Kabir, too tried his hand at reform—the son of a cook who also became brother-in-law to the shah, he departed in a puddle of blood, murdered in a bathhouse for his modernizing zeal.
Hence it was that the Bábís sought to transcend Islamic law and support forces of change by producing a reinterpretation of the Quran. In a land where faith mattered, they sought to reinvent faith to address the issues of their time. Táhirih was one of the most significant of this group, not only because of her fervour but also because she was the lone female voice in their persecuted ranks. She was “both feminist icon and medieval saint…her life a chain of clairvoyant images, snapshots of a society that, while riddled with superstition, also teetered on the edge of modernity”. She was also in favour of armed rebellion and was even suspected of having had something to do with the murder of her orthodox father-in-law. And it was under the influence of her vociferous faction that the Bábís, in the end, broke away altogether from Islam.
Táhirih was born Fatemeh, the daughter of a scholar who gave her an education unlike most fathers of that time. Whether he regretted it is not known, but her father-in-law certainly resented the girl’s enthusiasm. Irrepressible, she abandoned her husband and children and joined, after a long correspondence with various thinkers, the Bábís. Quickly, in her 30s, she built up a following: When she spoke, a witness noted, “they listened with great astonishment in their hearts and were moved by her speeches”. Though divided by time and context, she emerged as Iran’s Meerabai, speaking directly to God: “How long,” she asked, “must your lovers endure this anguish from behind the curtain? At least bestow upon them a glimpse of your beauty.”
Officialdom and the establishment painted Táhirih and her group as a wild, subversive lot given to orgies and un-Islamic conduct but it was when she appeared unveiled in the garden, without warning, that she really became a target. “Suddenly,” it was recorded, “the figure of Táhirih, adorned and unveiled, appeared before the eyes of the assembled companions. Consternation immediately seized the entire gathering…To behold her face unveiled was to them inconceivable. Even to gaze at her shadow was…improper.” But she was convinced that in the new order the Bábís would herald, in the age after the end of the Sharia, women would join men in shaping the world—no veil could keep them from this destiny.
Progressing unveiled hereafter, in 1852 Táhirih was apprehended and sentenced to death for her heresy. She approached her execution with grace, dressed well and perfumed. But there was no romance to her end—the officer supervising the process simply had her strangled with her own handkerchief. Her body was lowered into a well, honoured by a heap of stones and rubble. Iran’s uneasy negotiation of modernity continued. Táhirih came to be remembered, celebrated by some as Islam’s Mary Magdalene, and even at the time of her death lamented by The Times as the “fair prophetess of Qazvin”. For she had an idea and a mission, but had come perhaps too soon into a society led by men, not yet ready to welcome the counsels of a woman.
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. He tweets at @UnamPillai