‘A new archetype of woman’: How Tahirih changed religion in Iran in the 1800s


October 29, 2019 08:00:00

During the 1800s in Persia, it was a sin to even look at the shadow of a woman.

That’s why, when the early Baha’i follower Tahirih did the unthinkable and removed her veil in a public meeting, the story goes that one man was so affronted he slit his own throat.

Tahirih is an important character for Australia’s 14,000 Baha’is, who are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of the herald of their religion.

She was born into a unique family of Islamic theologians, the daughter of an educated mother and a father who was a mullah — a religious teacher.

What do Baha’is believe?

  • The Baha’i faith is a monotheistic, peaceable religion that finds unity in the diversity of its members
  • The Bab was a divine messenger born in 1819. He announced the coming of Baha’u’llah
  • Baha’u’llah — Arabic for “glory of God” — founded the faith in mid-19th century Persia
  • Baha’is worship by being of service to others and believe in equality for all people

The family was unusual because they recognised and encouraged their daughter’s remarkable ability to debate and interpret Islamic religious texts.

She was one of the first followers of the herald, as adherents call him — he is also known as the Bab — who placed equality and pluralism at the centre of the new religion.

The prodigious theologian, poet and social activist repeatedly put herself in physical danger to stand up to inequality and protest the treatment of women in Persia.

Ultimately, this bravery cost Tahirih her life.

The pure one

Born Fatimah Baraghani, she became known as Tahirih — the pure one.

During the early history of the faith, believers were debating whether the new religion should be a gradual or dramatic departure from Islam.

“She led the contingent advocating for radical change,” says Layli Miller-Muro, the founder and chief executive of the Tahirih Justice Centre in the United States.

This was a dangerous position, because Baha’is were “being mass executed at the time”, and she says, “the faith was seen as heretical and as a political threat to the mullahs”.

Tahirih understood the oppression she was living under, and had the motivation to change things.

But at the age of about 35, Tahrih was murdered.

Ms Miller-Muro says her last words were: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you will never stop the emancipation of women.”

As a Baha’i woman, Ms Miller-Muro founded her not-for-profit organisation in 1997 to provide legal assistance to immigrant women and girls fleeing violence in their home countries.

According to the 2016 census, 66 per cent of Australian Baha’is were born overseas.

Members come from the UK, China, New Zealand, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Tonga, the Philippines, Germany and Iran, among many other countries.

Growing up in Australia, Delia Olam heard an abbreviated story of Tahirih a couple of times a year on Baha’i high holy days.

She says the stories focused on only a few elements of Tahirih’s history that fit into regular tropes: “That she was very beautiful, that the king wanted her for a bride, that she was a poetess.”

As an adult, Ms Olam was encouraged to do her own, deeper research into Tahirih, which led to her theatre piece, “Just let the wind untie my perfumed hair, or who is Tahirih?”

She came to understand her muse as a “new archetype of woman”.

Ms Olam says Tahirih was “acting within the context of a new kind of oneness — not only between women and men, but between all religions and peoples”.

The messenger

This week, Baha’is around the world are producing artistic and communal homages to mark 200 years since the Bab’s birth.

The Bab is known as the messenger who foresaw a new, prophetic figure who would change the face of religion — Baha’u’llah, the father of the Baha’i faith.

Born in 1819 in Shiraz, Iran, the Bab’s full name was Siyyid Ali-Muhammad.

He came of age when there was “a great expectation in the Islamic world for a revival”, says Venus Khalessi, a spokeswoman for the Australian Baha’i community.

His teachings focused on raising the status of women and called for economic equality, to ease the burden on the poor.

“He helped us recognise this concept of the oneness of God,” explains Ms Khalessi, and this idea expanded to include the “oneness of humanity”.

The Bab’s message of the dawn of a new religious tradition was deeply threatening to the Muslim clerics in Persia and he was put to death in 1850.

However, Baha’u’llah — the prophet the Bab foresaw — continued his teachings though he was banished and imprisoned, until his death in 1892.

In Iran, Baha’is continue to face persecution, including in some cases being blocked from studying at university and having their properties confiscated.

Central to the Baha’u’llah’s message is the “nobility of every human irrespective of their cultural, ethnic or religious background,” Ms Khalessi says.

For Ms Miller-Muro, the Bab’s 200th birthday is a chance to reflect on “how far the world has come”, noting the “incredible speed” with which the world has transformed since the mid-1800s.

But she acknowledges the continued scourge of violence against women around the world.

“Even as we’ve made a lot of progress towards the vision of Baha’u’llah and the Bab, we still have so long to go.”












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