A great woman in Bahá’í history set in motion the forces that led to Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential campaign.
DISCLAIMER: This post, and more to follow, discusses issues raised by the presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton, and the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith on those issues. In keeping with Bahá’í principles of non-partisanship, this post and others related to it are not intended to, and should not be interpreted as, endorsing or opposing any candidate, party or political program. The views in this and related posts are my own and have not been reviewed by any Bahá’í institution. For official information about the Bahá’í Faith, please visit the sites of the U.S. Bahá’í community and the International Bahá’í Community.
In her October 2007 Mary Louise Smith Lecture at the Catt Center for Women and Politicsat Iowa State University, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton brought up the significance of the Seneca Falls Convention:
“One of the aspects of politics that has changed dramatically with the entry of so many women is that a lot of these stories are now just out there, people are talking about them, trying to determine what to do to give someone who is struggling a better chance. When I think about the struggle that women had to even get the vote I don’t get discouraged, I get inspired.
The first women’s convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. It was a hot July and a group of women decided that they wanted to meet together at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls to see if they could draft a statement claiming their rights as women. At that time of course our laws didn’t really give women rights in any aspect of life, not just at the voting booth but in inheritance and marriage and child custody and so much else. So these women and a few brave men joined together on that hot July day to begin a process that led to the Declaration of Sentiments. It was the first document that we know of anywhere in the world where a group of people had come and said women deserve their rights. …”
Unknown to those feminist pioneers, not long before the gathering at Seneca Falls, thousands of miles away in Iran, a.k.a. Persia, the woman now known as Tahirih (pronounced, roughly, TAH-hi-ray), which means “The Pure One,” launched the movement for gender equality that led, in America at least, to women’s suffrage in 1920 and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the first time in U.S. history a woman has had a shot at winning. As to whether Clinton is the right woman for America, I leave that decision to the voters.
Tahirih was a revolutionary woman from a land where nobody expected one. She was born around 1817 in the province of Qazvin in Iran. Her unusually indulgent cleric father allowed her to receive a religious education. But like any other Iranian woman in that time, Tahirih was given in an arranged marriage in her teens. But that did not deter her later career as a religious heroine.
In 1844, Tahirih became a devoted follower of The Báb (The Gate). The Bábis, as the Bab’s followers were known, believed him to be The Qa’im (“he who shall arise,”), also known as the return of the Hidden Imam, whom Shi’ites believed would usher in the Last Day and the coming of an even greater figure, The Mahdi.
Tahirih traveled to various cities in the Ottoman and Persian empires, preaching the message of The Báb. She had many talents that helped her cause: Tahirih was an eloquent speaker, a fierce and unbeatable debater, a gifted translator, and gifted poet (some consider her to be among Iran’s greatest even today). She was also said to be a great beauty, but no authentic images of her exist. Her life followed a pattern: she would arrive in a city and make a favorable impression on many people with the force of her personality, her deep religious learning and passionate preaching, and win converts to the Bábi cause (the predecessor of the Bahá’í Faith). Then her activities would lead to often violent reactions; she would be arrested or run out of town, or both.
To get a sense of Tahirih’s impact, readers need to picture Iran in those days. Women’s status was extremely low — the concept of “women’s rights,” still controversial in the West, did not even exist. Women rarely ventured out in public, and when they did, it was always in the company of a husband or close male relative. And women were always covered from head to toe. For a woman to speak in public, and to have arguments with male clerics — and especially win all the arguments — was revolutionary and more than a little dangerous. That Tahirih was able to favorably impress so many and win converts testifies to her passionate devotion to her faith and rare abilities.
It was in the summer of 1848 that Tahirih made her most dramatic move. That year was a time of great upheaval, with revolutions breaking out across Europe. It would prove no less tumultuous in Iran. In the summer of 1848, a group of Bábis met in the village of Badasht. They had two purposes: To see what they could do about freeing The Báb, their leader, who was being held in a remote prison, and to decide the future course of their movement.
Among the people gathered at Badasht was Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet/Founder of the Báhá’í Faith, who at the time was only a prominent leader of the Bábis. Báhá’u’llah would not announce his own mission for another 15 years. On a day when he was ill, Bahá’u’lláh asked some of the leading Bábis, including Tahirih.
The following is taken from “The Dawn-Breakers,” an account of the early days of the Bahá’í Faith:
” … suddenly the figure of Tahirih, adorned and unveiled, appeared before the eyes of the assembled companions. Consternation seized the entire gathering. All stood aghast before this sudden and most unexpected apparition. To behold her face unveiled was to them inconceivable. Even to gaze at her shadow was a thing they deemed improper, inasmuch as they regarded her as the very incarnation of Fatimih*, the noblest emblem of chastity in their eyes.”
(* – The Farsi pronunciation of Fatima, the revered daughter of the Prophet Muhammad — peace be upon him.)
Some believers ran off never to return. Others stood speechless. One cut his own throat and ran screaming from the tent. Different accounts give different pieces of what Tahirih said on that occasion. When she entered the tent, Tahirih declared, “The Trumpet is sounding! The great Trump is blown! The universal Advent is now proclaimed!” The ultimate result of Tahirih’s declaration was that the Babis knew they were no longer an Islamic reform movement but a new faith, and they began to change their ways:
“That memorable day and those which immediately followed it witnessed the most revolutionary changes in the life and habits of the assembled followers of the Bab. Their manner of worship underwent a sudden and fundamental transformation. The prayers and ceremonials by which those devout worshippers had been disciplined were irrevocably discarded. …”
A few weeks later, on July 19 and 20, 1848, the Seneca Falls convention was held. Although women and men were already campaigning for gender equality, some consider the Seneca Falls gathering to be the event that crystallized the early women’s rights movement. Although I can’t prove it, I like to suspect that Tahirih, on the other side of the world, gave that early movement its first big push.
As for Tahirih, the last four years of her life were largely spent under arrest. The Bab was executed in 1850. In 1852, two misguided Babis made a botched attempt to assassinate the Shah of Iran. In the ensuing violent reaction, up to 20,000 Babis were murdered, often after prolonged and gruesome torture. Baha’u’llah was imprisoned. Tahirih was under arrest and kept at the house of an official.
Sensing that her death was near, Tahirih spent her last hours in solitary prayer. Baha’u’llah’s son Abdu’l-Baha said this of her death:
” … she was sentenced to death. Saying she was summoned to the Prime Minister’s, they [police] arrived to lead her away from the Kalántar’s house. She bathed her face and hands, arrayed herself in a costly dress, and scented with attar of roses she came out of the house.
They brought her into a garden, where the headsmen waited; but these wavered and then refused to end her life. A slave was found, far gone in drunkenness; besotted, vicious, black of heart. And he strangled Tahirih. He forced a scarf between her lips and rammed it down her throat. Then they lifted up her unsullied body and flung it in a well, there in the garden, and over it threw down earth and stones. But Tahirih rejoiced; she had heard with a light heart the tidings of her martyrdom; she set her eyes on the supernal Kingdom and offered up her life.”
Accounts differ as to when she said this, but Tahirih’s most remembered quote is: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
The Tahirih Justice Center: An organization that helps women and girls who are victims of gender-based violence.
“Tahirih The Pure,” by Martha Root, a biography.
“Tahirih: A Poetic Vision” by Ivan Lloyd. Includes some of her poetry.
“TAHIRIH IN HISTORY: Perspectives on Qurratu’l-‘Ayn from East and West.
Studies in the Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, Volume 16” A book of essays about Tahirih.
TÁHIRIH: A PORTRAIT IN POETRY, Selected Poems of Qurratu’l-‘Ayn. *
The name given Tahirih by an earlier teacher. It means “Consolation of the Eyes”
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