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When I was born, it took my parents two weeks to find me a name. The hospital was calling our house every day, until they finally decided on Maya Zarrin-Taj Mansour.
My middle name, Zarrin-Taj, comes from my family’s Baha’i culture. It means “golden crown,” which was one of the titles given to a woman who many consider the first feminist in the Middle East. I grew up hearing stories about this woman during Sunday school—about her profound poetry, her fervent devotion, and her incredible bravery in the face of adversity.
This woman, known by many titles, is most commonly called Tahirih. She was born to a family of theologians in the 1800s in the city of Qazvin, in Persia (current day Iran). She grew up learning how to read and write, which was pretty rare for a woman in her time. She took to writing poetry, and became well known in the region for her theology as well as her outspokenness about the high station and value of women. Tahirih was also one of the first women to believe in the Baha’i Faith.
Growing up, my favorite story about Tahirih was about her art. Tahirih’s candor about women’s rights made her very well known, and attracted the attention of authorities who felt challenged by her views of gender equality and eventually called for her arrest and incarceration. While imprisoned, Tahirih wanted to write letters to her family and continue to write poetry, but the officials refused to give her the materials necessary. In an act of sheer resourcefulness, she saved the parchment her food was wrapped in to use as paper and a straw from a broom to use as a quill. The pigment from her food and tea became the ink she used to pen her powerful poetry and letters to her sisters.
Using this method, she wrote letters and poems that have served, for generations, as a springboard for the devotional and creative work of women around the world. Tahirih’s contributions to the Persian canon of poetry were revolutionary. They opened the door for women authors in Persia. In many ways, her voice paved the way for many incredible women who came after her. It’s pretty fitting that her last words were, “You can kill me, but you will never stop the emancipation of women.”
Tahirih’s legacy for speaking up about the injustices women face is far from irrelevant today, no matter where in the world you are. Women all over the globe are facing unimaginable adversities, and continue to show resilience through nontraditional forms, such as storytelling, hair braiding and singing. Tahirih’s poetry embodies the intersection between religion and art. Her way of fearlessly asserting the equality of men and women and the poems she wrote display the deep love she felt for God and her Faith, as well as her clear dedication to her craft. On the spiritual importance of the arts, Abdu’l-Baha said:
In the Baha’i Cause arts, sciences and all crafts are (counted as) worship. The man who makes a piece of notepaper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. A physician ministering to the sick, gently, tenderly, free from prejudice and believing in the solidarity of the human race, he is giving praise. – Paris Talks, pp. 176-177.
Tahirih’s poems are more than just poems. The Baha’i teachings tell us that artwork done in the spirit of service to humanity is worship. Tahirih’s artistic practice was not only revolutionary but also devotional.
Tahirih’s art and the Baha’i perspective that work is worship can inform the way we all approach labor. Whether someone works as a guitarist or a waitress, it’s possible to reframe what motivates us to do the work we do. Instead of being something we do solely to earn money or as a means to fulfill personal desires, we can conceptualize work and labor as having an additional, spiritual goal of bettering our community, serving humanity, and developing a closer relationship with God.
It’s a pretty radical notion to imagine that all crafts—from woodworking to computer programming— count as worship if they’re done out of a desire to serve others. This notion disrupts the narrative that we have to reach a certain level of stability in our careers, or a higher level of intelligence, in order to help others. We can integrate service into the things we already do, instead of waiting for the “right time” to be of service to others.
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute! – Ibid., p. 81.
Here, Abdu’l-Baha takes things a step further when he says we should strive for our daily actions—everything from riding the train to the way we talk to the people who make our coffee—should be done prayerfully. This is a lofty standard, which certainly runs counter to the current culture in our society that encourages us to act in the interests of ourselves, instead of our communities.
This notion also challenges the way prayer is often conceptualized. Instead of happening only inside a place of worship, or in times of need, worship becomes a daily practice intended to make our beliefs more cohesive with our actions.
The Baha’i teachings provide a spiritual framework with which to view and approach daily life. Tahirih’s belief in the Baha’i Faith led her to play a significant role in changing societal norms around women. After the publication of her poetry, Iranian women were given a voice in the public realm that didn’t exist before. Tahirih is an example of the power that a single person can have over the collective when their goal is to leave society better than they found it.