In the early part of the 20th Century, Charlotte Despard, an important English women’s rights advocate who served the poor in Dublin, wrote several substantial pieces on Tahirih.
Despard was the editor of a weekly newspaper in England, The Vote, which had as its mission statement:
To secure for Women the Parliamentary vote as it is or may be granted to men; to use the power thus obtained to establish equality of rights and opportunities between the sexes, and to promote the social and industrial well-being of the community. – Charlotte Despard, “An Eastern Prophet’s Message,” The Vote, Volume VII, number 168 (January 10, 1913), p. 181.
In three subsequent editions of The Vote during September and October of 1911, she wrote a serialized biographical account of Tahirih. In her account, entitled, “A Woman Apostle in Persia,” she re-imagined Tahirih as a rebel against the religious subjugation of women. Despard imagined Tahirih as saying:
“I have always rebelled,” so her thoughts ran. “I have felt it was an ill thing to be a woman, and worse to rail against the decree of Allah in making woman subject. And I have fought against my free mind as evil in a woman.” – Ibid., Volume IV, number 101 (September 30, 1911), pp. 280-281.
Despard correctly characterized the Bab as a prophet of peace who empowered women:
“The Master we follow teaches peace and tolerance…the Master is right. Women must go out; women must preach the gospel of peace.”
“His voice was very calm and sweet, and yet there was that in it which inflamed the soul. That the world changed; that customs and conventions and ideas, good for one generation were as cruel fetters for another; that every man and every woman—how she, Quarratu’l’ Ain, and her sister trembled behind their curtain! –had a right to freedom; that all religions were good, and that brotherly love and toleration would hold families and nations together….” – Ibid.
Abdu’l-Baha addressed the British Women’s Freedom League on January 2nd, 1913 on “The Equality of Women,” in which he spoke of Tahirih, the first time anyone had done so publicly in England. A version of his talk appeared in the Friday, January 10th, 1913, edition of The Vote:
Amongst the women of our time there is Qu’urat’ul Ain, the daughter of a Mohammedan priest; at the time of the appearance of the Bab she showed such tremendous courage and power, that all who heard her were astonished. She threw aside her veil, despite the immemorial custom of the Persians, and although it is considered impolite to speak with men, this heroic woman carried on controversies with the wisest men, and in every meeting she vanquished them. The Persian government took her prisoner, she was stoned in the streets, anathematized, exiled from town to town, threatened with death, but she never failed in her determination to work for the freedom of her sisters. She bore persecution and suffering with the greatest heroism; even in prison she gained converts. To a Persian Minister, in whose house she was imprisoned, she said: “You may kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.” At last the end of her tragic life came; she was carried into a garden and strangled. She put on, however, the choicest robes as if she were going to join a bridal party. With such magnanimity and courage she gave her life, startling and thrilling all who saw her. She was truly a great heroine. To-day in Persia among the Baha’is, there are women who also show unflinching courage, and are endowed with great poetic insight; they are most eloquent, and speak before large gatherings of people. – Ibid.
Another English suffragette, Elizabeth Maud Constance, explored the same themes in her 1911 novel, No Surrender. Constance met Abdu’l-Baha during his visit to England and wrote an article about him. Another of her articles, “The first Persian Feminist,” was published in The Fortnightly Review. In the article, she describes Tahirih as a “martyr” for the “great Awakening” of women to their terrible plights. She singles out Tahirih as one who, “no name deserves to stand higher,” that she had a “quality of mind that refused to be bent and moulded by external circumstances,” that, “the spiritual force of her personality,” was able to break down the barriers of her “barred window,” the “high walls” of her garden, the “impassable barriers of religion and custom.” She was transformed by the new spiritual message that there was “one universal brotherhood” and “one centre” to all religions which was God, and the “equality of the sexes.” This new belief, “stirred her soul,” and she “shook off the old bonds.” She goes on to write a short bio of Tahirih emphasizing her independence born of her firm belief that God was calling her. The account is mostly accurate, though she relates that Tahirih was eventually put in prison, and there, even, “hardened criminals,” who were sent to her cell to torture her, came out saying they could never do such a thing to a saint. – Elizabeth Maud Constance, “The First Persian Feminist,” The Fortnightly Review, Number DLVIII, June (1913), pp. 1175-1182.
A defining description—from a Baha’i perspective—of Tahirih and account of her life was given in the Baha’i chronicle, The Dawnbreakers, by Nabil-i-Zarandi, a follower of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, and was first translated into English and then published in 1932. Nabil characterizes Tahirih by her union with God and the Bab, her intuitive spiritual knowledge, her courage and her faithfulness. God had “… kindled the light in Tahirih, a light that was destined to shed its radiance upon the whole of Persia.” Almost immediately she “… perceived the dawning light of the promised Revelation breaking upon the city of Shiraz, and was prompted to pen her message and plead her fidelity to Him who was the Revealer of that light.” The depth of her conviction gave her great focus: “The innate fearlessness and the strength of her character were reinforced a hundredfold by her immovable conviction of the ultimate victory of the Cause she had embraced….” and “…few could escape the contagion of her belief.” In the dramatic rendering of the end of Tahirih’s life, she appeared ready for martyrdom, “…fully adorned, dressed in a gown of snow-white silk. Her room was redolent with the choicest perfume….” She tells the wife of the Kalantar, “I am preparing to meet my Beloved,” and that, now, she would be re-united with God: “This day I intend to fast—a fast which I shall not break until I am brought face to face with my Beloved.” – Nabil, The Dawnbreakers, pp. 455-456.
This series of essays is excerpted from Hussein Ahdieh’s and Hillary Chapman’s The Calling, available here:https://www.bahaibookstore.com/The-Calling-P8882.aspx