Women Out to Save Persia

Women Out to Save Persia

‘They (the Christian Fanatics) found her (Hypatia, the Pagan Mathematician and Philosopher) sitting on a chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarian..And they tare off her clothing and dragged her through the streets of the city till she died.’

                                                                        – Chronicles of John of Nikiu, Bishop 680 AD

In March 415 AD, Hypatia, a brilliant Philosopher and Mathematician, Socrates (the Historian) says- the one to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time, was murdered thus on the streets of Alexandria by the Christian fanatics. It was not a clean and swift killing, but a gory tale of hatred of religious fanaticism. Socrates writes in his Ecclesiastical History in further detail- After tearing her body into pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there, burnt them.

                                                                         – Socrates Scholasticus, 4th Century AD

On the 13th of September, 2022, a young girl, Mahsa Amin, a Kurd from Saqqez was arrested by the Guidance Patrol of the Iranian Government on Shahid Haghani Expressway in Tehran with her family.  She was handed over to the Moral Security Agency, which was supposed to chastise her on the merits of staying in the conventional Islamic traditions from the Seventh Century, the primary merit being, as found later, was remaining alive in a Muslim theocratic state. She died while in the custody, and her body was handed over to the family on the 16th of September, 2022, allegedly of Police brutality. This comes sometime after Islamists attacked a Hindu temple in the United Kingdom and are continuing with a hostile stand towards the Hindus who, in contrast to the subject of this story, are looking forward to celebrating the Navratri, worshiping women in all forms – as a child, as a woman, as a wife, as a liberator. Perhaps this makes the Hindus the only surviving civilisation today that worships a woman deity, building the basic premise of Purush and Prakriti representing the male and female divine spirit’s equality.

Coming to Mahsa, when she closed her dreamy and hopeful eyes while witnessing the cruel gaze of Men drunk of their power through sanctions of religious fanatics, she must have cursed the crooked men of violence, albeit softly, between her breaking breaths. Little would she have known that she is joining the same line of persecuted women on which like an ancient guardian Hypatia might be looking at her, as she would have walked into the world and merged her being into Shakti- the name by which the Hindus define divine power, always feminine? When the fanatics hit, from Hypatia to Mahsa Amin, their faith rarely matters. The poison of fanaticism is equally lethal, no matter the bottle they keep it in. And it kills not the person, it kills the spirit and the civilisation. When we look in silence at the ways of civilisation are trampled over, and construe it as merely political or religious, we forget that it often tramples over human values, those values which have kept these ancient civilisations alive for centuries before the modern, militaristic faiths came over marching in with their heavy Military boots, stamping over every soft tissue that centuries before them created painstakingly.

Iran, or Persia, as it was known always confounds me. Starting from the same Vedic Indus, I would think, the battle of Ten Kings (Dashrajna), of Rigveda, mentions of fight among the tribes led by men of the same family, the defeated moving westwards to set up new habitations and eventually great Kingdoms. This idea of Indian tribes moving westward agrees well with the latest scientific debunking of Aryan invasion theory and explains the inscription of one of the founders of Persian culture, Darius the Great, with a theory of Aryan migration towards the West, in the Persian region. This also explains the great degree of similarities between the Vedic concepts and mythologies and the Avestan ideas. Why I am going into the past is to attempt to understand how one misstep of history can manifest itself into the misfortune of the people of a land, many centuries later.

Could Mahsa Amin not have turned into the daughter of Devahuti (Devahuti was daughter of Manu, a Rishika whose hymns are a part of Rigveda, one of the most ancient literature created by humanity), had the culture which Darius the Great so proudly proclaimed survived the Islamic onslaught from the west of Persia.

Darius, one of the greatest rulers of the Achaemenid Dynasty which ruled over Persia for around Two Hundred Years (550-330 BC), is survived by an inscription called Naqsh-e- Rostam. The inscription reads- I am Darius the great King, king of Kings, King of countries containing all kinds of men, king in this great earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, a Persian, and Aryan, having Aryan lineage.  

The ancient Persian script, writes Huart Clement in his History of Persia and Iranian Civilisation, is allied to the Sanskrit of Vedas. The first great Persian Empire was established by Cyrus, The Great. His success was in tolerance as for the first time, smaller Persian tribes saw a conqueror who did not seek to demolish and destroy the conquered lands, but rather made them associate and vassal states, allowing their own customs and religious beliefs to continue. He gave the statues of Gods taken from the Babylonians back and returned the sacred vessels of the Hebrews. Darius was elected emperor after a brief rule of Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty and her Queen Cassandane’s death was mourned in the country for six days (Herodotus).

If anything, this would denote the significance of women in the scheme of things in ancient Persia. Cyrus would not have known that someday his land would be invaded by men who would have no tolerance, respect, or patience for the people he settled down with while founding a great Kingdom, leading to their eventual exile. The names of glorious women of Persian history have been wiped off by a culture for which women meant little. The names of Pantea Arteshbod, a Military commander under Cyrus the Great in the battle of Opis (539 BC), or Artunis another Military Commander from the same period, are nothing more than just the name. Darius left a flourishing empire to Kshayarsha or what the west took to call Xerxes (Could he have been Shree Harsha?).

Darius made a golden statue of his wife. Statues of Persian women officers traveling to Egypt during this period have been found. Irdabama was a known businesswoman from this period who had around five hundred men in her employment and traveled to different countries. Darius is also credited to have created the first formal script in Persia, which he called the Aryan script (Shapur Shahbazi, Darius the Great).

Much like the warrior women of Sinauli in India, in the same tradition, we had Artemisia of Caria who becomes an alliance of Xerxes and commands a naval battalion in the war. The religious tolerance remained the all-pervading these as the royal bloodlines changed guided by Azura Mazda or what is known as Zoroastrian faith. The faith, much like Hinduism, is built on ‘Ekam Brahm’ and pursuance of religion with Asha -Charity, Equality and Righteousness without hope for reward (Nishkaam Karm?). This continued till Sassanid Empire when it was overthrown within a span of Sixteen years by the Arabs. The Mithra whose worship continued through the centuries (the same Mitra-Varun of Rigvedas), could not stand the storm of the fanatics.

In 635 the Caliphate won the first war against the Persians and by 651 AD the capture was complete. In the eighth century, the Persians moved to India and settled down in Gujarat to escape Islamic persecution. After the Sassanids fell, the Persian Zoroastrians moved out. During the Umayyad Caliphate, Iran was 10% Islamic, but by the end of Abbasid Caliphate, the Islamisation of Iran was complete by 1500 AD and it became a nearly all-Muslim state. In 700 AD, the language of administration was moved from Persian to Arabic and the cultural change was imminent (Akbar made Persian the official language in India when no Indian knew it). While Zoroastrians still held to their pride as original inhabitants of Persia, a legend was invented, that connected Persian Muslims to the founder of the Shia faith, the fourth Caliph. This ensured that Islam was no longer an alien and foreign faith in Persia and stood on equal footing as the Zoroastrians.

Under the Turkish invasion of Timurids, Iran was split up into parts. It was reunited by Safavids in 1500 AD, around the time when the Mughals were setting up base in India. The dynasty was founded by Shah Ismail I, who came from a Sufi ancestry of Safi-ad-din Ardabili. Safavid dynasty ended with Shah Abbas-II in 1722 when an Afghan Shah Mahmud Hotak captured Persia and declared himself the Shah of Persia. Russia was also at war with Persia then.

After being for years in the middle of myriad battles, Iran was looking towards modernizing as a nation and more importantly as a military power. In 1848 of religious upheavals and large-scale presence, if not interference of foreign forces like Russians and the British, Naser-ud-Din Shah ascended to the throne as a teenager where he was to rule for 48 years. This was the beginning of Modern Iran. Amir Kabir who was instrumental in the Bab rebellion (a stream of Bah’ai) became his Prime Minister.

Swayed by the orthodox Maulanas, Amir Kabir was sacked for trying to bring in industrial modernization in Iran. Iran in this period was largely stagnant, most movements was on financial and religious plan. There were barely two newspapers, Qanun demanding a defined constitution, run by one Malkom Khan, who fell foul of the in a failed venture to set up a gambling business, and another, Akhtar by Islamic preacher, Afghani, exiled by the Shah.

Shah was assassinated by Mirza Reza Kermani on the 1st of May, 1896. His successor Mozaffar-Ud-Din Shah died and Mohammad Ali Shah came to power in 1907. By 1918, Communism entered Iran and trade unions formed. As protests grew between 1921-1925, a commander of the Iranian Cossack Brigade joined the rebels, named Reza Khan. Anglo- Persian treaty was annulled and a Russia-Persia treaty was signed on 26th February 1921. Reza Khan who held the power of the Army with him then forced Sayyed Zia to abdicate and flee. In 1925, Reza Shah removed the next Shah, took the title of Pahlavi and became Shah of Iran.

During the world war, Iran tried to remain neutral, but its strategic location pulled it into the centre of battlefield. British were already engaged in opening monopolies in Oil and other areas. In 1935, Persia became Iran. It was named as a cognate of the word ‘Aryan’. It was Reza Shah who merely nudged people to call his country by its indigenous name. In the next 25 years from 1925 when he took power, with an iron fist he brought changes. The ominous hand of power was too visible for modern times. A law was passed against Collectivism in 1931 to ban Unions and Communism. The fluid Islamic world was getting curtailed as laws began to be codified.

In 1926 Criminal Code was passed, 1928 Civil Code was approved. In 1939-40, Shariah courts were abolished. The Second World War dried up British support and an Economic crisis hit Iran. Communism returned in 1942. Growing fanaticism removed the next premier Musaddaq in 1953. This coup was engineered by the West. Mohammed Reza Shah came to power in 1954. While the Shah tried to establish a continuum with Iran’s ancient history, the Muslim fundamentalists did not agree with the projection of Iranian History to the time before the Islamic invasion. By 1977 Shah was sick with Cancer and planning the succession for his minor son with Queen Farah as regent. An exiled Khomeini was still revered by the rebels. The Shah fled in January 1979 and Khomenei returned in February 1979 to establish the first Shia Islamic State. Since his beginning in Politics in 1944, Ayatollah Khomeini, born Ruhollah Musavi, was the de-facto ruler of an Islamic start that had just for a few decades taken steps towards modernization. He put Iran back into the reverse gear.

While many women took part in the revolutions which saw Khomeini catapulted to power, their situation turned worse after the revolution. A writer Mary E. Hegland (Women and Revolution in Iran) writes, confounded – The apparent paradox of the Iranian revolution has been the tremendous participation of Iranian women in the revolution…. contrasted to the subsequent setbacks in the position of women Iran and their decreasing participation in public life. Through a series of interviews, she explains that most women who participated in the revolution were from poorer sections which under the social system of Islam never had any social circle or activities apart from rare religious visits to the shrines.

When we look at the recent protests in Delhi as well, they happened in the least developed corners of the city which matches with the description of women of Aliabad in Iran- Silent, invisible and unspoken to. These protests wrapped with religion gave them a legitimate, socially acceptable reason to become a part of a larger network of people. In the latter half of the essay, she interviews the same women and finds out about their disenchantment regarding lack of proper policing, employment and liberty. When asked why did they do it, their answer is- We did it for Islam. The lofty liberal-speak of democratic ideals, and equitable treatment of the poorer section- are all exposed in this one sentence.

What happened after the revolution? The legal age of marriage in Iran has been reduced to Thirteen, temporary marriages are allowed, called Singeh. The period of temporary marriage can be hours or days or months.

Shaheen Bagh in India was no different. Women are always brought into revolutions, mostly by the men and often by a few rich ones, who watch the whole thing from a distance with an upturned nose, in the name of religion and leave those poor women alone to face the fallout in the unfortunate event of such revolution succeeding. Other than adding to the numbers, they also act as natural protection against any brutal reprisal by the State. Another researcher Anna Betteridge says that to these lower-class women (her words) and for those who come from more traditional families, religion offers a much-needed opportunity to assemble. It is this same tendency we find organizations like PFI trying to exploit in India.

Fooled by religiopolitical leaders, women were made to get undone the work done in the 60s and 70s in Iran. This was done by creating the image of the Shah of Iran as a tyrannical dictator. So, the women of Iran fought against the man who gave them the right to vote in 1963, passed a family protection law in 1967, restricted polygamy, increased the marrying age for women to 18 (AIMPLB wants it to be 16 only), and banned arbitrary divorces and also in a significant change, made it possible for the woman to get the custody of Children in case of custody, going against the Shariah. We live in a world of shrill propaganda and women who have been deprived of education all their lives for centuries, do not even have vague memories of the brave Persian women who fought the wars, ran businesses and ruled over the country as an equal partner. They are living, in Iran, and in some sections of India too, in a sleepy existence where their source of knowledge is dangerous men like Khomeini in Iran and Owaisi in India, who want to exploit them and then leave them in the darkness of their existence- unheard, unseen, invisible.

Politics ensures that the cries of Mahsa Amin do not reach India, because in her cries, in her wailing, lies the power that can wake up empires. If we had woken up to Hypatia, we would have had a Pagan civilisation of Rome still living. If we do not wake up to Mahsa, we may lose many other ancient civilisations holding on to their one last corner in the world being called evil, illiberal and intolerant for merely wanting to exist with dignity. As Hindus of India get ready to celebrate Mahishasur Mardini this Navratri, the Mother-Goddess coming to slay the evil demons, let us shed a tear for Mahsa Amin and hope she, in her death, rescues the betrayed women of Iran, our estranged Aryan Sisters, the daughters of Devahuti.