by Janet Ruhe-Schoen, author of the biography: Rejoice in My Gladness: The Life of Tahirih
August 26 is Women’s Equality Day and this month also marks the 159th anniversary of the death of Tahirih, the women’s rights martyr and one of the first members of the Baha’i Faith in the world. The exact day of her death in 1852 is unknown because she was secretly strangled at night and buried – still alive — in a walled garden in Teheran. A building stands where the garden once was. Tahirih’s name is anathema in Iran and it would seem her proud voice is choked forever.
Not so. Before Tahirih died, she told her executioner, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.” Recently, the Tahirih Justice Center opened a new site in Houston, Texas, to work along with its home office in Washington, DC, on pro bono, law-changing advocacy for immigrant women fleeing the oppression that prompted Tahirih to appear, in 1848, unveiled before a gathering of men – a shocking thing to do at that time.
The name Tahirih means the Pure One or the Chaste One, and she represented emancipation in its most fundamental sense: the dignifying emancipation arising from the full spiritual equality of women and men. She unveiled herself at a religious gathering where she was the only woman. Baha’u'llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, was present at her defining moment. He approved when she stood before the men and announced, “This day… the fetters of the past are burst asunder…”
Some of the men screamed, “Cover your face!” Some hid their eyes, one slit his throat and fled the scene, one lifted his sword to kill Tahirih. Undaunted, she said, “Let those who have shared in this great achievement arise and embrace each other.”
She had sacrificed her material wealth as the daughter of an affluent cleric and her worldly standing as one of the few Iranian female authorities on Islamic law. She’d left her husband – her avowed enemy and in the end the chief engineer of her murder – her parents and children. Retaining her inner freedom, she spent her last two years under house arrest in the home of the mayor of Teheran. The only access to her cramped room beneath the eaves was a ladder put up and taken down at the whim of her warden. Yet word of her beauty and eloquence was such that women flocked to her and the mayor’s wife became her friend and sponsor.
From that house she was taken to the garden where she was killed. She was 36 years old. She went in bridal array, guarded by the mayor’s son, who had promised to stay with her so she wouldn’t be violated. A European doctor saw the execution and said she met her death “with super human fortitude.”
Among Baha’is all over the world, many women bear her name and many more – men and women — emulate her activism. Currently in Iran, Baha’is are subject to harassment and imprisonment for trying to maintain their religious identity. Their homes are raided, cemeteries desecrated and holy sites razed. Their efforts to educate their youth who are barred from studying at Iranian universities are met with government crackdowns. For courage, they nourish themselves with stories of their heroes, among them, Tahirih. They believe that one day Iran will claim her with pride. Until then, it’s the world’s privilege to do so.