• The legend of Princess Qajar became a 21st Century meme misrepresenting facts about a glorious era in 19th century Persian history
• Naser al-Din Shah was the longest reigning monarch and his rule was known as the Golden Years of Qajar
• The two princesses that feature in the meme are Fatemeh Khanum Esmat al-Dowleh and Zahra Khanum Taj es-Saltaneh
• Fatemeh was given the responsibility of hosting foreign female guests and Zahra was an activist for equal rights for women
• Dr. Afsaneh Najmabadi is a professor of History of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University and has published a book on the subject
The legend of Princess Qajar
The story of Princess Qajar became a 21st Century meme, that was misconstrued from some ambiguous and fictitious information about a glorious era in the history of Persia (now Iran) during the 19th Century. The fallacy circulated and expanded, and the story of a Princess Qajar (or rather two) grew wings and went viral.
The Golden Years in Qajar
Naser al-Din Shah was the longest reigning monarch and ruled as the Shah (king) of Persia from 1843 until his assassination in May 1896. These were known as the golden years, as Qajar was the wealthiest dynasty.
The shah was the first Persian monarch to visit Europe, and during the time of his rule many new technologies and reforms were adopted, but which were criticized by his people and his religious leaders.
He was unpopular even though he strove to bring about a modernizing, positive change in his country. He allowed foreigners to construct railways and irrigation systems, and granted them concessions on tobacco sales.
Naser al-Din Shah also became a big fan of photography, art and literature, and it is recorded that photography was first introduced to Persia between 1839 and 1842, which was not long after its appearance in the West. Naser al-Din Shah’s father was gifted a camera, and Jules Richard, a French teacher was invited to Persia to photograph the country and teach photography to the Qajar princes. After his father’s death, Naser al-Din Shah, with a great passion for the art, established a photographic institute. Hence it was that the shah’s harem and his family became the subjects of his photography.
Fatemeh Khanum Esmat al-Dowleh and the misrepresentation of facts about the Princess of Qajar
Naser al-Din Shah’s second daughter, Fatemeh Khanum Esmat al-Dowleh, whose mother Taj al-Dowleh was one of his wives, became the dominant character who features in the meme. She was born in 1855 or 1856, and died on 31st August. Esmat was possibly the most photographed women of the time, and a photo taken by her husband, Dust Muhammad Khan Mu’ayyir al-Mamlik, which has been circulated online, has been verified as that of Esmat. It shows her with a downy upper lip mustache, along with uni brows and a substantially larger body size, which the memes proclaim as an embodiment of the ultimate symbol of beauty in the 1900s.
Firstly, the symbols of beauty might well have held an element of truth, as the era did feature photographs of women sporting these attributes. However, it was probably their standing in the dynasty as women with power, during a time where women had no say, that gained them prestige during the 19th century.
Some rumors claim that 13 men committed suicide because Esmat, the icon of beauty at the time, refused to marry them. However, as reported by historian Victoria Martinez, this is very likely a bogus story, as Esmat, in line with the customs of the time, was probably married off around the age of ten – her husband was ten years old himself when they married in 1866 or 1867.
This would not have given her much time to have had suitors vying for her attention, let alone to meet other men apart from her relatives. Such occurrences would also surely have been documented, yet don’t appear anywhere in her biographical information.
It has been established that Esmat was given the responsibility by her father of hosting foreign female guests. She played the piano, learned embroidery and also became a photographer with her own studio at home, which was all contra to the norms of then Persian culture. Esmat stood out as a capable woman who could influence her father, and therefore had some clout.
Who was Zahra Khanum Taj es-Saltaneh?
The other princess who features in the fake stories and may well have been the ‘Princess Qajar’ that made the news, is the 12th daughter of Naser al-Din Shah, Esmat’s half sister Zahra Khanum Taj es-Saltaneh. Zahra was born in Tehran, Qajar in 1883, and passed away on 25th January, 1936 at the age of 53. Taj’s mother was Turan es-Saltaneh, one of the King’s wives. Zahra grew up with about 12 siblings.
Zahra was a feminist and early pioneer for women’s rights in Persia. She was an intellectual, a writer, an artist and an activist, being the first woman in court to discard her hijab (the veil worn by some Muslim women covering their head and chest in the presence of males outside of their immediate family) for western clothing.
From about the age of 28, Taj hosted weekly literary salons, and was a founding member of the underground group, Anjoman Horriyyat Nsevan (Women’s Freedom Association). She was a supporter of Persia’s constitutional and cultural revolution, and an activist for equal rights for women, organizing secret meetings under the pretense of attending religious meetings. Aahra also led a march for women’s rights to parliament.
Zahra was married when she was nine years old to the defense minister, Shojah al-Saltaneh’s son, the aristocratic Sardar Hassan Shojah Saltaneh. They had two daughters and two sons, one son dying in infancy. She was one of the first women in the royal family to divorce her husband, which was totally against Persian tradition. She was briefly married twice thereafter, the first ending in divorce, but the outcome of the second unknown.
Princess Zahra Khanum “Taj al-Saltaneh” (1884-1936). The 12th daughter of Nasar al-Din Shah Qajar, King of Persia from 1848-1896. pic.twitter.com/fth4rthYUv
— Marina Amaral (@marinamaral2) June 30, 2018
Rumours spread about various lovers, and it was implied that she was a ‘loose woman’. Zahra was the subject of the poem ‘Ey Taj’, written by the Persian poet Aref Qazvini, who was perhaps one of her lovers.
Zahra Khanum Taj es-Saltaneh’s memoirs
Zahra wrote memoirs criticizing her father, her brother Mozafar dl-Din Shah, and the monarchy, proclaiming that their inept ruling was to blame for many of the problems facing Persia at the time, such as poverty and the lack of education. These memoirs, which were the first Persian woman’s journals to be revealed, were translated and published as ‘Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity 1884-1914’. In the memoirs, Zahra expressed her bitterness regarding her upbringing, when she didn’t have much contact with her mother, saying that women should take care of their own infants for the sake of the children’s wellbeing.
She also opposed strategically arranged marriages, and campaigned for monogamy. Zahra decreed, ‘When the day comes that I see my sex emancipated and my country on the path to progress, I will sacrifice myself in the battlefield of liberty, and freely shed my blood under the feet of my freedom-loving cohorts seeking their rights.’ The hand-written memoirs are preserved in the archives of Iran’s National Library.
Zahra resided with Touran Douleh, her daughter, until she died. In her later years she dedicated her life to reading, writing and raising her granddaughter, Taj Iran, with whom she shared a special bond, and on whose life she was a great influence. Zahra was buried in the Zahir od-Dowleh Cemetery in Tajrish.
What historians have learnt about the Princess of Qajar
To this day Zahra Khanom Taj es-Saltaneh’s writings and her role as a feminist is the subject of Middle Eastern studies in universities. In 2015, the family photos, writings and stories about Taj Saltaneh’s life were acquired by Harvard for their archives.
Dr. Afsaneh Najmabadi, born in 1946 and an Iranian/American historian and gender theorist, is a professor of History of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University. She has had several of her works published, but notably amongst them a book entitled “Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity”.
This book might well have sparked off the memes regarding mustaches being a symbol of beauty. However, it would diminish the true value of the nature and accomplishments to these two progressive Persian women who, incidentally, even though they were princesses of the Qajar Dynasty, never carried the title of “Princess Qajar”, espousing that their fame was built around their beauty when, in fact, they were forerunners of the feminist revolution in Persia, rebelling against the traditions of harems and cultural norms. Zahra particularly made great strides to open the way for women to be given a voice. As Dr. Najmabadi stated, the unveiling of women was ‘the first necessary step towards women’s participation in education, paid work and progress of the nation.’