The First Girls' School

For the Baha’is, who believed in equality between men and women, teaching women and girls was the next step. Allowing girls outside of their homes was another test for the conservative mullahs, but the Baha’is found some allies, especially after the new, modern constitution was signed into law.

Iran’s first modern girls’ private school opened in Tehran in 1903, but it was to be short-lived. Scandalized by the development, a cleric issued a fatwa, or religious edict, stating that the school contravened Islamic teachings. The doors were closed after just four days. Three years later, a second school was opened; the building was destroyed. Finally, in 1909, a girls’ school opened in a private home and it thus survived the clerics’ condemnations. A second school was established by a Baha’i in 1911, followed a few months later by the Tarbiyat, which would become the leading Baha’i school for girls.

Many Iranian families acknowledged that the Tarbiyat in Tehran was one of the best schools in the country. Its students were known for their academic accomplishment and personal development.

The mullahs did not relent. They pressured the Qajar government to close the schools, spreading lies about the Baha’i schools’ teachings – for instance, that the schools planned to convert students.

Susan Moody

After Baha’u’llah’s death, his son Abdul-Baha took charge of spreading the Baha’i faith. From the start, he wanted to share his father’s teachings with people around the world, particularly in Britain and America.

Attracted by the principles of human equality and oneness, a woman from Chicago called Susan Moody, who was also a doctor, was an early convert. In 1909, she traveled to Haifa to meet Abdul-Baha, who had encouraged her to resettle in Iran, at the age of 58, and to bring modern medicine to the country.

Iranians had little access to medical care. Devout Muslim women, who, Moody said, “would rather die than show their faces to a man,” received almost no care at all. Moody opened a clinic in her home and established the Sehat (“Health”) Hospital, one of the first modern hospitals in Tehran. Soon, she was working at the new Tarbiyat Girls’ School, training a generation of women to be teachers and nurses.

Another American convert, Lillian Kappes, joined Moody in Tehran to manage the Tarbiyat and pushed for its teachers to adopt American educational methods. After Kappes succumbed to typhoid in 1921, another American, Genevieve Coy, who was an expert in the education of intellectually gifted children, took over. When Moody died in 1934 in Iran, hundreds of Iranians attended her funeral. These women are part of the bedrock of early Baha’i contributions to Iran’s development.

These women are part of the bedrock of early Baha’i contributions to Iran’s development.

The Women Pioneers

In 1921, Reza Khan, a general in the Persian-Cossack Brigade, seized control of Tehran in a coup. Four years later, the Majlis forced the Qajars off the throne and named Reza as the first shah of the new Pahlavi royal dynasty. He became known as Reza Shah.

The Tarbiyat Girls’ School played a key role in emancipating Iranian women, whether they were Baha’i, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, or another faith – so said Furugh Zafar Bakhtiyari, the head of Iran’s Central Committee of Women, in 1932, though she herself was not a Baha’i. She believed that academic and moral education were needed, not just to provide basic skills such as literacy, but also to instill personal virtues and a feeling of civic duty. She asked that the Tarbiyat schools be expanded.

Bakhtiyari based her assessment on the accomplishments of the students coming up through the Baha’is’ schools. By the 1930s, Iranian Baha’i women had achieved a landmark – 100 percent literacy. At the time, only 40 percent of Iran’s women could read. The newly educated Iranian Baha’i women quickly began to make a mark on Iran. Many pursued professional careers.

Also in the 1930s, the Pahlavis supported the unveiling movement among Iranian women, making it mandatory for women to unveil in public The Baha’is, believing in the equality of men and women, were among the first to abandon this ancient custom.