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We don’t get to choose our place or time of birth. It just so happens that I was born in the 20th century in Canada. From this perspective, where women have freedom of movement, have access to higher education and can choose who they marry, it’s quite difficult to imagine the life of Tahirih, a poet, feminist and activist living in Persia back in the early 1800s.
Tahirih, née Fatimih Baraghani, was born into a society where men were given the highest respect, while women were forced to wear a veil and were expected to live on the margins of society. Sometimes, they were allowed to listen to a Mullah teach about holy verses of the Qur’an but only from behind a curtain. Most women were denied any formal education, and thus had no access to learning about philosophy, music, or any of the other arts and sciences.
Tahirih’s situation was quite different from the norm. She enjoyed the full support and encouragement of her father, uncles and cousins, who all contributed to provide her with an advanced education. Tahirih was so well educated, having studied poetry, jurisprudence and philosophy with members of her family, and was so famed for her eloquence and rhetoric that she became a teacher in the women’s section in a centre of learning. Of her high intelligence, her older brother Mirza Abd al-Wahhab stated:
“We were all, her brothers and cousins, fearful to speak in her presence, so much did her knowledge intimidate us, and if we hazarded to put forwarded [sic] an opinion on a point of doctrine that was in dispute, she would prove to us where we were going wrong in a manner so clear, precise and magisterial that we were thrown into confusion and withdrew.” 1
The Bab named her Tahirih, “the Pure One”, and bestowed high praise on her, stating that Tahirih’s station was equal to that of the seventeen other (male) Letters of the Living combined:
“Verily, God took the essence of these seventeen and placed it in the one soul who answered as the 18th.” 2
With this historical context in mind with its strong patriarchal customs, Tahirih must have felt extremely secure in her understanding of the spiritual rank of women as being completely equal to men in order to act with such great certitude and courage. She boldly removed her veil in public at the Conference of Badasht, a gathering of 80 followers of the Bab of which she was the only woman present. This single act, heralding the new Revelation that is ushering in the equality of men and women, confronted this longstanding custom and made a clear break with the past. Putting myself in her shoes, I can feel my heart beating fast just thinking of how she must have felt just moments before carrying out such an audacious act. After all, men in her day believed it to be a sin if they glanced upon a woman’s face. Tahirih dedicated her life to awakening humanity and to the emancipation of women. Her feminist activism was instrumental in the formation of the first well-organized women’s league in Iran.
In addition to her high erudition, Tahirih had a very profound and spiritual connection to the Bab. Her deep faith and spiritual insights are quite visible in her outstanding poetry, of which there are now three volumes in English thanks to the translations by John S. Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat.
Meanwhile, back in our present world, Pierre Weber, an excellent musician now living in Kosovo, and I were looking to collaborate on composing a song for solo voice and piano. We came across Tahirih’s beautiful poem “Face to Face” (also called “Point to Point”). Not only is the message of this poem one of spiritual search full of mystical meaning, its rhythmic structure also lends itself easily to a musical setting. Pierre and I collaborated back and forth. I wrote the melody and he composed an exquisite piano accompaniment. Each of us then recorded our respective parts: he recorded the piano in Kosovo and I was the voice in Melbourne.
Because the arts are so instrumental in elevating our spiritual understanding, I have recently (thanks to the many lockdowns in Melbourne) been creating Contemplative Music Videos that focus on combining the Word of God with music and images. I see these videos as a musical and visual decoration of the Word of God, a bit like an illuminated manuscript, but where the divine word is surrounded by music and images instead of by golden and coloured designs. Recently, in honour of Tahirih’s martyrdom 170 years ago in August 1952, I was inspired to create a video to accompany the song of Tahirih’s poem “Face to Face”, which you can watch here:
For this music video, I wanted to find images that suggest a Middle Eastern atmosphere and would also reflect the words of Tahirih’s poem in order to bring us along the journey of her words and perchance enhance our understanding of the poem. I hope that it has succeeded ever so slightly, even though the meanings and interpretations of her poem are many.
The Guardian has written the following regarding the influence of the arts:
“The day will come when the Cause will spread like wildfire when its spirit and teachings will be presented on the stage or in art and literature as a whole. Art can better awaken such noble sentiments than cold rationalizing, especially among the mass of the people.”
It is my wish that these Contemplative Music Videos will touch people’s hearts and uplift their spirits. But meanwhile, I hope that we can honour the life of Tahirih by contemplating her life and reading her poetry, thereby honouring her martyrdom 170 years ago this month.
- Quoted in “Moojan Momen: Usuli, Akhbari, Shaykhi, Babi: The Tribulations of a Qazvin Family”, Iranian Studies, Sep 2003, Vol. 36(3), pp. 317-337.
- Quoted in Nader Saiedi, The Bab and Modernity, p. 4.
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