Mullah Nasr od-Din and Women's Oppression

Mollá Nasr od-Dín was a magazine published in Tiflis by Mírzá Jalíl Mohammadqolizáde, the famous Caucasian Azerbaijani satirist. It reflected the views of those Caucasian Muslims who had been attracted to Western liberal thought which they had absorbed via their exposure to the Russian intelligentsia. Among the causes he embraced was that of woman's emancipation. Indeed, its emphasis on that issue was unique in the Caucasian Muslim press, indeed, I believe, in the Muslim press anywhere in the world at that time. It championed woman's education and attacked child-marriage, síghe, and the exclusion of women from social life. Thus, in one particularly moving passage, he muses,

While writing this article, I look out my window at the black clouds. Sometimes, I think that these clouds are moisture from the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea which the heat of the day's sun has vaporized and drawn this way so that it might rain here. But other times I think, No, these clouds are the sighs and sobs of Muslim women, and the rain is not sea water, but the tears of their black-fated eyes.

On the other hand, in the first years of Mollá Nasr od-Dín, these articles were all written by men. This had the effect of including the male-oriented utilitarian arguments familiar to those who have read Muslim apologetics on women's emancipation. For example, invidious comparisons were made between the ignorance of Muslim women and the sophistication of Armenian women and Muslim women are often caricatured as gruesome crones, while European women are depicted as dainty and desirable. Thus, sympathy for the plight of Caucasian Muslim women, which is, again, expressed with great sincerity and feeling, often shades into a cruel mockery of them. (It should be added that the same holds for Mollá Nasr od-Dín's depiction of the popular classes, who are depicted alternately with genuine sympathy and then again ridiculed in a manner indistinguishable from class feelings of superiority and the sort of contempt those assimilated into the dominant culture feel for their simpler brethren.)

It is this issue that is being addressed by our woman feuilletoniste(s) in two series of letters and poems. I offer these translations to you both to illuminate this particular point and to let their very unique voices reach you.

The first collection is by someone who went by the nom de plume of Jahrejí Khále or Aunt Spinning Wheel. (This is a typical Mollá Nasr od-Dín pen-name in that it connotes spinning which connotes craziness, a license for and thus a cue indicating some severe social criticism.)

In the issue of October 26, 1906, she writes:

In the past, you have written in your journal about hamáms, opium, mullahs, witches, snakes, frogs, and so on and so forth. You finished with everything else but haven't laid off us women. For example, in #22, you wrote about a woman scratching herself.* Well, what's wrong with scratching yourself? What about men scratching themselves? If women scratching themselves is wrong, why do men scratch themselves? Scratching has long been a mullah’s trade....

In #25, you ridicule women chewing saqez * and say that whenever you hear "woman" mentioned, you thing of saqez-chewing. Well, what's wrong with chewing saqez. If it weren't for saqez, what would peddlers trade in?...

In #26, you make fun of we women's shoes.* You're a distinguished mullah, be fair and tell me: if Russians and Armenians who wear boots were to make a pilgrimage to a saint's tomb, would their pilgrimage be accepted?

In one issue, you draw Muslim women dressed in their garb and laugh at them. For example, in #18, horses see Muslim women and bolt. These horses are obviously Russian horses and had never seen a Muslim woman before. If these Russian ladies were seen in their garb while traveling on horseback bareheaded alongside their husbands were seen in a Muslim city like Tabríz or Mázandarán, not only would the Muslim’s horses, but the men, too, would bolt and flee.

In brief, I ask you to not draw Muslim women so much in your journal, because when our Russian language teacher sees them, they are afraid of us and go after Russian girls, and it often happens that they marry them. This will do you mullahs no good, since the money will be taken from your pockets and enter that of the priests.

A letter is written by one Khán Parí, representing a conservative Muslim women, probably actually penned by one of the male staff, who hurls various imprecations at Jahrejí Khále, followed by traditional wisdom. This is followed by a furious and witty rejoinder by Jahrejí Khále. This is followed by a lengthy article of June 1, in which Mírzá Jalíl defends the right of women to appear with their heads unveiled, a daring piece for all that he took the extraordinary step for him of couching it in Koranic terms. His close friend, Fáeq Ne'manzáde urged Mírzá Jalíl not to go home because the mob wanted to massacre him over this piece, that the Muslim quarters were in a huge uproar, that they were calling for his death in the mosques.

Mollá Nasr od-Dín carried a rather interesting response by Jahrejí Khále to the piece on veiling. She says,

Valláh! You are a strange man!... You won't let us women alone! You're claim is that we Muslim women must go about bareheaded like Armenian and Russian women. Very well, let me have my say. What a good mullah you are, good for you! Indeed, what can I say?

Let's say that the sharí'at permits women to go bareheaded and that those verses which you cited are really in the Koran. But this is what I say: you only know half the story, you don't know the full story. You don't know that if the sharí'at allows us women to appear bare-headed, men don't allow this. I'm not talking only about our husbands, but about all Muslim men. Oh these Muslim men! Valláh, we have no life because of them. Woe the day that we want to leave the house. Everywhere we mean a Muslim--in the bazar, in the alley, in the streets--we must wrap ourselves tight. For they fix us with such a piercing look that they practically devour us from under our veils with their eyes.

This is not the case for Armenians and Russians: They don't pay attention to us, but keep their faces down and keep going. And so, we don't avoid them. But oh those Muslims. If you once go into an Armenian store to buy a few yards of calico, you will see that instantly a Muslim will enter that same store and, on the excuse of buying something, look at your face. You will regret what you've done and leave the store and go.

Oh, Master, you don't know what we go through in the alleys and bazars and what we suffer!

If you sit in a coach and a Muslim by some chance were to sit there, you’re through. He will immediately go back and forth in front of you for no reason and not let you catch your breath for an second.

And again, while going to from Tiflis to Bákú, you can't open the window in any of the stations and get some air. As soon as those Muslims see us, they straighten their pápáqs and crowd in front of the window. When they see a pretty woman, they begin to say rude and obscene things. When they see a crone like me, they curse and spit.

Valláh, I am almost ready to put a Russian chapeau over my white hair so that they let me alone.

And of course, when men see this vile behavior on the part of their companions, they firmly forbid us from even going to our neighbors to borrow a spinner’s wheel and comb without a veil.

You say such things about the sharí'at, but it is not the sharí'at which has brought all this on our heads, but the Muslim rabble. You're a Muslim man, advise your Muslim brothers to let us be.

A final letter from her appears in September. Mollá Nasr od-Dín had just re-opened after having been banned by the Russian government for carrying a series of open letters to the Sheikh ol-Eslám of the Caucasus which had addressed him in an less-than-respectful way. She writes:

It has been some time that I have not written you. I had gone to Daghestan to buy cotton. To the corpse-washer with these cotton dealers of ours, they are so unfair. Whatever you buy from them, most of it is filth, filled with mud and crud.... God damn them a thousand times for having sent me wandering from one land to land.

But I didn't want to talk about how unfair our men are. You know that best. The subject I want to address is the women of this land. First, since my travels took me through the city of the saint of Osturak, I figured that I should make a journey to the saint's tomb and fulfill my vow. The women of this town are very pretty and sweet-speaking, very charming and interesting. The sisters and aunts of this clime speak very quickly, so that they don't even give each other a chance to talk.... They talk so much that I dreamed that my spinning wheel had accidentally broken. Dreaming of a spinning wheel is a very bad thing. I realized that something bad was going to happen. That day, one of the aunts came and brought the news: "If you please, daughter, I have good news for you. Eyes bright, Mollá Nasr od-Dín has been closed. See the powers of this saint!" So it goes! The fact is that this news wrecked me. And so my dream came true.

Any way you look at it, you ought to have been closed down. You always bother saints and we women. But on the other hand, a man like you is valuable for us in our troubles.

She has many interesting things to say about the women she meets in here travels, but this fall outside the scope of this talk.

Two poems written by one Dabáni Chátdan Khále, the Persian equivalent of which, I think, would be páshne var-kashíde, someone who doesn't shuffle when s/he walks, appear two years later. The Iranians have restored the constitution after a struggle which Mírzá Jalíl always had great skepticism about. As if to confirm this skepticism, Sayyed Hosein Khán, a prominent Iranian constitutionalist and, I believe, a member of Mírzá Jalíl's circle, wrote a rather mild criticism of the practice of female seclusion. This led to his imprisonment and an occasion for Dabáni Chátdán Khále to write the following poem.

You restored the constitution , oh poor Iranians.
You shouted this to the world, oh poor Iranians.
You remain hungry and thirsty still, oh poor Iranians.
A lone plane tree you have planted, oh poor Iranians.

Your Mohammad 'Alí* fled but the Shahsaváns* took his place,
Mullah Qorbán 'Alís* and a bunch of bandits,
And many, poor Iranians, Mírzá Hasans.*
Don't boast of your deeds or they will vanish.
Oh homeless vagabonds, oh poor Iranians.

You have not few but many Rahím Kháns*
They gather and bottle your blood.
Your land of Iran will never flourish
Until you declare your women free.
Oh homeless vagabonds, oh poor Iranians.

Thieves and plunders and looting cavalry
You do not consider women equal to.
You shroud them in tattered chárqads
And call them the crooked rib and evil.
Go, burn the father of those who call them women!
Seize, beat, jail such writers!
Oh homeless vagabonds, oh poor Iranians.

You will consider women equal when they grow hair on their faces
You will let women free when they fly like sparrows.
I am a woman, my hair has grown white.
The man who had fallen into my hands fled and ran away.
Oh homeless vagabonds, oh poor Iranians.

She then praises Sayyed Hosein Khán who "showed that the constitution has strayed." She concludes:

You have made of the constitution a pederast's orgy.
You have filled Hamadán and Kermán with pilgrims.
The Kháns toy with dirhams and dinars.
The Shahseváns attack Báqer and Sattár Khán.*
Oh homeless vagabonds, oh poor Iranians.

After a Turkish women removed her veil in the streets of Istambul and was attacked by the police, Dabáni Chátdán Khále wrote the following doggerel:

Bold Iranians, courageous Ottomans.
Blood is of the sword, beasts are of the wilderness, ignorance is of the people.

Red-capped Turks with black bangles,
Great-pápáqed Iranians, clothes in tatters.

You have screamed to the world, "We are constitutionalist."
You beat each other and, cut each other to pieces,
You think you're the greatest, that you’re Rostam and Zál.

Red-capped Turks with black bangles,
Great-pápáqed Iranians, clothes in tatters.

In Istambul a women drew her veil from her face.
The police, appalled, said, "Hey vile creature, put that veil back on."
Don't make a fuss over women, they can’t be equal.

Red-capped Turks with black bangles,
Great-pápáqed Iranians, clothes in tatters.

The constitution is for men, it is given to boys.
It’s not for females, but for mullahs and kháns,
And not for peasants, what foolishness, stupidity!

Red-capped Turks with black bangles,
Great-pápáqed Iranians, clothes in tatters.

Even if in this word, even in Austria,
There be equality, both for men and women,
It can never be so here, this women's mourning lot.

Red-capped Turks with black bangles,
Great-pápáqed Iranians, so proud of themselves.

Both Ottoman and Iranian say Liberty and Equality
Rights and Freedom--women have no share.
These are for men, don't make a fuss.

Red-capped Turks with black bangles,
Great-pápáqed Iranians, so wise and understanding.

Is woman than a human? She's a beast with shaven face.
Long on hair with an ignorant child's sense.
Women belong in prison. Tell them to go there.

Red-capped Turks with black bangles,
Great-pápáqed Iranians, so wise and understanding.

The question of the authorship of these pieces remains. It seems clear to me that they are the same person. The reference to the author's white hair, both as Jahrejí Khále and as Dabáni Chátdán Khále, would confirm this, as would her status as a single roving woman in her first incarnation and an abandoned woman in the second.

The next question is, who she was. My guess is that she was Hamíde Khánúm. Let me give a few biographical details about her. She was from an aristocratic Muslim family in Qárábágh. Her father went to study in the St. Petersburg Military Academy and entered the Tsarist military service and became thoroughly Russianized, so that the common people refered to him as Ahmad Bey the Russian. He became, it seems, an enlightened landlord, interested in agronomy and the literature of his own culture--he wrote a divan of poetry--and Russian poetry, which he translated.

Hamíde Khánúm herself had been married previously and her husband had died, hence, perhaps, the reference in the poems to being an abandoned woman. She took on responsibilities on her father's land which were inconceivable for a Muslim woman of her time. She was intimately acquainted with the cotton trade, and had been invited to participate in a Bákú conference on the infestation and resulting failure of the cotton crop in Qárábágh. Although she was turned away because she was a woman, she did deliver an apparently learned paper at a similar conference a few years later. This would account for the details about the Caucasian cotton trade in Dabáni Chátdán’s vignette.

Mírzá Jalíl met Hamíde Khánúm in 1905, when she sought to have him publish her father's divan. Mírzá Jalíl pursued her with marriage proposals conveyed through a mutual friend, Sofia Khánúm, the widow of that giant of Caucasian Muslim thought, Mírzá Fath ‘Alí Akhúndof. The first Jahrejí Khále letter was then written a year after they'd first met.

The second letter, in response to Khán Parí, was written just before Sofia Khánúm would relay Mírzá Jalíl's interest to her. She would turn him down because her responsibilities on the family land were too demanding to consider a marriage proposal.

The exchange on Armenian and Muslim woman was particularly significant in the relationship between Mírzá Jalíl and Hamíde Khánúm. Hamíde Khánúm recalls it as the piece that made her decide to accept Mírzá Jalíl’s marriage proposal. In her memoirs, she situates it in the context of the uproar it evoked with the clear implication that it was Mírzá Jalíl’s outspoken defense of women’s rights which won her over. Another interpretation seems possible: A few months before writing this piece, Mírzá Jalíl had written a feuilleton comparing Armenian and Muslim women in which the latter were made out to be much inferior. The piece which won Hamíde Khánúm’s admiration might then be seen as having been written in the process of Mírzá Jalíl wooing her and cleaning up his act.

The last piece, which begins, "It has been some time that I have not written you" was written two months after their marriage. They were living separately. We know that she had not been to Daghestan, and this part would then have to have been fiction.

In contrast with the contentiousness of the Jahrejí Khále pieces, the Dabáni Chátdán poems reveal an absolute identity of thinking with Mírzá Jalíl; they are in content very close to some pieces Mírzá Jalíl had written on the subject. I am certain they are not written by Mírzá Jalíl himself--the idiosyncratic line about having been abandoned by her husband after her hair turned white rules this out. This is particularly the case in her dubiousness about the fate of Iranian constitutionalism, a sentiment which heavily colored Mírzá Jalíl's thinking in particular.

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