The slogan of “Zan Zendegi Azadi” meaning women, life and freedom is being raised aloud by protestors in Islamic Republic of Iran, after Mahsa Amini, a 22 year old Iranian Kurd was pronounced dead days after the notorious morality police detained her for allegedly breaching the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women. It was reported by Times of India on October 5, 2022, that Iranian schoolgirls have come to the fore in protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, removing their hijabs and staging sporadic rallies in defiance of a lethal crackdown by the security forces. More than 19,600 people have been arrested during the protests against the Iranian government, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that’s been tracking the crackdown. At least 527 people have been killed as authorities violently suppressed demonstrations, the group said. But this was not the condition of women in this region many years ago, when a mighty Zoroastrian empire called the Hakhamanashi Empire was ruled by an enlightened monarch Cyrus the Great, rather women enjoyed many freedoms thanks to the progressive ideology of Cyrus the “King of Kings” ruler of the superpower of the ancient world. This article is about the legacy of Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrians towards women empowerment.
Article by Arunansh Goswami | Times of India
Author of this article standing near the depiction of the Persian Immortal Guards at Louvre Museum Paris, found by archaeologists in Iran. These guards were once commanded by a Persian woman named Pantea Arteshbod.
An empire of 1000 nations
About 2,300 years ago, the Parsi (From Pars or Fars province in Persian) empire covered over two million square miles and held nearly half the world’s population. The Guinness World Record for the largest empire so far in the world in terms of population goes to the Achaemenid or Hakhamanashi Empire. As per the Guinness Book of World Records “By share of population, the largest empire was the Achaemenid Empire, better known as the Persian Empire, which accounted for approximately 49.4 million of the world’s 112.4 million people in around 480 BC – an astonishing 44%.”
Ahura Mazda, the one God of the Zoroastrians, gave them this empire to rule and it was this empire that gave us Cyrus or Koroush the great, and his legacy, comprises not just his great deeds, but the influence he had on several Zoroastrians in coming centuries, to name their children Cyrus in his honour, the respect for the “King of Kings” remains unshaken in the hearts of Parsis from Bombay to Los Angeles. There is much evidence that the principles of Zoroastrianism lay the core foundation to the first (Declaration of Human Rights) in the Persian Empire set by Cyrus the Great, since the rulers of Persia were Zoroastrians and relatively liberal and progressive. Women empowerment was an important policy of the Zoroastrian Empire of Persia.
Zoroastrian women power in Persia
Zoroastrian Persia has had a history of women military commanders like Artunis (c.540-500 BCE), a Lieutenant Commander under Cyrus the Great, Pantea Arteshbod (sometime in the mid-500s BCE) another officer under Cyrus the Great, Artemisia I of Caria (c. 480 BCE), an admiral of the Persian navy under Xerxes I famed for her perseverance and valour at the Battle of Salamis, Youtab Aryobarzan (lived prior to 330 BCE), soldier renowned for defending the city of Persepolis against the advancing forces of Alexander the Great, Youtab means “Unique” and Aryobarzan means “Glory of the Aryans”. It is said after Darius III fled, Youtab Aryobarzan’s brother Ariobarzanes was left to guard the capital Takht-e-Jamshid. He along with his sister held off the Greeks at a pass in the mountains/ Tang-e-Meyran for forty days till a traitor brought the Greeks behind them. Ariobarzanes and Youtab Aryobarzan both attained martyrdom for Persian freedom in the last charge at the Greeks on January 20th 330 B.C. Their bodies were taken by villagers to the Dakhmeh-Sangi. Their remains and sacrifice remain clothed in obscurity and anonymity, unrecognised and unsung by bigoted, biased and partisan history, written by the victors.
During the reign of Cyrus the Great, Pantea which means strong in old Persian, was Arteshbod (commander) of the Immortals, which were Persia’s elite fighting force that was both standing army, and Imperial Guard and had gained their legend by keeping their force 10,000 strong at all times according to Herodotus. The female commander Pantea Arteshbod, believed to have been appointed to govern Babylon under Cyrus’ rule, is thought to have been the architect of the Immortals, establishing them as an elite guard. In Persian folklore, Pantea was considered to be the most beautiful and toughest woman in all of Asia. She is said to have kept her face covered in battle to prevent the enemy and her fellow soldiers alike from falling in love with her.
Zoroastrian women power in India
A Persian woman leader of India, Madam Bhikaji Rustom Cama fondly called the “Mother of the Indian Revolution (Againt British imperialism)” became the first person to hoist the Indian flag in foreign land on 22 August 1907. While unfurling the flag at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart, Germany, she appealed for equality and autonomy from the British which had taken over the Indian sub-continent. At the Conference Madame Cama said and I quote “Behold, the flag of independent India is born! It has been made sacred by the blood of young Indians who sacrificed their lives in its honour. In the name of this flag, I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to support this struggle. This is the flag of independent India. I appeal to all gentlemen to stand and salute the flag.” So as to pay their respects to this great India patriot, the Indian Coast Guard commissioned The ICGS Bhikaji Cama, a Priyadarshini-class rapid patrol vessel in 1997.
As per Dr Sumita Mukherjee, Historian and Senior Lecturer at University of Bristol, two Parsi (Zoroastrian) women, Herabai Ardeshir Tata and her daughter Mithan Tata, played a crucial role to get women the right to vote in India when they came to Britain in 1919. It was decided by a Bombay group of women, led by Mrs Jaiji Jamshed Petit who was a leading figure in Bombay Women’s Suffrage Union and well known to Mahatma Gandhi, that Herabai and Mithan Tata should be sent to London to submit a memorandum urging that Indian women should be given the right to vote. On their arrival in the UK, they submitted the statement to a Select Committee and then embarked on a three month tour visiting various towns and cities to get more support for the Indian women’s cause. In the Joint Statement, Herabai and Mithan Tata sent to the Government, they described themselves as ‘Bombay women’. Mrs Hilla Rustomji Faridoonji was another high profile Parsi suffragette and was vice-president of the All-India Women’s Conference and Avabai Bomanji Wadia (née Mehta) was another high profile Parsi suffragette. In the end the author would like to mention let’s hope the present government in Iran gets time to read their country’s history and establish an enlightened rule like that of Cyrus the Great.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.