Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | March 13, 2008

Persian women through the eyes of a-19th-century Englishman

T.S Anderson wrote a book “My wanderings in Persia“, published in 1880. He travelled to Persia in the 1875. His journey starts in Southampton, then through Suez Canal he reaches Bombay. On tranship he then proceeds to Bushire, and “thence to Tehran, 900 miles by caravan, which, it appeared, was the only means of locomotion in that far-distant land” (Anderson, T.S 1880: 10). From Tehran at some point, as his map suggests, he gets through Astrabad to Khiva, now in Uzbekistan.

It is very interesting how he describes women in Persia. Even if many things have changed in Persia (especially the country’s name) and in the remnants of it in southern Central Asia (i.e. Samarkand, Bukhara, Herat, Kabul, etc.), still there are some things which remind me of Central Asian ladies today.

I think though his opinion is based on pure observations and mannly talks about women, rather than direct conversation with Persian women (which was, presumably, prohibited). Here is how he sees Persian women, or I should say, the attitude of Persian men to women:

“The condition of women in Persia and other Eastern countries is totally different to that of the accomplished ladies of Europe and the Western world. They cannot be called anything but slaves or menials. They are not called upon to share joys and sorrows of their husband. A woman is merely held as an instrument or machine for her owner. They are entirely destitute and ignorant of knowledge on spiritual matters – they are seldom permitted to enter the sacred precincts of a mosque; indeed, it is strongly affirmed in Persia that woman has no soul, and that their creation was intended solely for man’s pleasure and caprice. … Their chief amusements are in embroidery, needlework, smoking, and fantastically decorating themselves. Each woman vies in her endeavours to become the ‘khanoum’, or favourite, of the harem. The Persians greatly ridicule the European’s ostentatious display of courtesy to a lady.” (ibid. 83-84)

It is important to note here, that he describes the women of harems, not a typical, average Persian woman, such as wives or daughters of peasants, craftsmen, traders, etc. So this is the image of a special class of women. Well, harems attracted only unbelievable beauties, whose main concern was their appearance and skills to seduce and satisfy their rulers. I think it is unfair to say that harems attracted stunning women, I dont mean to say that every woman dreamt of living in a harem, though, who knows. Harems were usually filled with beautiful women from all over the places where the rulers occupied lands and kidnapped beautiful women, or sometimes inherited harems of defeated rulers. So this means that harems were also widely ‘intercultural’ and ‘international’. Back to the issue, Anderson describes women of royalties, not an average Persian woman. And if compare royal families of Western world, they too had specific education for their girl-ladies, music, embroidery and all that amusing stuff.

“All harems are guarded by Ethiopian eunuchs, and no one but its master dare think of crossing its sacred threshopd. Not even a brother is allowed to see his sisters unless the latter are closely veiled; and, at one time, such was the rigorousness of this abominable inhibition, that should a woman violate the laws of the harem, and be discovered in conversation (unveiled) with other nearest relative, immediate death would follow – perhaps by suffocation or some other equally cruel method.” (ibid. 84-85)

Again as mentioned above, the description is of harem women, which was a prison for the women there. It seems like, Anderson does not even suppose that there are also women outside of harems. But, I assume, the conditions of women outside of harems were still not much better, they still lived in a patriarchal society, but harem is an extreme example. That harems are special institutions, with special laws, affordable mainly for the emperors and rulers of different scale.

He makes some really good observations on the impact of polygamy on familial realtions:

“Such are the debasing results of polygamy, that brothers and the nearest members of families are alienated from each other, and are made bitter enemies. There can beno tender ties of the family circle in a country where there this banefully destructive custom exists: affection is unknown, and the worst passions of man are aroused where all that is gentle and kind should reign.” (ibid. 88 )

It is sad, but true. But he doesn’t mention that this is the case in royal families, irregardless of nation. Many people in the Middle Ages have experienced wars of siblings for the power of the throne. But he is right, that in polygamyc families it is difficult to have affectionate relations, where mothers/wives in the first place are engaged in intrigues, torn in rivalry, envy and jealousy. Indeed their hostile relations, later are mirrored in the hostile relations of their offsprings, i.e. siblings as foes.



  1. Sehr schöne Fotos.


  2. as an egocentric westerner with low view on any other people than anglo-saxian, what point of view would one expect. and to not let the women in sight of foreginers can not really left him with lot insight in either the womens or the culture in general. and the women in europe did not have so much better at the time, they could drink te but were married to the one that the family decided, often a much older man….

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