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Persian, Pasionaria and Princess: In Memory of Mariam Firuz (1913-2008)

By Fatema Soudavar (Farmanfarmaian) -- A month ago this day, on March 12th, a Persian Pasionaria, referred to also as 'Red Princess', died in Tehran at age 94, testifying to the tenacity of the foremost female Communist and feminist activist of Iran. Born a princess, Mariam Firuz never wavered in the pursuit of her aim to bring modernity and the emancipation of women to Iran. Yet, apart from a sympathetic obituary with some factual flaws, by Baroness Afshar in the Guardian (March 31st) and a few articles on Persian websites, the saga and the death of this remarkable woman has gone largely unreported. 




As the wife and later, the widow, of her youngest and favourite full brother (she had 20 brothers in all), I feel uniquely privileged to have known her both through her brother's eyes and my own and feel duty-bound to write about this heroine whose career was cut short, whose writings were either apocryphal or uninspiring, but who may yet have a role in the future of Iran.[i]  I visited her twice during her exile in East Berlin, the first time with my late husband on our honeymoon, and again, after his untimely accidental death, with his three children, including my half-Greek step-daughter who had been named after Mariam. Years later, after the Islamic Revolution and her release from prison, I went to see her on two trips to Tehran. Despite incarceration and the physical and mental pain she had endured, she still looked majestic and spoke as eloquently and with the same conviction about the subjects that had dominated her life. She had not given up the beliefs to which she had sacrificed a large slice of her past, the demise of which she refused to admit. But cornered as she was into a dead-end situation, she had managed to blend them into an unlikely compromise, more emotional than rational, to justify that past in the context of a present she could no longer flee. So it was that an ardent feminist would put on her headscarf to go and buy the daily newspapers rather than stay aloof from the world. For lack of better, Che Guevara's portrait was displayed on a bookshelf side by side with that of (the then) President Khatami.


But first things first, back to her origins and her evolution from princess to pasionaria. Mariam Firuz was born in Tehran in 1913 into the high aristocracy of the penultimate royal dynasty of Iran. Her father, Prince Farmanfarma, was the grandson of Crown Prince Abbas Mirza (1789-1833) whom history tends to regard as the outstanding figure of the Qajar dynasty. The Qajars had come to power in the late 18th century at a time when Iran, after having dominated the cultural, if not always the political, scene in much of Western and Central Asia for some three millennia, was falling apart, unable to face or even to perceive the unstoppable forward march of Russian and British imperialism. Prince Abbas Mirza was painfully aware of the shortcomings that had developed in several decades of chaotic disorder after the fall of the Safavids, the last great dynasty of Iran (1501-1722). Most painful of all was the loss of Iran's Caucasian provinces to the Russian Empire in 1813 and 1828. The lesson learnt was to give a new impetus to the failing forces of Iran by slowly  introducing the recent progresses of the West within the limits afforded by time and place,. He  did not live long enough to pursue that task and died before ascending the throne, but his ideals survived to inspire a number of his descendants, each of them in their own way.


Of Abbas Mirza's many grandsons, Prince Farmanfarma was arguably the most dynamic one of all; he was certainly one of the most influential figures in the Iran of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mariam was the first of the twelve daughters he had from several wives. Her mother, whose origins lay in the landed gentry of Kermanshah in Western Iran, was an educated lady with a typical Persian love of poetry, yet thirsty for novel ideas and wary of both the superstitions that plagued harem life and the potentially pernicious influence of  mullahs. When the time came to shed the veil in public and replace it with hat and gloves, she was one of the first to do so, in order to be able to accompany her husband, the Prince, to official functions under Reza Shah - that is,  for as long as the Prince remained in the good books of the new Shah who had once served under him on the Ottoman front.


Such were the parents who inspired Mariam, the first daughter for both. Already at an early age, her explosive energy and her iron-clad strength of character are said to have inspired the father to refer to her as "a true son".  At the very least, the Prince put her on a par with his no less remarkable eldest son, Prince Firuz Mirza Nosrat-daula who was to play a major though at times controversial role in the sensitive period following World War I and the fall of the Qajars. Prince Firuz had wielded considerable power as a minister in the cabinet of Reza Shah, but succumbed, like many of his rank, to the increasingly paranoid suspicions of the Shah and died under arrest. Mariam admired her eldest brother and was much affected by a death that deprived Iran of a formidable man. She was moved even more by the poverty and mismanagement she was given to witness all around her. A combination that vouched for activism. Like Prince Firuz's eldest son, Mozaffar, she looked for salvation on the horizon to her left, the only direction from which any ray of light seemed to emanate then.


Mariam had been educated at the Jeanne d'Arc missionary school in Tehran, where the nuns were more concerned with substituting Christian keys for Moslem ones to the gates of Heaven - hardly an answer to the urgency of the political and social problems to  which this precociously aware student was to devote most of her life. Despite her ambitions to be more than a wallflower with a prestigious name,  the very same parents who recognized her capabilities had to submit to the dictates of society and marry her to a blue-blooded officer from whom she was to separate amicably after bearing two daughters, in order to embark on a very different path. An arranged match with a dignified suitor did not respond to a headstrong woman's craving for greater tasks outside the limited framework of stifling marital life.


Her first bold step was to establish a literary salon, attended by some of the most talented Iranian minds of the time - poets, litterateurs, erudite scholars  -, at least two of whom were infatuated with her combination of beauty, personality and high intellect. (One of these was Rahi Mo'ayyeri, with the dreamy blue eyes (also known as Agha Boyuk to his close intimates) whose inimitable poetry charmed generations. It was not to any of them, however, that Mariam lost her heart, but to a dashing young architect, Nureddin Kianuri, who had studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris with one of her brothers and who worked with him in Tehran, despite their divergent political views. Kianuri, who was to become Mariam's second husband, was the grandson of the most reactionary cleric in the early 20th century, Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri, the only high cleric who was executed publicly in 1909 for having fomented agitation against the newly established constitutional regime. The grandson was by temperament as much of an extremist as his grandfather had been, but as "progressive" in his views as the grandfather had been regressive in his. Not only was Kianuri a Communist, as were quite a few intellectuals of his generation, he was a Stalinist and a founding member of the Tudeh, the Communist Party of Iran.


To a passionate and compassionate woman such as Mariam, the Tudeh's radical ideas, with its feminist content, had an irresistible appeal that would lead her inexorably towards activism. What set her apart from many others who followed that path was an unfailing devotion, at great personal cost, to the cause she chose to wholly embrace. More moderate than her husband, she nonetheless did not question the viability of the ideology espoused. She plunged into the the illusion of lofty ideals without ever looking back. Soon after she met Kianuri she founded the Women's chapter of the Tudeh Party in the 1940s and launched a publication to educate women on their rights and on the benefits of embracing a radical ideology that took these seriously enough. At the time, no other political or social movement would have provided such an outlet for her irrepressible energy nor such scope for her urge to emancipate women and relieve the misery of the dispossessed. Not having been exposed to other options, this, she believed, must be the only path. Not even the 1946 occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan by Soviet forces seems to have cast the shadow of a doubt in her mind about the ultimate intentions of the USSR towards Iran. The Soviets gave backing to progressive forces, when no other avenues offered much hope. Blind hope perhaps, but better than remaining a passive observer of how things might unfold.


There followed a few years of freedom to promote the Tudeh's ideals and militancy that attracted more and more devotees, but in 1951, political history took a new turn when Mariam's first cousin, Dr.  Mossadegh, became Prime Minister in a truly democratically functioning Iran. Mossadegh's decision to launch the nationalization of oil won over the enthusiasm of a nation which had been moving in that direction for some time. The Tudeh, for its part, was hoping to turn the situation to its own advantage, but was losing ground as the nation rallied behind Mossadegh. Ultimately, though, the Tudeh must take a share of the blame for the failure of Iranian democracy, if only by giving the British the excuse of a much exaggerated Communist threat. A Godsend intended to scare away an initially sympathetic USA from backing Mossadegh. The much-told tale of how the Shah was brought back by a CIA-engineered coup to abrogate the democratic society he left behind, requires a post-scriptum in the present context.


Right after the Shah was reinstated with the blessings of a consortium of global oil giants, there was a wave of arrests, focusing  particularly on the Tudeh, many of whose members were rounded up and incarcerated pending trial. Kianuri was amongst them, but Mariam managed to slip through the grip of her pursuers and roamed for three years under the cover of night and a black chador. She was constantly on the move, at times lodging with trusted relatives and friends, at other times with unsuspected party members, rarely more than a few nights in any single place. The police had been told to be on the lookout for a tall lady hiding behind a chador. Mariam was tall and well-built enough to be conspicuous, yet somehow managed to avoid detection . Over the years I have again and again come across people who have told me in whispers about how they were 'friends of Mariam Khanum', meaning that, as sympathizers, they had given refuge to a woman they admired. 


The Tudeh was well organized and had infiltrated a number of institutions, including the military at every level.  Before Mariam could exhaust the range of hideouts, Kianuri and his fellow prison inmates broke loose and escaped to Iraq (where the Communist Party was on the rise), thanks to the complicity of sympathetic officers within the army. In 1956, Mariam was able to join her husband en route to Moscow. Thus began almost a quarter of a century of life in exile, away from home and the family she loved, - first in Moscow, then Leipzig and finally East Berlin where the couple enjoyed the relative luxury of a three-room apartment, a car and even a tiny garden out of town (which Mariam named "Punak" in memory of their family estate outside Tehran). They were allowed to receive visits from abroad as well as parcels. I know from having been one of the senders that Mariam requested books or writing material that could not be obtained in East Berlin; but the odd piece of finery sent now and then by relatives blew back in her face, as the 'Princess parcels' became a subject of sarcasm among some of their envious fellow exiles, who were no doubt vying with Kianuri for nomination to the party's leadership. In the early days of the Tudeh, it was not unusual in Iran, as elsewhere, for nobility to adhere to leftist movements, but to a younger generation of the left, it appeared that the aristocrats in their midst were an anomaly they could neither relate to nor fully trust. Yet time would show that Mariam, who had everything to lose, was a more devoted and steadfast militant than many turncoats.


In 1979, when the monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution, the members of the Tudeh, like many dissident groups, believed that their time had finally come. They were convinced that theologians were hardly equipped to rule a country with the complexities of Iran. Most dissidents of the left, including Kianuri who was born into the clerical hierarchy, were dismissive of the importance of institutional roots; their aim was to dispose of outdated relics. They needed clerical influence to recruit the masses and oust the monarchy, but beyond that they would decide what was good for the country's future. They failed to understand that the clerical caste, like the  monarchy, had a resilient staying power that rootless imported ideologies lacked. As for reform, it was probably not radical enough to satisfy them, even less the rivals they befriended for a while. With the monarchy deposed and the clerical hierarchy empowered by the Left, the outcome was almost a foregone conclusion. This should have been all the more obvious to a couple who owed their return to Iran and their initial freedom to Khomeini's devotion to Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri, Kianuri's once reviled, now rehabilitated grandfather whose portrait appeared on postage stamps. 


As Islamist rule firmed,  Mariam found herself wearing the headcover she had fought all her life as a symbol of the servitude of Iranian women. This must have been hard to swallow for a woman in whose  world-view little boys were to be encouraged to play with dolls as much as little girls should play with toy tanks. Khomeini, of course, had women trained for service on the Iraqi front, but otherwise the ideological rift between the Communists and the Islamists was too deep to be bridged by a mere flimsy headscarf.  . When the inevitable break-up occurred, the members of the Tudeh found themselves once again in jail. Kianuri, broken by torture, eventually admitted on public television to having spied for the Soviet Union, but Mariam consistently refused to recant or admit to any treasonable acts. Her physical suffering was publicized at the time by such organizations as Amnesty International, the Human Rights Commission of the UN and PEN International, but the pain of witnessing the regression of women must have been her toughest ordeal. Nonetheless, she retained a strong morale, even after her husband, liberated from jail with visible signs of physical torture, died under house arrest.


The last time I saw her three years ago, she was still a magnificent sight to behold. And seemingly no less so as late as last summer, judging by a videotape of her speaking to my five-year-old grandson, in the sophisticated and elegant though slightly outmoded diction of an educated aristocrat, about how the British and the Russians had tried to occupy Iran.  Mariam Firuz's unfailing devotion to a lost cause - equated in her mind with patriotism - is unlikely to offer much inspiration to a generation oppressed by a surfeit of dogma, but her heroic courage and steadfastness are sure to light the way for women struggling to acquire their legitimate rights. Her career as a role model may well lie ahead, beyond death and the grave.


April 12th, 2008

Fatema Soudavar (Farmanfarmaian)


[i] This article has been updated from a longer report written upon request for PEN International's representative at the Human Rights Commission at the UN in Geneva at the time when Mariam Firuz was in prison. It was not destined for publication and is appearing in print for the first time in the present version. 



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Maryam Firuz in the final decade of her life

زندگی و مرگ مریم فیروز

By Mahindokht Mosbah,
Deutsche Welle


Source: Radio Farda

Mariam Firuz, an aristocrat who married Nureddin Kianuri, a leader of the banned Tudeh communist party, died on March 13 at the age of 94, and was quietly buried the next day in the Behesht-i Zahra cemetery outside Tehran, Radio Farda reported on March 14. She was buried under the supervision of Intelligence Ministry officials, and relatives reportedly did not attend the burial.

Former communist activist Mohammad Ali Amui told Radio Farda on March 14 that Intelligence Ministry agents organized her burial before some of her friends even knew she was dead, and made sure she was buried without publicity or attention. Her life, as well as that of her husband's, was punctuated by court convictions, spells in prison, torture, and exile, as the couple ran afoul of authorities under the monarchy and the post-revolutionary regime after 1979.

Firuz was a member of the Farmanfarmaian-Firuz clan, a branch of Iran's former royal family, the Qajars. She spent many years in communist East Germany in the 1960s and 70s, but returned to Iran following the revolution with other exiled members of the Tudeh party. However, many Tudeh members, including Firuz and her husband, were arrested in February 1983 or later, and accused of spying for the Soviets and plotting a communist coup. Some of the detained were later shown on television confessing to the alleged crimes and renouncing their communist opinions; many, including Firuz, had apparently been tortured.

She remained in solitary confinement for some years, until released on medical grounds in the late 1980s, and the couple then lived in downtown Tehran under state surveillance. Kianuri died in 1999. "Sometimes intelligence agents went [to their home] and warned them" not to have any contact with Tudeh activists, Amui told Radio Farda. He said the state loosened its surveillance slightly during the 1997-2005 reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami.

... Payvand News - 04/14/08 ... --

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