Movement of Eastern Women
November 11, 1932 — Patriotic Women’s League, Institute of Science and Literature, Tehran, Iran
Before anything else, I sense and praise the spirit of youth and enthusiasm that has been created in you. The glory, honor, greatness and majesty of your country are due to this spirit of youth and the eagerness and enthusiasm that has been created I you, patriotic young people. And the honor and greatness of the country rely on the unity of this youth and his accordance with morality and purity, and his knowledge and culture. However, this unity will not be complete unless the advancing youth comes hand-in-hand with his advancing sister. But what kind of hand? The hand of purity and chastity, innocence and morality, the hand of knowledge and wisdom, the hand of manly behavior. Once these two hands join together in a strong manner, then the greatness and honor of the country will reach its ultimate level.
I would like to talk briefly about the history of the woman’s movement in my own country and the East, the movement of your Syrian sister whose soul is part of your soul. When I speak of Syrian women, I am actually talking not only about Iranian women and Arab women, but also Eastern and non-Eastern woman. Speaking of Syrian woman, I’m talking about the fact that the Syrian woman loves her husband first, then her home, then her relatives and neighbors, and then her most distant neighbors.
This movement began in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, on the mountain of the white-haired old man of Lebanon, where the ground is covered with trees whose wood was taken to Solomon the Wise, the same mountain that has witnessed many wonders of the word, and there is no other like it. This is the same mountain that has experience many peoples, histories, wonders, and events. Nonetheless, its back is not bent and it will stand strong and unyielding forever.
The movement of women and girls of Syria started fifty years ago. It was a literary and cultural movement, a poetic and intellectual movement. One of those girl-poets is Warda Yaziji. The daughter of the famous Sheikh Nassif Yaziji, she was raised in a small town near Beirut. This elegant mountain was her first teacher. Then she went to Beirut to study at the American school, and from there she accompanied her two brothers, who were highly educated, to Egypt. This girl has many poems . . . whose beauty is indescribable, and among them is the following which she wrote to “Warda al-Turk,” the Turkish rose:
Oh Rose of the Turks, I am Rose of the Arabs
Between us we have found the nearest of kinships.
Ad in this manner she composed a long poem to her. This wise woman was 80 when she passed away, and this story is from fifty years ago. From this, we can say that the movement of Syrian women began more than fifty years ago. Besides this lady, there were many other wise and educated women. This movement and the intelligence and awareness of our girls resulted from the pleasant air of the mountain and its silence and peace.
Eventually, this movement became so strong and the number of these wise and educated girls increased to the point where the mountain could no longer support them, so it dispersed them and sent them all over. Some remained in Lebanon and Syria, some went to Egypt, and some to the U.S., Europe, and different parts of the East. A group of them left the mountain and went to the seashore. They exchanged the majesty of the mountain for the majesty of the sea, and now they are on the shores of the Mediterranean. This gradually increased. Many schools were established in Beirut. You know that Beirut has become renowned as an intellectual city, and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, when visiting Beirut, called it “the Pearl of the East.”
Before the World War, thirty women’s organizations were established in that city, but these organizations had different aims; some were scientific, some literary, some economic, some charitable, and some social. The charitable organizations are further divided into different groups with different aims. Some are involve din assisting the blind: they get them to work, teach them to read and write Braille, and some of them find wives for blind people. They marry blind women to blind men. you might ask me how these blind people manage. I too asked myself this question, and since I am the honorary director of the group, I visited them with their director, Madame Boustany, step daughter of the famous Petros Boustany. I saw a blind man who had a blind wife. This couple had a son.
[From the audience, Madame Hanifa Khura, delegate from Egypt, asked, “Was the son blind too?”]
Yes, the child was blind too. The parents were trying to bathe and clothe the child. The mother was holding the child and the father was holding the clothes. The mother bathed and dried the child with extreme care and attention and the father handed over the clothes for her to put on him. That was the blind organization.
Another group is dedicated to dealing with disabilities, and they have a special location and regulations for managing it. Every day, one of the elite women goes there and visits the facilities. There is another group of these girls who take care of people with tuberculosis. This latter organization is very large and very important. Its members are among the elite women and men. They have built a hospital in the mountains among the trees and the emerald grass for those who suffer from tuberculosis. Every day, a group of chic and beautiful women with broad smiles and beautiful figures goes to this hospital — although tuberculosis frightens everyone — to console the patients. These are some of the charitable organizations. Some of them work with poor families and the needy. They have them handcraft products at home, then they discreetly buy these products form them and sell them at the market. Another group of women provides poor girls with dowries. (This group was established by Christians because Christians do not marry a girl unless she has a dowry and a level of material wealth that she can give them!)
Now, let us turn to the literary group: this group collaborates and cooperates with elite men. And regarding the economic group, it has big aims: it mentors women and symbolizes their duties. It teaches them about home economics, raising children, and life, with an emphasis on savings and controlled expenditures; it makes efforts to improve the economic situation of the country. It collaborates with the government in economic planning, and promoting domestic industries and national products. The members take an oath never to eat, drink, or wear anything that is not made in their country.
Thus far, this group has organized three expositions, and in so doing it is ahead of the government. They invited the governments of Beirut and Damascus to these three expos. The participants visited the different areas of the expo, and of this group, some went to Aleppo, some to Sidon and Tripoli. Some merchants came from Aleppo and Damascus to purchase certain items. Some came from Sidon and Tripoli and brought their excellent fruits for the members of this group. After the three expos, which will be repeated every year, the government presented medals and gifts to the participants whose products had surpassed those of others. We in the organization also presented them with certificates and acknowledgments which are now displayed in expensive frames on the walls of their places of business.
I am on the boards of directors of all these various organizations. Recently, I organized a gathering to bring them all together. All of the directors participated and we named the new organization “The Syrian-Lebanese Union,” and we had many meetings in Beirut. Nevertheless, one night when I was in bed trying to sleep, the though occurred to me that even with all of these organizations, my wishes had not come true and I had not reached my aim because what I was after was not these organizations; I wanted to establish another organization on my own. Although the directors of all these groups were wise women, I was the only one who first thought of this idea. All of these groups were composed of Muslim and non-Muslim women, but the number of Muslim women was very low. This was not the fault of the ladies. It was the fault of their men. I felt that Muslim women with their pure, strong, exceptional, and eternal beliefs in the religion of Muhammad had to step forward, but their over-zealous men did not approve of their wives going far from them.
Anyway, I was forced to establish another group called the “Society of Muslim Women,” with its aims being development and unity. We created bylaws based on the civil codes of East and West, meaning that we selected the best features of each. We adopted the good things and we left out the bad. From Western civilization we adopted that which is consistent with morality, purity, and wisdom, and combined it with what exists in the East. Our efforts are focused on promoting and spreading our own honorable religion, defending our excellent religion, and resisting things that may be harmful to it. We have accomplished this aim through legitimate means. Once our success and progress reached its highest level, and our membership reached 500, comprised of Muslim ladies including Sunni, Shi’ite, and Druze, we felt that in order to further pursue our Goals, we also had to include Christian ladies. Therefore, the association of Arab women and its members consists of a hand-picked group of Muslim women and a selection of elite Christian women.
The aim of this group is unity among different women of the various peoples of Syria. This goal was chosen to honor the position and status of religiosity and to solidify the bases of our purity and wisdom. And by creating this unity, we silenced our opponents. Once we reached this level of success, I invited the Arab ladies to organize a major congress. I wrote a note about it to Madame Huda Shaarawi, the famous Egyptian lady who has been a frontrunning in the Egyptian Women’s Movement, saying that if the Egyptian ladies agree, we should organize a congress in Damascus or Egypt.
We reached complete agreement. We invited ladies from all the Arab countries and decided to organize the congress, when suddenly a large airplane landed in Beirut; it carried a large delegation of Indian ladies. These ladies requested that we not limit the congress to Arab women, but that it be expanded to include all Eastern women. I myself had been thinking about doing so after organizing the congress of Arab women, so we sent invitations to all the Eastern countries. However, we completed the original program, meaning we held the Arab Women’s Congress before the gathering of Eastern Women.
Then I had to work very hard to put together the Eastern Women’s Congress, in particular to obtain the government’s permission. I had made all the preparations but I still did not have the necessary authorization. I was under a lot of pressure and hardship for two months in Damascus, trying to obtain the permit, but I did not include my colleagues in this hardship. Whenever anyone asked me about the permit, I told them to get organized and make preparations because the permit would be forthcoming.
Finally, I thought of a way. I wrote to the League of Nations and complained that the government was not allowing us to organize the congress and requested that an observer be sent by the Society of the Unity of the Women of the World to oversee the activities of the Eastern women and produce a report for the League of Nations. And considering that I am personally a member of the Society, whose headquarters is in London, I also requested a delegation from that organization. And lady of Greek origin came from London. She was selected because Greece sits between East and West and had a long history, and the entire world has benefited from its civilization, thus she was related to everybody. To make it brief, at the same time a message arrived from the League of Nations that the same Greek lady also represented them, and that upon her return she would make a report to the League of Nations on the ladies’ activities. The lady sent me a telegram saying that she would arrive in Damascus the day after the telegram arrived.
In order to get the permit, I had many discussions with the government. I wrote to the French consul and requested a private meeting with him at his home. I made an appointment. I assembled a group of honorable ladies and we went there the following day, which was the day before the start of the congress. I should also add that, meanwhile, I received a message from the Iranian consul general in Beirut introducing Madame Ghodsieh Afshar as the Iranian representative. I gathered everyone together and collected many files and the bylaws of the association and, like a traveler who packs for a trip, I went to meet the French hakim. I told him, I am protesting to you that in 48 hours I will hold the congress. I requested a permit two months ago and you have not responded. This same silence toward my request is viewed as your permission.”
He said, “How did you dare to invite everyone and designate the location of the congress and have all these people enter Damascus through its gate? Now, what excuse or justification do you have for such daring?
I said, “First of all, I know the French government better than you do. I know that it is a progressive government and would not prevent the movement of Eastern women. In addition, I was fearless. If you were to deny me permission, I would hold the meeting outdoors on the green carpet of the prairies and under the trees, and because we would have no walls but the horizon, and no roof gut the sky, there would be no room for the government to object.
[From the audience, Madame Khuri said: Please tell us how he laughed in response to that statement!]
Yes, he laughed a lot, and he told me to go ahead and hold the congress. I returned to the hotel where many young people were waiting outside for me, saying that if they did not issue the permit, then we would go and get it. The day after receiving permission, we held the congress. We raised all the Eastern flags. We played exciting music and sang the national anthem. Then each lady spoke about the situation of women in her own country.
Among the ladies was the Iranian representative. She spoke so eloquently and the members of the congress were so impressed that it was decided to hold the Second Congress in Tehran, particularly because Iran is the closest country to the Arab countries. And God willing, after putting on this congress in Tehran, the third congress will be held in Ankara, and from then on, every two years, it will be held in a different Eastern country that has not yet had one.
Between the two congresses, a general assembly was held in Lebanon to formulate the bylaws of the congress. That is, after the First Congress n 1930, we organized a meeting in 1931 in ‘Aley, but we did not burden the countries with the trouble of sending delegations to this gathering; we requested that they only send a representatives. At this gathering we also decided to hold the Second Congress in Tehran. And it was agreed that a Syrian congress should be held first in Damascus with the Syrian ladies.
And so I left my house at the beginning of August and wen to Damascus, and on the first of October, I was ready to hold the congress. They came from all over Syria. This congress was very important. Prime Minister Hajji Bey ‘Azm opened it. The government had set the location of the congress at the University of Syria, which was the best building in the area. The congress lasted for an entire week, mornings and afternoons.
The first meeting was attended by members of the government, the elite, and people of high position. The other meetings were attended by journalists and educated and cultured people. On the opening day, the wife of the president of the republic invited us for dinner She also worked with us and took a group photograph with us. Every day after the afternoon meeting concluded, we received invitations from the ladies who were all, like you, very hospitable and honorable.
A day after the conclusion of the [Damascus] congress, we arrived in Baghdad where we also held an Arab congress. That congress was opened by the minister of education in a building reserved for the government. The queen was the honorary directress, and the wife of the prime minister was her deputy. We were successful there too, and that was even more important because this was the first time that a women’s group was being formed in Baghdad; they did not have a society there.
Now we have come to your country, your splendid Iran, and in a short tie a great Eastern Congress will be held here and, God willing, here too, under the favors and attention of his majesty, and under the management of the honorable government of Iran, and with the assistance of the educated elite, and by the enthusiasm of the progressive and innocent youth, and the efforts of the honorable ladies and gentlemen . . .
I hope that I have not bored the participants with this long speech, because in order to share the history of the movement wit you, I could not make it any shorter. I do not have any personal goal or agenda, but have dedicated myself to serve the female gender and Eastern women. I work so that Eastern women can be pious, pure, innocent, timid, decent, with integrity, and know her obligations, as I have accomplished this for the girls and women in my own country. And I can state with confidence that you will not find a single girl or woman in any of our societies who is impure or lacks integrity, and we try to distance ourselves from the dangers of indecency and impurity.
Now, to prove that I have had these thoughts and aims from childhood, I will recite a poem that I composed when I was 15. I was in school at the time. I was 15 years old and wearing a thick mask on my face. That mask pressured my heart, but I felt that it brightened my heart with the light of purity, timidity, and decency. So I composed the following verses:
Oh you, who hide your face behind a mask
Like the sun behind a dark cloud
You seek good thoughts and a good name
A good beginning and a good end
May all be fortunate in this quest
For honor is alive because of righteous men
Seek beauty within and wisdom
For the world of knowledge has no end
Seek the soul of knowledge and not the world
Ince wisdom beautifies the soul
Soar in the open sky
And free yourself through knowledge
You are a flower in the garden of wisdom
You are a nightingale in the language of knowledge
The essence of the universe takes its fragrance from you
The prairie takes its verdancy from the river
Like a moon high in the sky
You seek those who are lost in the world
Whoever loses his way in the world
Keep your mask tight on your face
Because the flower has color and freshness when covered
Thrive for name and honor
Because to get a pearl you need an oyster from the sea
People will call to you from their heart
Seeking honor in the world
Men extend their hand with honor
Toward you, a happy flower-face
They seek you in the waves of the universe
For it is from you that the ocean takes its tide
Look after the young women
Because the world is a body and they are its soul
What a happy day when delighted men
Dancing in every corner
See their sisters like angels
Soaring high in the sky
Now, to you, beautiful lady
I give a hundred thanks with affection.
Translation by Haleh Emrani.
Source: “A Speech by Nour Hamda: Tehran, 1932,” by Ellen Carol DuBois and Haleh Emrani, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, Special Issue: Early Twentieth-Century Middle Eastern Feminisms, Nationalisms, and Transnationalisms (Winter 2008), pp. 113-121.