Ladies in Bakhtiariland – and the Constitutional Revolution

'Bibi Golafrus' (blazing flower). Dr Ross' name when dressed in Bakhtiari costume. With many thanks to The Tain Museum.

Dr Elisabeth Macbean Ross (author of the renowned ‘A Lady Doctor in Bakhtiariland’) was the physician for the “Bibis or great ladies, wives, sisters and mothers of the leading [Bakhtiari] Khans” for around four years from 1910.  She usually visited each of the many “Gha[l]ehs or castles” for several weeks, and there “enjoyed the almost unique privilege of getting a glimpse into the home life of the [elite] Bakhtiaris and in some cases into their way of thinking, their mental atmosphere”.

From this special vantage point, she has much to say – especially about the Bakhtiari women she spent so much time with:

“The most interesting feature to my mind in the life of the Bakhtiari is the position of their women. They are the mainspring of everything good that is attempted and done in the country. They have attained, without any effort on their part [sic!], a position and power that many of their suffragist sisters in the West would envy.”

Bibi Sahab Jan, for example, was the “energetic” senior wife of ‘Samsam-os-Saltaneh’, then the Ilkhan [paramount chief of the Bakhtiari confederation].  With elite Bakhtiari marriages carefully planned to strengthen and broaden tribal alliances; she was also daughter of the Ilbeg [co-leader / deputy] and sister of the militarily powerful “Zargham-os-Saltaneh”.  Dr Ross describes how “towards the end of 1907 [Bibi Sahab Jan’s husband’s] half brother Sardar Zafar was discovered to be intriguing with the Shah for the Ilkhaniship of the tribe”.  Bibi Sahab Jan apparently then “with her own hand, wrote letters to the wives of several lukewarm chiefs, urging them to send their husbands to her help”.  She also “effected a reconciliation” between her husband and her powerful brother.

After the failure of the Shah’s attempted coup in 1908 (click and scroll down to read more), much of Persia was in a Constitutional ferment.  Isfahan, just to the east of the Bakhtiari territories, revolted against the tyranny of the Shah and his cruel governor.  Bibi Sahab Jan’s brother, Zargam Saltaneh, then led the advance party of Bakhtiari which “successfully accomplished all the necessary fighting the day before [Samsan Saltaneh] reached Isfahan [5 Jan 1909] to occupy the position [Governor of Isfahan], which the Bakhtiari unanimously agree was secured for him by his wife [my italics].”

This, then, was the platform from which Sardar Assad II (another half-brother to Samsan Saltaneh) launched the ‘fateful march towards Tehran’, entering triumphantly on 11 July 1909.  Forces led by Samsam Saltaneh followed shortly – and on 16 July 1909, the Shah abdicated.  A little later, in 1911, Samsan Saltaneh became Prime Minister of Iran.

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