Lives of Women During the Qajar Dynasty

Just as the Kitchen Sisters uncover communities that might otherwise be overlooked in their program “Hidden Kitchens,” a group at Harvard University is uncovering the lives of women during the Qajar Dynasty for the digital archive “Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran: A Digital Archive and Website.”

Shahin’s Ardashir namah, depicting Shah Ardashir in his harem, with dancers, musicians, and his wives. 17th Century. Courtesy Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History and Women's Worlds in Qajar Iran.

Shahin’s Ardashir namah, depicting Shah Ardashir in his harem, with dancers, musicians, and his wives. 17th Century. Courtesy of Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History and Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran.

The project has twice received funding from the NEH Division of Preservation and Access, and hopes to explore the influence of the long-lasting Qajar Dynasty by studying the women who lived in Iran from 1796 to 1925. Afsaneh Najmabadi, the project leader and a Professor of History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Harvard University, believes her work will be helpful for understanding Iran’s current cultural and political issues.

What to Explore in the Archive

Najmabadi heads a team of students and scholars who are sifting through over 20,000 primary sources, including poems, essays, travelogues, private letters, photographs, works of calligraphy, marriage contracts, and legal documents. The collection includes notables such as poetry penned by Zib al-Nisa’Baygum, daughter of the sixth Mughal, precious jewelry worn by women of wealth, and a copy of the Qur’an written by a female calligraphy artist.

The digital archive is available to the public; anyone can explore the historical records of women’s lives in the Qajar era. Soon, the website will enable visitors to view pages about particular individuals. “We have, over the years, collected invaluable biographical information on many individuals in our archive,” Najmabadi said. “Some are well-known women; others are fascinating accounts by family members about ‘ordinary women.’”

Honors and Impact

Group portrait of the physician, his wife, and the servants. Undated. Courtesy of Women's Worlds in Qajar Iran.

Group portrait of a physician, his wife, and servants who lived in the late Qajar Dynasty. Undated. Courtesy of Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran.

“Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran” was recognized by the White House Office of Public Engagement in 2012 as an example of scholars using NEH funding to research the history of Muslim women’s rights. The archive complements the NEH’s Bridging Cultures initiative, which seeks to promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives within the United States and abroad.

Jami's Yusif and Zulaykha (otherwise known as Joseph and Potiphar's Wife), 1853. Courtesy Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History and Women's Worlds in Qajar Iran.

Jami’s Yusif and Zulaykha (otherwise known as Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife). 1853. Courtesy of Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History and Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran.

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