Sattareh Farman Farmaian was born on 23 December 1921 as the daughter of Prince Abdol-Hossein Farman Farma, a grandson of the Qajar Crown Prince Abbas Mirza, and Massumeh Khanum Tafreshi, the third of his eight wives. She was born in Shiraz, during the dying days of the Qajar dynasty, in present-day Iran. She was the 15th of a total of 36 children, the third from his marriage to Massumeh Khanum Tafreshi.
Sattareh would grow up in Tehran as Reza Shah Pahlavi came to power. Their residence was in an area known as the Shah’s Garden, and Sattareh grew up in a compound with pools and gardens. The inner quarters where the children and mothers lived were known as the harem or ‘andarun’; the outer quarters were for the men, known as ‘biruni.’ Only four of her father’s wives lived with them; the others lived not far away – except one who had already passed away. His first wife was of royal blood and she had her own separate household. Sattareh had no sisters her own age and was sometimes let into the men’s quarters to play with her brothers. She later wrote in her memoirs, “My mother, therefore, sealed my fate as a part-time boy by sewing me a pair of yellow felt trousers, and I was constantly out of the door, reigning along with my next younger half-brother Abol over a small gang of rapscallions with all the authority of an elder sister.”1
Like her siblings, Sattareh received her education from private tutors at home, every day except for Friday. Her father believed education was important and she wrote, “Nothing is more important, he would admonish us, than your education. Don’t think that you can go about with your noses in the air because of who your father is, as though you were everyone else’s superior.”2 Her older brothers were often sent to Europe for their education. In addition to the tutors, Sattareh also went to a private school near the compound. With the majority of Persian women illiterate at the time, her father’s views on educating women were quite unorthodox.
In the autumn of 1933, Sattareh began to attend the American School for Girls in a Presbyterian missionary compound, and she loved it there. She wrote, “I loved having so many kinds of people around me, and was very curious about all the different kinds of homes, backgrounds, and beliefs I encountered at school.”3 Inspired by her brothers’ time in Europe, Sattareh asked her mother to speak to her father about her also going to Europe. To Sattareh’s surprise, her mother agreed to ask her father. However, he believed it to be a waste of money. He said, “She is a woman. A woman will be nothing.”4 Sattareh herself was devastated and humiliated but vowed to show him that women were not nothing.
In the meantime, Sattareh saw her elder sisters and cousins be married off, but for some reason, her mother vetoed many suitors for Sattareh herself. In 1939, her father suffered a stroke, and although he initially regained some of his strength, he eventually died later that year after a second stroke. Sattareh and the other female family members were not allowed to attend the funeral. Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to abdicate during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran on 16 September 1941. Sattareh wrote, “We were free. A kind of ironic miracle had happened, wrought by the Russian and English soldiers who now walked our streets, and it was if a dam, standing filled and motionless for many years, had finally burst.”5 However, Reza Shah Pahlavi’s son replaced his father as Shah.
Sattareh wanted more out of life than being a wife and mother. In 1942, she approached the teachers of the American school she had attended to see if they could help her find a school in the United States. In May 1943, Sattareh was accepted into a small missionary school called the Heidelberg College in Ohio. She managed to obtain an Iranian passport and applied for a visa. It took until February 1944 for the visa to be approved; now, she just needed to find a way to the United States. She left her family behind – not knowing if her letters from the US would even reach them because of the war. She made the long journey to Bombay alone and boarded a freighter. However, the ship was torpedoed but Sattareh managed to escape on a lifeboat. She wrote, “For the first time, I fully understood how rash I had been to leave in wartime and realised with something close to hysteria that I might never see Kahnom, Dadash, and my brothers and sisters again.”6 She made a second attempt two weeks later on the USS General Butler.
- Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution by Sattareh Farman Farmaian p.21
- Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution by Sattareh Farman Farmaian p.25
- Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution by Sattareh Farman Farmaian p.88
- Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution by Sattareh Farman Farmaian p.130
- Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution by Sattareh Farman Farmaian p.180
- Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution by Sattareh Farman Farmaian p.213