Taj al-Saltana was born in 1884 as the daughter of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, the ruler of Iran, and a minor Princess called Turan al-Saltana. Her parents were also first cousins. Much of what we know about her, she chose to share with us in her memoirs written in 1914.
Her early upbringing in the harem was entrusted to a black nanny and had little involvement from her mother. Taj grew close to her nanny and was known to prefer people of dark skin. Her nanny was a domestic slave and was most likely East African and she was nowhere near the only black slave in the royal household. Of her mother, Taj wrote, “She lacked the qualities required of motherhood. […] No, she was not to blame.” Twice a day, she was taken to see her mother and then escorted back. She was also taken to see her father once a day.
Taj described herself as being exceptionally intelligent and clever. At the age of seven, she was given a private tutor, who was also a eunuch (a castrated man). He was also related to her as he was her grandmother’s uncle – she estimated him to be around 40 to 50 years old. Taj was known to be stubborn and headstrong. She was severely beaten after playing a prank on the teacher that caused him severe burns. Despite her intelligence, she had no interest in learning.
At the age of 8, a husband was chosen for Taj, much to her horror. The chosen husband was the eight-year-old Amir Hussein Khan Shoja’-al Saltaneh. She fell ill with chickenpox shortly after the negotiations started and she was bedridden with a high fever for much of it. Her father gave his consent to the engagement, but the actual wedding would have to wait until she was at least 20 years old. She later wrote, “Ah misery! Of mankind’s great misfortunes one is this, that one must take a wife or husband according to the wishes of one’s parents. This bizarre custom does not stand to reason and is contrary to law.” For the engagement celebrations, she was dressed up and made up, later writing “I looked quite ludicrous. When I was given a mirror to take a look at myself I was shocked. A face so naturally pretty had been painted with rouge and ceruse and been transformed completely from its likeness.” This particular match did not take place.
After her father’s assassination in 1896, Taj married Hasan, later Shaja’ al-Saltana (“Valor of the Kingdom”) at the age of 13. He too was barely in his teens. She wrote, “Had I understood things better, perhaps this affection would have bloomed into love and become the means of our mutual felicity. There was no hindrance to my love for him. A young 13-year-old girl with a pure heart and desirable qualities very quickly opens her heart to love and companionship. Unluckily, however, he failed to recognise the way to happiness and rebuffed me, filling me with disgust for him.” It was to be an unhappy marriage. They spent their wedding night playing games and quarrelled over who the winner was.
He was often away from home, and Taj became lonely. She wrote, “My life was completely worthless and tiresome in my eyes.” Eventually, she fell in love with a “youth”, and she wrote, “One day I told him that I loved him. Little by little, my love for him grew and wiped away all my cares and sorrows. My broken, drooping heart had bloomed into a youthful freshness in this new springtime of love, and sorrow had bidden farewell.” Her husband eventually found out about the affair, plunging Taj into despair. She wrote that Hasan also had affairs, with both men and women.
About a year or so after the affair ended, Taj gave birth to her first child – a daughter. She wrote, “I loved her intensely from the moment of her birth, spending every hour of the night with her. The pure and genuine love emanating from the very core of this infant had completely obliterated my sorrow and made me very happy. I love no one aside from my baby, not even myself.” She would go on to have two daughters and two sons, though one son would die in infancy. In her memories, she also mentioned an abortion she had after her husband came down with gonorrhoea. At the same time, she learned of her niece’s death in childbirth. At three months pregnant, she asked a doctor to induce a miscarriage. She wrote, “Finally I told them (the doctors) what I had done. But despite their insistent questions, I refused to indulge the doctor’s name. I was given an antidote and through a difficult process, the fetus was aborted. My nervous condition, however, stayed with me.” She reportedly made three attempts at suicide, though she did not elaborate on them in her memoirs.
Over the years, Taj began to expand on her feminist thoughts. She wrote, “Persian women have been set aside from humankind and placed together with cattle and beasts. They live their entire lives of desperation in prison, crushed under the weight of bitter ordeals. At the same time, they see and hear from afar and read in the newspapers about the way in which suffragettes in Europe arise with determination to demand their rights: universal franchise, the right to vote in parliament, the right to be included in the affairs of government.” She was a great supporter of women’s right to lay aside the veil. She wrote, “The veiling of women in this country has spawned and spread thousands of corrupt and immoral tendencies.”
Taj and her husband also began to experience financial troubles, but she was determined to remain independent and sold her own jewellery. Sometime before 1906, her husband abandoned her. After this, she began to study music, French and painting and became more social. She adopted a more European way of dress and did not wear a veil in public. Although she desperately wanted to visit Europe, she was never able to go. In December 1907, her first marriage ended in divorce. She did not discuss her remarriages in her memoirs but in March 1908, she married Qullār-Āqābāši, although the marriage lasted only a few months, and she was divorced again in July 1908. In 1909, she remarried to Rokn-al-Salṭana, but we do not know how this marriage ended. In 1921, she described herself as being unmarried. She was reputed to have had many lovers, but there is no evidence of this. By the end of her life, she was also estranged from her children.
Taj died on 25 January 1936 in obscurity. “Bedridden and suffering intense and almost unbearable pain from an untold disease, she died thanking God and trusting that this penance for her sins in the lower world would save her in the world above.”1