Persia/Chapter 29

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search





The women of Persia, like those of all Mahometan countries, receive no moral education whatever. When they have learned reading, writing, and embroidery, their education is finished; and those things they are taught either by females hired for the

purpose, or at the schools which they frequent till they have attained such an age as not to he permitted to go abroad without a veil. Neither dancing, music, and other accomplishments, nor reading and study, ever develope or heighten their natural graces, or enrich their minds. Living shut up in a harem and being visited by none but females, society never forms their manners; the power of human respect opposes no barrier to their passions, to the vices of their hearts, and to the extravagances of their disposition: the intercourse with women perverts rather than purifies their morals. The mother exclusively superintends the education of her daughter, and faithfully transmits to her defects which were not corrected when she was herself young: virtue and modesty are terms which she never utters in her hearing, for they are terms as unmeaning to the one as to the other. She familiarizes her with but one idea—that she is one day to belong to an absolute master, whose love she must strive to acquire, not by practising the virtues of her sex and condition, but by the arts of refined coquetry, which, though they may excite passion, are an antidote to true conjugal tenderness, which is founded on mutual esteem and regard. She does not teach her how to become a good wife and mother, or inculcate that modesty and that chaste reserve in all her motions, language, and actions which adorn beauty and embellish plainness; but she enjoins her not to go abroad without muffling up her face and her whole person; not to look at a man, nor to engage in any intrigues; if, however, she does not instruct her in the art which she has herself learned by experience, of bringing them to a fortunate conclusion.

Thus the females of Persia receive no other than a physical education, the care of their morals being left to nature, till the moment when example corrupts them. Hence we need not be surprised at the unfavourable character given of them by travellers.

The Persian women, like the Indian, says Mr. Scott Waring, are totally devoid of delicacy: their language is often gross and disgusting, nor do they feel less hesitation in expressing themselves before men, than they would before their female associates. Their terms of abuse or reproach are indelicate to the highest degree: it may safely be averred that it is not possible for the imagination to conceive, or language to express, more indecent or grosser images.



We never think of the women of Asia, without deploring the severity of their lot. We figure them to ourselves thwarted in all their inclinations, restrained in all their actions, watched with degrading vigilance, exposed to the caprices, the insults and torments of jealousy: compelled to regulate their habits and actions by the wishes of an imperious master; torn from their parents, the protectors of their childhood, and the companions of their early years; disappointed in the hopes which their youthful imaginations had fondly indulged; floating incessantly, according to the whim of their lord, between the condition of mistress and that of slave; lastly, doomed to live imprisoned in a harem, and to receive the caresses of an object for whom they can feel no other sentiment than hatred—what pleasures could ever make amends for the horrors of such a life?

Mirza-Abu-Taleb, a Persian, who resided some time in England, and committed to writing his observations on our manners, which were afterwards given to the public in an English dress, has endeavoured to prove, in his work, that these women, who are the objects of our pity, enjoy a condition far preferable to that of European females. It is curious to see how he establishes so extraordinary a position.

Six reasons, according to this writer, cause us to think that the women of Asia have less liberty than those of Europe:— 1. The little intercourse which they have with the other sex, and the seclusion in which they live. 2. The power granted to men, by law, of marrying four wives. 3. The right of divorce possessed by the husband. 4. The small degree of credit attached to the testimony of women. 5. The custom which forbids women to be present at public diversions, or to use personal ornaments after the decease of their husbands. 6. The custom which denies females the liberty of rejecting a husband.

Abu Taleb does not strive to overthrow the first of these reasons; but he asserts that the liberty enjoyed by our European women is a calculation of interest. If we live in the same apartments with them, and admit them to our repasts, it is because we cannot afford to keep up two establishments: if they share our beds, it is owing to want of room and the coldness of the climate; if they go abroad without restraint and intermeddle with our affairs, it is on account of the duties which they have to fulfil, and the experience in business which it is necessary for them to acquire. "As to the perpetual seclusion to which the Asiatic women are condemned, this Persian denies its severity and extols its advantages. These females, he says, have not the least desire to go abroad; what with us is a pleasure would be to them a derogation from their honour: they would think themselves contaminated by mingling with the vulgar, and by the contact of rude and brutal passengers in the streets. Besides, as well from habit as inclination, they are fond of repose, which they prefer to the activity of a European life: and it is easy to appreciate the advantages of seclusion, from the time which it affords for useful employments. It is wrong to suppose that they are debarred from any liberty and from the society of men. They may enjoy the company of the relatives of their father and mother, end that of their aged domestics; they may go in palanquins to the houses of their relations, end to visit women of their own rank, without giving their husbands previous notice of their intentions; and they may walk in the gardens, after they have been cleared of persons of the other sex.

The privilege given to men of marrying several wives, seems, says Abu Taleb, to arise out of the nature and physical constitution of women, which require temporary separations. The laws of Asia, in permitting polygamy, do justice to the one sex without wronging the other. The honour of the legitimate wife sustains no injury from it; for a female who surrenders her person to a married man is never of superior condition, neither is she admitted into the society of ladies, but treated in the same manner as a kept mistress is in Europe.

The notion that all Asiatics have four lawful wives, is very erroneous; for in general, they have but one.

The husband rarely avails himself of the right of divorce: on the contrary, divorces are almost always granted against his will, and at the solicitation of the wife; for he prefers the infliction of some punishment to separation from her.

The inexperience of women, and the levity of their character, furnished occasion for that article of the law which requires the testimony of four of them, in cases where the declaration of two men would be deemed sufficient.

Attachment to a husband, and respect for his memory, naturally suggest the custom practised by the Asiatic women, of abstaining after his death from diversions, sumptuous apparel, and jewels. How can they bestow attention on dress and on the pleasures of the world, when their souls must be overwhelmed with grief? Feeling and decorum alike prescribe this line of conduct.

In Europe, the liberty allowed to females of choosing a husband is merely ideal; for after all, it is the will of the father only that authorizes and sanctions their choice: in regard to this point, therefore, our customs perfectly correspond with those of the East.

Having thus combated the reasons which give us false notions of the condition of Asiatic women, Abu Taleb enumerates under eight heads the advantages conferred on them by custom and the laws—advantages not enjoyed by the women of Europe. They are in substance as follows:—

In the East, custom grants to the wife large claims on the property of the husband; this is one of the results of despotic power. As the fortune of the latter depends on the good pleasure of the sovereign, he makes it over to his wife, such property being always secure. It is frequently the case, that in his old age he is reduced to indigence, and that, however extensive his possessions, he is obliged to be satisfied with the alimony which she allows him, because, in the eye of the law, he possesses nothing.

It is custom also which gives the mother absolute power over the education of the children. Their settlement in life depends on her will: her opposition alone prevents a match projected for them by the father, whereas the opposition of the latter would be no obstacle to the conclusion of one if decided upon by the mother.

The wife possesses all the authority over her own and her husband's servants. She may punish or discharge them at pleasure, without fear of being thwarted or crossed: she is not put to the trouble of doing the honours of a company or a table, or obliged to go through any of those tedious ceremonies, which, in my opinion, says Abu Taleb, could not fail to render the lives of European women most irksome, were they not made subservient to coquetry and vanity.

This same female, whose servitude we deplore, acquires, on entering the harem, the imprescriptible right of tormenting her lord; nay, it is an essential and integral quality of beauty.

Her own interest would compel her, were she not led by inclination, to resort to the arts of coquetry; her caprices enhance the value of her charms; the waywardness of her humour, the fickleness of her disposition, and her imperious temper, are qualities which, in the estimation of fondness, far surpass the timid submission of an affectionate and virtuous wife. If she were mild and gentle, she would be overlooked; forward, capricious and dissipated, she is adored. Thus, on all occasions, she causes the pleasure of her presence to be purchased by the delay which precedes the grant of it; and if she goes abroad to pay a visit, she does not return to the harem till her husband has sent several times after her. It is amusing enough to find Abu Taleb reckoning liberty, and the confidence of the men in the virtue of the sex, among the advantages of the condition of Asiatic women. In Europe, he observes, a woman may indeed go about where she pleases, and converse with strangers, but yet she never stirs a step without being accompanied: whereas, in the East she might absent herself several days, and pass them with her relatives or friends, even without the permission of her husband.

In case of divorce, the laws of most European countries deprive a mother of the children whose education has occupied the best part of her life. In Asia, she retains the girls; the law allowing the father to take the male children only.

Lastly, the woman who is ill-treated by her husband can quit his house to seek an asylum with her father or some other relation: and she absents herself, till due reparation is made for the affront offered to her feelings.

Such, according to Abu Taleb, are the advantages as enjoyed by females in the East. Without pretending to examine whether they are real or chimerical, we shall confine ourselves to a few remarks on one point, that is, liberty.

For Asiatic women, there is really and truly no such thing as liberty. The very circumstance of their being allowed to leave their homes for several days, seems to be a fresh proof of the jealousy of man rather than of his confidence in their virtue. A Mahometan, who tolerates the absence of his wives, well knows, that in quitting his harem they have merely changed their prison, and that in their temporary abode they will be not less carefully watched and secluded from the society of men than in his own house: his security therefore springs from his confidence in the jealousy of another.

It may admit of a question, whether the privation of this liberty be so great a hardship as we suppose. Most probably it is not. We judge in general of things by comparing them with our own customs, manners, and opinions; and hence the erroneous notions and ideas that we form. Pleasure and pain depend much on habit; what pleases in one country, disgusts in another. We are unable to conceive a more wretched condition than that of a woman whose life is passed in a harem; but this woman, who from disposition and habit is fond of repose, who has never known the pleasure of attracting the attention of the other sex, and eclipsing her own in personal charms, and in splendour and elegance of dress, cannot imagine that in other countries a female would compromise her honour, her dignity, and her modesty, by exposing her face unveiled to the public eye, and mingling among crowds of pedestrians. Of course, she does not complain of being deprived of a liberty adverse to her manners; for she cannot regret the want of that which she knows nothing of.

It is to be presumed, however, that the degrees of happiness enjoyed by a Persian female vary according to her condition. She, whom fortune has placed in the middling class of life, and whose husband's circumstances and rank are too low to admit of his keeping several wives, must naturally be happier than the female destined to grace the harem of a grandee, where she will groan under the yoke of a eunuch.



The occupations of the Persian women are more diversified than might be supposed. They spin, embroider, work with the needle, and make their own apparel. They superintend also whatever relates to the interior of the house; they keep an account of the daily expenditure, deliver out the provisions to the servants, pay their wages, adjust their disputes, and even see that proper attention is paid to the horses. In every house of any consequence, there is a eunuch, called nazir, steward, with whom the mistress of the house daily consults, and decides on every thing relating to the servants and domestic concerns.

Sir Robert Porter gives the following lively picture of the employments of women belonging to what may be called the middling class. The originals after whom it was delineated were the four wives of a man in whose house he was entertained.

From the hour of rising, says this traveller, to that of going to rest, the house sounded with one continual clatter of female voices mingling with the cries of children and the bustling clamour of varied occupation. These women do all the laborious part of the household establishment, each having her own especial department, such as baking the bread, cooking the meat, drawing the water, &c.; and though the latest espoused is usually spared in these labours and the best dressed, still the whole party seem to remain in good humour, no appearance of jealousy disturbing the amicable routine of their proceedings. When their lord shows himself among them, it is like a master coming into a herd of favourite animals; they all rush forward, frisking about him, pleased with a caress; or frisking still, if they meet with a pat instead.—The four wives of my worthy host retire at sunset from their domestic toils; and each, taking her infant and cradle to the roof of her division of the house, not forgetting the skin of water she has brought from the spring or well, deposites her babe in safety, and suspends the water-case near her bed on a tripod of sticks, in order that the evaporation may cool it for the night or next days's use. To preserve the amity between these ladies, which had so excited my admiration, our communicative host told me that himself, in common with all husbands who preferred peace to passion, adhered to a certain rule of each wife, claiming in regular rotation the connubial attentions of her spouse.—Wherever this monopoly of many women exists, there we find the softer sex regarded by man with a contempt which gives the loveliest bride, or the most respectable mother of his children, scarcely higher rank in his esteem than the best mare in his stud, or the dog that is his favourite to-day and totally neglected to-morrow. In proof of this Mahometan disparagement of women in general, it would be deemed the height of impropriety, while addressing a person of noble quality here, to hint at the female part of his family; and were even the most beloved wife of his bosom at the extremity of some dangerous illness, if a male friend were to make the slightest inquiry after her health, it would be deemed the grossest insult.

Of this remark we find a striking illustration, in a subsequent part of the work of the same entertaining traveller. In his journey from Persia through Asiatic Turkey, he fell in with a party belonging to Abdul Hassan Khan, then Persian ambassador in London. These people were returning from England to Teheran; and under their charge, mounted on a sorry post-horse, was the Fair Circassian, whose appearance both in Paris and in London excited at the time so strong a sensation. She was noticed by the European ladies with much kindness; but the style in which our traveller now beheld her must have formed a sad contrast to what she had then experienced. When the poor creature, says Sir Robert, discerned, on approaching, my Frangy (European) appearance, she was riding forward to address me; but in a moment a rough fellow who was her conductor laid his whip over her shoulders, with so terrible an admonition into the bargain, that closing both her lips and her veil, she travelled on, doubtless with heavy recollections. To interfere in behalf of a woman so situated, would cast a sort of contamination on her, and only redouble her stripes.



The Persians differ as much from us in their notions of beauty, as they do in those of taste. A large, soft and languishing black eye constitutes with them the perfection of beauty, and diffuses an amorous softness over the whole countenance, infinitely superior to the piercing and ardent glance of majestic beauty. It is chiefly on this account that the women use the powder of antimony, which, although it adds to the vivacity of the eye, throws over it a kind bf voluptuous languor, which makes it appear dissolving, as it were, in bliss. Thus the chief characters of beauty with them are eyes like the antelope's, a full-moon face, and the stature of the cypress; but there are secondary ones, which the poets are fond of celebrating. Ferdousee, in the Shah Nameh, thus describes the females of Touran:—"Their stature is tall, like that of the cypress, and the locks of their hair black as musk. Their cheeks are covered with roses, and their eyes full of languor; their lips are sweet as sugar, and fragrant as the rose."

"Hark, O moon!" exclaims Hafiz in his Odes; "fresh spouse of heaven; show not thyself above the horizon, for we this day behold the full moon of the face of my beloved!"

"Ah! how admirable is thy form! how delightful thy converse! thy charms and thy gentleness enchant my soul. Thy heart is as tender as the bud of the rose is fresh; thy beauty is equal to that of the cypress of the eternal garden!"

Djami describes the charms of Leilah, in these terms:—"Her figure was tall and elegant, and in her graceful gait she resembled the partridge of the mountains. Beautiful without the assistance of art, nature had given the most delicate rosy tinge to her cheeks, radiant with freshness; her eyebrow was like a delicate bow, formed of precious amber, and her eyelashes, like so many little darts of musk, pierced all hearts; her lips had the lustre of rubies without their hardness. Her enchanting smile displayed teeth as white as the purest pearls; you would imagine you beheld the bud of the rose gemmed with the tears of morning."

Many of the women of Persia are as fair as those of Europe, but confinement robs them of that lovely bloom so becoming and so essential to female beauty. The Persian women have a curious custom of making their eyebrows meet; and if this charm be denied them, they paint their forehead with a kind of preparation made for the purpose.

The Persian ladies not only dye their hair and eyebrows, but also stain their bodies with a variety of fantastic devices, not unfrequently with the figures of trees, birds, and beasts, sun, moon, and stars, as we read was the practice of our ancient British ancestors.

This sort of pencil-work spreads over the bosom, and continues down as low as the navel, round which some radiated figure is generally painted. All this is displayed by the style of their dress, every garment of which, even to the light gauze chemise, is open from the neck to that point.



The dress of the Persian females is simple, being composed of a much smaller number of garments than that of the European women. A Persian lady, when at home, does not load herself with clothes; and in her finery she seems to attach very little value to beauty of form. Very ample trowsers of thick velvet cover the whole of the lower part of the body down to the heels. Over these trowsers is worn a peerashun or chemise of muslin, silk or gauze, which is open in front nearly down to the waist, and buttons down the bosom by means of a number of loops and small buttons of silk, gold, or silver. Over the peerashun is generally fastened a girdle of skin, covered with cloth or silk, embroidered, and decorated with a plate of gold or silver, and precious stones. Such is the summer costume. The winter dress is the same, with the addition of a short upper garment resembling a jacket, and shawls in which the women wrap themselves as a protection from the cold. The covering for the feet is a kind of slipper, with a sole of ivory, metal, or some hard sort of wood.

When they leave the house, they put on a cloak which descends from the head to the feet, and their faces are concealed with oriental scrupulosity. The veil which they wear, is sometimes worked like a net, or else two holes are made in the cloak for their eyes. It is curious to see a number of tall and elegantly formed figures walking in the streets, and presenting nothing to your view but a pair of sparkling black eyes, which seem to enjoy the curiosity they excite. The veil seems to be essential to their virtue; for as long as they can conceal their face, they care not how much they expose the rest of their person. The women in Persia are the only people who wear jewels and use perfumes; and this is a privilege in which they take much delight.

The hair is almost always arranged in tresses, which fall down behind. That in front is cut short, and turned up from the forehead. On the sides, it descends in ringlets over the ears and cheeks. The ends of the tresses are adorned with pearls and clusters of precious stones, or ornaments of gold or silver. The bandeaux, diadems, and caps, vary in form according to the caprice of the inventor, or the taste of the wearer: they are more or less costly, according to the circumstances of the individual. Shawls alike cover and adorn the head in a thousand different ways: they fall down the back over the shoulders, twist round the neck, or are fastened on the crown of the head, without any other rule than taste to determine their position.

The dress of women of the lower class has a rather dismal effect: it is commonly of a very dark brown colour. The trowsers, chemise, and veil, are of one and the same cloth. In this attire, the wearers always look as if they belonged to a funeral procession.