Enslaved African Women in Nineteenth-Century Iran: The Life of Fezzeh Khanum of Shiraz

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:50 PM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Anthony A. Lee, West Los Angeles College
This paper examines the life of an African slave, Fezzeh Khanum, in the household of Sayyid ‘Ali-Muhammad of Shiraz, known as the Bab, the founder of the nineteenth-century religious movement known as Babism.  Through an examination of her life, we can begin to fill the enormous gaps in our knowledge of the experience of enslaved women in Iran.  My paper also suggests that a history of African slavery in Iran is possible, even though documentary evidence is lacking, through the use of individual biographies. African women were brought to Iran as slaves in large numbers, beginning in the nineteenth century as part of the Indian Ocean slave trade. While there is no definite historical data on the number of slaves exported from East Africa as part of this trading network, estimates among scholars for the nineteenth century vary from between one and two million.  Possibly two-thirds of these slaves were women and girls.  In Iran, there was some use of male slaves as laborers for public works, and some were conscripted into the military.  However, by the mid-nineteenth century, African slaves were almost always destined for residence in Iranian households as servants and concubines. The paper will discuss Fezzeh Khanum’s life as she lived at the center of the Bab’s household and family.  Although she was honored, and even venerated by Babis, she remained subordinate and without a voice of her own. The paper will discuss how she was remembered in pious Baha’i histories of the early events of the religion and what these histories can tell us about African slavery in Iranian households and about the fate of individual slaves such as Fezzeh Khanum.