In his study, "Women in Safavid (1501-1732) Iran: The Evidence of European Travelers," Ronald W. Ferrier uses the accounts of Safavid women by European travelers to supplement indigenous sources. He is careful to note that the travelers were mainly familiar with the upper levels of Persian society in Esfahan (the Safavid capital in Iran) which allowed them little direct contact with female society.
"Youthful Lovers" by Reza Abbasi
There were six types of women in Safavid Iran: "the married wives of those in the upper reaches of society"; the "large rural sector living in a more communal manner in tribal associations up and down the countryside and in permanent agricultural settlements in villages and small towns"; "those engaged in arts and crafts and industrial activities in a more organized manner" within towns and cities; those "who had contracted temporary marriages"; "the slaves of both sexes"; and the prostitutes (Ferrier, p384-385). The ways that these women particpated in the life of society may have differed, but in general, the women's appearances were admired. Persian men of high social status did however seek consorts from the Georgians or the Circassians, who were allegedly the most attractive.
Regular marriages were in the fullest sense of the term "arranged" marriages, usually done "by an attorney between people of a compatible temperament and comparable social status" (Ferrier, p386). "Lifelong celibacy was an unacceptable state, regarded almost as unnatural and impious" and "men were encouraged to experience sex at the earliest practical age, but girls were carefully protected until their wedding nights" (Ferrier, p386).
Divorce was available to both the male and the female, and remarriage was easy. "Although in the case of persons of rank there was a strong feeling of aversion to husbands being divorced by their wives" (Ferrier, p388). Additionally, "if a husband repudiated his wife he was obliged to return her dowry, but if it was the wife who sued for divorce she forfeited it" (Ferrier, p388).
Ferrier continues by stating that after marriage, the "quality of life for women wholly depended upon the disposition of their husbands" (Ferrier, p389). The travelers reported that the women "gave themselves up to idleness of body and spirit" and that "in this indolent atmosphere, there was little incentive or choice to be anything but passive objects of self-gratification" (Ferrier, p389-390). We know that this is not entirely true because on the one hand, these male travelers would have never been allowed into the women's quarters or baths, so they would not have seen what the women were exactly doing. Additionally, we have evidence of Safavid female patrons of the arts, which shows that some women had an active role in society.
Some women acquired power and wealth by being prostitutes, whose activities included singing and dancing, in addition to providing sexual gratification. Some prostitutes even "traveled in troupes with their own simple transport and organization" (Ferrier, p395). Additionally, the shah maintained a group of twenty-four of the most talented performers, whom he rewarded with lavish presents. The European travelers assumed that there were so many Persian prostitutes and their demand was so high that they were able to charge higher prices than in any other country, because "sexual desire was stimulated by warm climates and also by the skills of girls who were marvels of enchantment" (Ferrier, p394 & 396). This may also be because "respectable" women kept chaste until marriage and men were encouraged to have sexual experiences at the earliest practical age (Ferrier, p386).
Representations of Women in Safavid Art
Shah Tahmasp ordered to rewrite the Shahnameh (epic of the kings) of Ferdowsi the longest poem in the history of world literature and also to be illustrated with miniature paintings. The illustrations are principally representations of Shah Tahmasp's courtly environment. Women were depicted as well in the manuscripts. In the majority of the courtly scenes and encampment scenes, male and female space are distinguished, whether separated by tents or buildings. Thus women are portrayed, but placed in a space separate from that of the men.
In the palace scenes, women attendants used to wear white headscarves and work with men in two separate kitchens. The Shahnameh is also known for using "peeping females" in which the women are portrayed constantly observing and or eavesdropping on the world of men. There are also secluded niches and elevated spaces distinguished for the females, perhaps to emphasize the separate yet similar world in which the men and women of the court lived.
Some say that these types of environments are similar to those in which women of the Safavid court received their education in the sciences, religion, and arts. The texts talk about the women being informed and active participants of courtly life, which is well represented in the miniatures.
Poetry had an influence on Safavid culture and art. Themes of lovers and princes dominated and their respective portraits did as well. Artists of the time such as Riza Abbasi of 16th century Esfahan did portraits of courtly youths and lovers, including women. The poets wrote of an ideal world of love, gardens, and princes, in which the women played a huge role. Just as in Timurid style, but perhaps with their own twist, Safavid artists depicted the women with round white moon faces, rose bud lips, and tiny waists. An example of this can be seen in the "Youthful Lovers" of Reza Abbasi. The court painters of Tabriz borrowed much from the Timurid style of painting yet they included their own fantastic elements as well, such as in "Court of the Gayumars."
Female Patronage from the Safavid Dynasty
Early Safavid women were distinctive from women in other Islamic societies because much power and respect was given to the pious and celibate unmarried sister or daughter of ruling men. These women, as a consequence, were active patrons of art, architecture, and religious institutions.
Tajlu Khanum, or Shah Begi Begum, favorite wife of Shah Ismail, donated many of her numerous properties to the shrine of Fateme ol-Massoumme in Qom, patronized other buildings at the shrine, built the dome of the Jannatsara at the shrine of Sheikh Safi at Ardabil, and the tomb of Shah Ismail at Ardabil in 1524.
Mahin Banu, daughter of Tajlu Khanum, patronized shrines and places of pilgrimage; set up foundations with her income from properties in Shirvan, Tabriz, Qazvin, Ray, and Esfahan; and established an endowment for the welfare of women.
Zaynab Begum, Shah Abbas' unmarried aunt, built bridges and caravanserais along the Qazvin-Sava trade route.
The later Safavid Dynasty saw a shift from only imperial women patroning architecture to both imperial and non-imperial elite women patroning architecture. This may be attributed to the fact that the Safavid imperial family was not extremely wealthy, which means that the non-imperial elite women would have had the opportunity to build.
Dilaram Khanum, the grandmother of Shah Abbas II, constructed the Caravanserai Jadda in 1642-45, the Caravanserai Nim Avard in the 1640's, the Madrasa of Small Grandmother in 1645-46, and the Madrasa of Large Grandmother in 1647-48. The caravanserais sold rich Indian cloths and other goods from both India and Shiraz. Additionally, Dilaram Khanum gave both madrasas waqfs (dedications of income).
Sahib Sultan Begum, daughter of the physician and ambassador Hakim Nezam ol-Din Mohammad, built the Ilchi Mosque in 1678-79.
Maryam Begum, daughter of Shah Safi, built a mansion in the early 18th century and a madrasa in 1703-04.
The mother (unnamed) of Shah Abbas II commissioned the construction of the Masjed-e Jami of Abbasabad in the mid 17th century.
Shahr Banu, sister of Shah Sultan Hossein, built the Madrasa of the Princes and the Bathhouse of the Princes in 1694-1722.
Zinat Begum, wife of the physician Hakim ol-Molk Ardistani, built the Madrasa Nim Avard in 1705-06.
Ezzat ol-Nesa Khanum, daughter of the merchant Mirza Khan Tajir of Qom and wife of Mirza Mohammad Mahdi, built the Madrasa Mirza Hossein in 1687-88.
As we can see, the Safavid women patroned mostly religious institutions. Through their belief in Shiism these women were able to add to the visual identity of the Safavid Dynasty through the patronage of architecture.