Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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Lily Amir-Arjomand was instrumental in creating libraries and cultural development centers for children in the last 15 years of the shah’s rule. Her Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults became a center for training artists and writers and for making movies and animated films for children. The institute survived the revolution and many prominent Iranian filmmakers, writers and artists began their careers there.
She was born Lily Jahan-Ara in 1938 to a family committed to education. She studied at the French school Razi in Tehran, where she was a classmate of Farah Diba, the future queen. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Tehran she went to the United States to continue her education. She received her Master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University.
Upon returning to Iran she married Hossein Ali Amir-Arjomand, a physics professor at Tehran University, and changed her last name to his.
While she was out of the country, her classmate had become the queen of Iran. Queen Farah was enthusiastic to promote arts and culture in the country and usually relied on her friends and relatives to help, including Amir-Arjomand.
She brought up the idea of a children’s library with Queen Farah, which she had been thinking about since her school days. The queen ordered that a parcel of land in a park be made available to her to realize her plan.
“At that time I did not imagine that one day the library would turn into a cultural center,” Amir-Arjomand told BBC Persian in July 2015. “We were just after a library. But from the early days, while we were waiting for the construction of the library to be finished, we came to the conclusion that one library was not enough and we must build other libraries in Tehran and other Iranian cities. We could not imagine that the work we were doing would expand to this level, but gradually and with its unprecedented popularity among children, things started to happen by themselves. Depending on the needs of community, the libraries were established one after another.”
Stationary libraries, however, did not satisfy her vision. She created mobile children’s libraries and distributed books, free of charge, to children in the underprivileged neighborhoods of Tehran whose parents could not afford books.
But she wanted more than simply buying books and building libraries. There were very few children’s available in the Persian language and she wanted to change that. Once again, Farah stepped forward to help her old classmate. The queen translated and illustrated Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The book was sold together with a 45-rpm vinyl record and, according to Amir-Arjomand, provided the seed money for a publishing house operating under the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults.
Besides heading up the institute, Amir-Arjomand took on a range of other roles, including head of the National Library, an associate professor at Tehran University and a board member of the Museum of Science and Technology.
The institute later added filmmaking, animation and theater to its activities, but Amir-Arjomand believed the libraries remained the heart of her enterprise.
When the Shah left Iran, revolutionaries ransacked royal palaces and seized photographs of parties in which the royal family and their friends had taken part. These photographs became the raw material for the new regime to accuse Amir-Arjomand of extreme “moral corruption”. They also quoted from two memoirs to prove their charges, one by the Shah’s mother and the other by the queen’s mother.
The Shah’s mother accused Amir-Arjomand of participating in sex parties. “Of course I was unhappy with Lily’s sexual recklessness,” wrote the queen’s mother. “When we travelled to [the Caspian Sea beaches], she would go for a swim stark naked and she did not care that dozens of guards were watching her.”
Despite these attacks on her reputation, the legacy of Lily Amir-Arjomand, who now lives in the United States, is safe: The Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults is still in operation, and turned 50 in 2015.
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