Maryam Firouz by Haleh Afshar, member of the Communist Tudeh Party.
Princess Maryam Firouz Farman Farmayan, who has died aged 94, was one of the last surviving members of the early and mid-20th century political feminist movement in Iran. The daughter of Prince Abdol Hossein Mirza Farman Farmayan and Batoul Khanoum, Maryam Firouz was born in the provincial city of Kermanshah and was educated in Tehran at the French school, école Jean d’Arc.
When she was 16 her father arranged her marriage to Colonel Abasali Esfandiary, an aristocrat, a graduate of Saint-Cyr, the French military academy, and son of the speaker of the Iranian parliament. The marriage lasted 10 years and they had two daughters. Out of respect for her father, the couple waited until his death before their amicable divorce.
By then it was the 1940s, and Maryam, embarking on an intellectual quest that was to have a lasting impact on her life, began to move towards communism, to the dismay of much of her family. Her conviction led her to disown the family name, Farman Farmayan, as too aristocratic for her Marxist ideals, and she adopted her grandfather’s name, Firouz, as her surname.
In the early 40s she joined the communist Tudeh (people’s) party, which had been founded in 1941, a move that attracted huge media attention and she was dubbed the “Red Princess”. She then married the architect Noureddin Kianouri, another upper-class radical, who had been trained in Germany, and taught at Tehran University. In 1945 he became a member of the party’s central committee.
Maryam meanwhile was one of the founder members of the Tudeh women’s organisation – the party having initially banned women members. She was also a famous hostess; she opened her drawing-room, very much in the French tradition of literary salons, and entertained artists and intellectuals. Her circle included the authors Sadeq Hedayat and Bozorgheh Alavi and the poet Fereydoun Tavalloli. Maryam was also connected to left-leaning members of the higher echelons of the armed forces, through her close friendship with Captain Khosrow Rousbeh, one of the founders of an informal Tudeh network in the army. Rousbeh was to be executed in 1958 by the Shah’s government.
In 1950, that government was under attack for its handling of negotiations with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – later British Petroleum. In April that year the secular nationalist, Mohammad Mossadegh, a cousin of Maryam, became prime minister. Mossadegh was committed to oil nationalisation, which triggered a crisis with the British. Maryam, by then part of politics at the highest level, was said to have been involved in the 1953 revolution that led to the brief departure of the Shah.
An Anglo-American-backed coup, Operation Ajax, toppled Mossadegh in August 1953, the Shah returned, the Tudeh party was banned, Mossadegh was arrested and Maryam and her husband went into hiding. It was the end of an era of optimism which was to have serious long-term implications for Iran – and for Maryam and her husband.
After three years the couple went into exile in eastern Europe. She continued her activities, working with Iranian women abroad and at the same time obtained a doctorate in French language and literature. She worked as a university lecturer, teaching French in East Berlin and Leipzig. These resulted, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in two trials in her absence in Iran. The first sentenced her to five years’ hard labour and the second to life with hard labour.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, Maryam and her husband returned to Iran. He was by then general secretary of the Tudeh party and during that short period, when the party was permitted to function, she headed the Iran Democratic Women’s Organisation.
In February 1983 Maryam, who was then 70, and her husband were imprisoned, and Kianouri was accused of spying for the Soviet Union. That April the party was banned and many of its members were executed. Maryam was kept in solitary confinement and fell ill. The severity of her illness eventually led to her release to house arrest. She rented a house with her daughter Afsaneh and lived on her German pension. A year later, her husband was allowed to join them, on the understanding that he would never speak to the media. In an open letter to Khomeini, Kianouri recorded a horrific catalogue of maltreatment and tortures meted out to him and his wife during their imprisonment. His death in 1990 was a sad blow to Maryam, whose health deteriorated.
But Maryam never lost her interest in politics and women’s issues. She devoured the papers and the few visitors, who were permitted to see her, provided her with gossip and the information that Iran’s press could not publish.
Maryam died in Tehran. She is survived by Afsaneh. Her other daughter Afsar, predeceased her.
· Maryam Firouz (Princess Maryam Firouz Farman Farmayan), political activist, born 1914; died March 23 2008