|Princesses Qajar: Princess 'Esmat (left) and Princess Fatemah of Persia (right).|
The only fact about this historical meme is that at that time, it was fashionable for Persian women to wear mustache. “Many Persian-language sources, as well as photographs, from the nineteenth century confirm that Qajar women sported a thin mustache, or more accurately a soft down, as a sign of beauty,” explained Dr. Afsaneh Najmabadi.
The memes and fake stories circulating online refer not to a single princess, but actually to two female dynasts: Princess Fatemah Khanum"'Esmat al-Dowleh" and her half-sister, Princess Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Saltaneh. Their father, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, ruled Persian from 1848 until he was assassinated in 1896. He was the third-longest reigning monarch and the first Persian sovereign to formally visit Europe. The shah took a constant liking to literature and photography and it was he who took a picture of his own daughter, 'Esmat, the very pictures that went viral online. Since the image was taken in the mid- to late 19th-century by the Persian king himself, the news, therefore, saying the images were taken in the early 1900s are totally baseless.
As to the 13 men killing themselves over unrequited love, it is probable, according to historian Victoria Martinez, that ‘Esmat was already married off before she even turned 12. The marriage was most-likely arranged since that was the custom of the day, leaving her no time to meet any man other than her male relatives.
Another member of the Qajar dynasty that the memes may actually refer to is Princess Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Saltaneh, 'Esmat's half-sister, who gained posthumous fame for cutting across superficiality and materialism to become one of the first progressive Iranian women. Married to Amir Hussein Khan Shoja'-al Saltaneh, they had two sons and two daughters, but their marriage ended in divorce, probably unheard of at that time, especially in conservative Persia.
An intellectual, a painter, and a writer, Princess Zarah would hold literary salons at her house once each week. As a feminist, she helped establish Anjoman Horriyyat Nsevan or The Society of Women’s Freedom, an underground organization that has been championing Iranian women’s rights since 1910.
A staunch critic of her equally literary, but still conservative father and brother Mozaffar-al-Din Shah, she ditched the hijab to don Western clothes in court. Way before they became popular in the West, she already ventured into writing Iranian diaspora women’s memoirs. Her work, Taj-al-Saltaneh was finished in 1924, but it was not published until 1983 in Publication of Iran’s History. In 1996, a collection of her memoirs was released in a book titled Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity 1884-1914. The writings “cover a thirty-year span of a rapidly changing era… a curious blend of the reconstructive and reflective… bring home the intense conflicts of a life straddling the harem and modernism,” according to a review by Times Literary Supplement.
The original manuscript of Memories of Taj-al-Saltaneh was never found, though it has been believed to be in the possession of Rahmat-ollah Da’ee Taleqani, whose manuscript became the basis of the book’s very first version. Tadj es-Saltaneh was the subject of the poem “Ey Taj”, written by Persian poet Aref Qazvini.
During their lifetime, ‘Esmat and Fatemah refused to be defined either by their appearance or convention. Their accomplishments resulted not by how they looked, but, according to Martinez, being "women of merit and substance whose stories deserve to be told and perpetuated in a respectful and meaningful way, not diminished and ridiculed."