Mahlagha Mallah, known as the “mother of Iran’s environment”, has devoted her life to raising awareness of environmental issues in Iran. Even on the verge of turning 100 years old, she perseveres in her efforts to protect Iran’s environment.
Mallah played a role in both the 1972 founding of Iran’s Department of Environment and the 1993 founding of the Women’s Society Against Environmental Pollution. Her approach to addressing environmental issues is holistic, cutting across public and private sectors and promoting comprehensive education on the environment for families, local communities, schools, and workplaces. Mallah believes that with sufficient determination, people are capable of resolving environmental disasters.
Mallah was born in 1917 to a religious family in which there had been generations of prominent women. She is the great-granddaughter of Khadijeh-Khanom Molla-Baji, the granddaughter of Bibi-Khanom Astarabadi (1857 - 1921), and the daughter of Khadijeh Afzal-e-Vaziri (1889 - 1980). Mallah’s great-grandmother, Khadijeh-Khanom, also known as Molla-Baji, was a chambermaid for Shokuh-o-Saltaneh, one of the wives of Iran’s monarch at the time, Naser al-Din Shah. Khadijeh-Khanom was an educated woman, which at the time was rare even in the Shah’s circle, and educated the Shah’s children at court.
Mallah’s grandmother, Bibi-Khanom Astarabadi, was deeply interested in women’s rights. In 1895, she wrote the audacious book Ma’ayeb-o-Rejal (Men’s Flaws) in response to the misogynist book Ta’dib-o-Nesvan (How to Discipline Women). In her book, Bibi-Khanom critiqued many sexist stereotypes about women.
Bibi-Khanom went on to found Iran’s first girls’ school, which she held in her own house; however, a virulent backlash led her to temporarily shut down the school. In the meantime, the defiant Bibi-Khanom began associating with some of the constitutionalists who were calling for political reform and writing articles in constitutionalist newspapers. After a year of tireless work, she finally managed to resume the girls’ school.
Bibi-Khanom dressed her daughter, Khadijeh Afzal-e-Vaziri, in boys’ clothing when she was young. She also chose a boy’s name for her daughter so that she could attend school with her brothers. Khadijeh, Mallah’s mother, was a feminist who staunchly opposed women’s lack of equal access to education and wrote many newspaper articles defending women’s rights. Due to a job working for the government, her husband, Agha-Bozorg-e-Mallah, travelled frequently between cities scattered across Iran.
Mallah was born in 1917, in Karvansara-ye-Abbasi, during a family trip from Tehran to Mashhad. Her father and mother encouraged her to go to school, so she pursued her education in Quchan and Mashhad. After completing tenth grade, she found that these cities offered no further educational opportunities for girls, so she decided to move to her aunt’s house in Tehran where she could earn her diploma. Having already studied English, in Tehran she started learning French at the Joan of Arc School.
She married Hossein Abolhasani at the age of 17. Abolhasani, born in 1920, was an employee of the Ministry of Education. He taught English in his youth, and during his retirement began translating books. Throughout Mallah’s environmental activism, her husband wholeheartedly supported her work by writing articles on environmental issues in the Jahan-e-Golmagazine. After more than 70 years of marriage, Abolhasani died in 2009, leaving a will requesting only that a tree be planted in remembrance of him.
Mallah received her Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and pedagogical sciences, and in 1958 she became one of the program’s first alumni to receive a Master’s degree in sociology. From 1963 to 1964, she corresponded with a Sorbonne University professor and then went on to obtain a Ph.D. grant at that university. Thanks to the support of her husband and mother, she was able to move to France to continue her studies in 1966; while there, she also finished a bookkeeping program at France’s National Library. After receiving her Ph.D. in social sciences, she returned to Iran in 1968.
Following her return to Iran, she worked at the University of Tehran’s library and as a bookkeeper until 1976. During this period of time, she also worked on organizing the Psychology Institution library. As part of her work, Mallah ordered the latest publications in an array of fields to include in the library’s collections. “I wanted us to have new books in the latest areas of science, and I received this book about environmental pollution in a box of books I had ordered,” she recalls. “I needed to file the book under the right category, but I had no idea what it was about. So I started reading it to decide where it belonged, and I ended up reading it cover to cover.”
She was so inspired that she began attending local meetings, workshops and seminars on urban pollution and the environment. After she retired, Mallah received an invitation from the General Inspection Office in 1978 to study pollution in Tehran. She accepted this invitation and began researching and analyzing pollution in the city. Her research concluded that Tehran’s cement factory ought to be moved to the suburbs and that its brick-baking factories should use liquefied natural gas as their fuel.
Later in 1978, following her study, she became determined to start a collective movement to fight for Iran’s natural environment. So, she started gathering information and learning about the experiences of environmental movements in other countries by contacting their embassies in Tehran; the embassies of Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and several other countries responded positively to her request.
However, the realization of the collective environmental movement she hoped to establish was postponed for some time due to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and, thereafter, the Iran-Iraq war. Ultimately, through perseverance and commitment, Mallah and her husband, Abolhasani, founded the Women’s Society Against Environmental Pollution, hereafter called ‘the Society’ – the first environmental protection association in Iran. The Society began its activities in 1993 and was officially permitted to start its work in 1995 by the Ministry of Interior; by this time, the couple was in their seventies.
In one of the organization’s first pamphlets introducing its vision, the Society stated: “Our planet, Earth, the legend of mobility and dynamism, demands that we join hands to protect its peace and existence. Let’s work together for a green Earth and a blue Sky.” The Society’s constitution describes its mission as carrying out “research and educational activities in order to empower every segment of local communities,” based on “the principle of education on the environment and people’s role [in protecting it].”
Although the Society’s membership is not exclusively women, the primary vision of the association is to encourage women to be at the center of environmental activities. The Society also works to cultivate an environmentally conscious culture through greater public awareness, in part by collaborating with the Ministry of Education to provide courses on the environment in Iranian schools.
Currently, the Society has 14 branches in Iran and is one of the country’s most widespread and active environmental NGOs. The Society is made up of a number of different committees, one of the most important of which is the training committee. This committee trains both Society members and members of the public of all ages and classes. The Society promotes training that enables participants to apply their new knowledge in their day-to-day lives and that “in practice leads to the protection of the environment and greater attention to nature’s hidden wonders.”
Point of View
Today, environmental issues attract great attention and warnings of impending threats. The former Agricultural Minister and current Secretary for the Revitalization Project of Orumieh Lake’s Committee, Issa Kalantari, has warned of the potential for a catastrophic drought in Iran in the near future. He asserts: “We are the reasons the current situation has occurred. We made it happen with our mismanagement of the Orumieh Lake’s water.” 
According to Kalantari, the looming situation is so catastrophic that “we have to discard political slogans,” as “Iran's biggest problem today is the environmental crisis, which has nothing to do with the left, the right, or even external enemies.” But decades ago, Mallah clearly saw the problems that authorities are only now recognizing. She and Abolhasani have continually stressed the vital importance of environmental issues in the magazine Faryad-e-Zamin (Cry of the Earth). According to them, people must learn to hear the cries of nature, as these cries represent the most serious threats to humanity: climate change, the melting of ice caps, the exhaustion of the Earth’s natural resources, poverty and hunger, a population that outstrips the planet’s capacity, and desertification. Hence, in order to prevent and overcome these threats, it is essential to educate the youth. Mallah and Abolhasani believed that we have aided in nature’s destruction in an inadvertent and hostile manner because of our ignorance of the natural environment, and that we have polluted the natural environment so badly that it is now sometimes hard for us to even breathe in it.
In their fight to protect the Earth and its water, they shed light on the concept of sustainable agriculture; in 2011, they translated and published a book on the issue that was based on a group project.
Even with successes such as this, it has not been an easy path for Mallah; she has had a hard time convincing her own family and friends to fight for the cause of conserving the natural environment. In her own words, it took 10 years until people close to her understood the significance of the environment and joined her efforts. However, Mallah, who encourages any individual’s choice in his or her efforts to protect the environment, chooses a specific lifestyle in her purchasing and consumption; she has a slight obsession, or rather a passion, with regards to the natural environment. For more than half a century, no one has seen her or her husband placing waste or garbage outside of their home. Mallah and Abolhasani have a hole that they dug in their yard into which they pour all of their waste; this waste then transforms into fertilizer for trees. They choose to use boiled water from the kettle, instead of bottled mineral water, in order to prevent even a single bottle ending up in nature. They do not purchase items if the packing used is not biodegradable. They never use Nylons. They use cloth-made napkins instead of paper tissues. Moreover, Mallah believes that this lifestyle is even plausible in an urban apartment lifestyle.
In addition to her individual efforts, Mallah reckons there is a considerable role in the social realm for politicians and policy-makers, and she has personally criticized and challenged them over mismanagements in regards to the natural environment. From her perspective, individuals in positions that can manage policies towards environmental issues have reduced these issues to mere fantasies and slogans and have not yet comprehended the calamities that are taking place. In addition, Mallah has also challenged the disproportionate management in the context of protecting natural environment and has emphasized the need to establish a separate ministry for the natural environment.
Mallah believes that financiers, with the backing of the government, have harmed the natural environment most, and that the government should support environmental initiatives, non-governmental organizations and eradicate unnecessary laws, obstructions and hurdles in order to help conserve the natural environment of the country. Mallah continues to write critical articles about the lack of care for issues relating to the natural environment. In one of Mallah’s articles, she highlights that there is an abundance of signs warning women to cover their hair in Iran, but a lack of ones teaching them about environmental issues.
Since the foundation of the Women’s Society Against Environmental Pollution, different environmental activists have used Mallah and Abolhasani’s house as a meeting place for discussions. Measures taken by the Society are decided upon collectively, as is the evaluation process by which they determine how to transfer ideas into practice and the tactics they will use, such as participating in protest-like gatherings in Tehran and other cities against environmental pollutions, challenging the lack of care and actions from authorities by writing letters to the Ministries of Education and Sciences, contacting university professors in order to convince them to provide education on the environment and, last but not least, taking pragmatic, effective actions.
Since its foundation, the Society has trained 25 thousand families in different parts of Tehran, encouraging them to separate waste from recycling and giving them helpful information and increasing their knowledge with regards to healthy drinking water.
In general, the Women’s Society Against Environmental Pollution has achieved these items:
- Establishing the project Earth’s Fans Society in schools, ratification for including the course Natural Environment as part of the mandatory curriculum for schools and training teachers on how to protect the natural environment;
- Ratifying the inclusion of a two-credit, optional course introducing the natural environment and related issues to university students;
- Ratifying the teaching of the natural environment to children in kindergarten;
- Training mediators for healthcare, the female housekeepers, in order to protect natural environments via clinics and granting diplomas to them;
- Training managers of governmental cooperatives in rural areas near Karaj and Shirvan-kala, protecting the natural environment by procuring composites and cleaning up villages;
- Training managers of governmental organizations about the natural environment in the 15th region of the Municipality of Tehran;
- Attending and participating in more than 300 conferences and workshops in Iran and other countries;
- Publishing the seasonal news & applied magazine, Cry of the Earth.
Mahlagha Mallah has been praised by different national and international groups and associations for her long, worthwhile service protecting the natural environment; for instance, Mallah was recognized as the most prominent figure in 2011 in the field of natural environment and natural heritage by the International Pasargad Salvation Committee, an organizations that grants awards to outstanding figures in different fields every year.
In December 2012, the “Shargh” Newspaper held a special event for Mallah, the “mother of Iran’s environment.” The following February, the Women’s Association of Historian Scientists held an event to extol her achievements; the association traditionally organizes an event at the end of each year to pay tribute to leading women in science, culture and social fields. During that year’s event, Fakhr-o-Sadat Mohtashamipour, a women’s issues activist and member of the Women’s Association of Historian Scientists; Nezhat Ahmadi, Vice-President of the Women’s Association of Historian Scientists; and Masoumeh Ebtekar, Head of the Department of Environment honored Mallah for her selfless service in regards to the conservation of the natural environment in Iran. In 2014, the wife of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held another celebration for Mallah in the Hafezieh Chamber of Sa’dabad’s Palace, where she was venerated before cabinet ministers’ wives, ambassadors residing in Iran and a group of female university professors.
In 2009, Negin Kianfar, with support and insight from Mallah's friends, made a short documentary about Mallah’s life, titled, Eve & Adam. Since its production, the film has been screened at several international environmental conferences, including in Brazil and as part of the show, Aparat, on BBC Persian. The film is a cut and paste from scenes of the couple’s actual everyday life. It depicts Mallah and Abolhasani in their house and Shemiran, their neighborhood in Tehran; shots of a warm interview and short dialogues with the couple; their participation in a gathering at a university; shots of their yard and the irrigation system to their garden taken by Abolhasani; documentary footage of symbolic jungle flames; the way that waste is accumulated and collected in Tehran; and at parts a voice over reading text superimposed on images. The name of the film has the name of Adam preceded by Eve, which is an indication of the greater role of woman, exactly as it is appeared in the views of Mallah and her spouse in their social activities.
Where is she now?
Mallah still lives in Iran, as the oldest civic activist in the country, and continues to participate in gatherings and debates about women’s rights and to fight for the natural environment. She attended the first meeting of organizers of the One Million Signature Campaign, which sought to bring about women’s rights in 2006, and was the first speaker of the meeting. She also supported the organization’s Mothers Committee, holding events in her own house. At present, she is still serving at the age of 96. For instance, she attended The Young Fans’ Army campaign in the winter of 2013, which consisted of children. Mallah still attends protests, like the protest for civic society against “Gasoline the Murderer, and Polluted weather” in the winter of 2011, which was organized by an independent women’s institute called the Women’s Civic Centre.
On the verge of 100 years old, Mahlagha still plants trees while sitting in her wheelchair. Mallah, the “Mother of Iran’s Nature” is still concerned about its offspring. The message of her efforts might be summarized as follows: Protecting the natural environment knows no time limit.
 - Jahan-e-Gol magazine was first published in Fall 2006.
 - Permaculture: A Designers' Manual by Bill Mollison, Yaran-e Mehr Publication, 2011.
 - Farhang-e Mardom Magazine, Issues 29 & 30, Spring/Summer 2009, pp. 163 - 166.
 - Unfortunately this video is not available online.