The Babis were the followers of the Iranian prophet Sayyid 'Ali- Muhammad Shirazi, usually known as the Bab (1819-50). After he announced his prophecy in 1844, his religion soon attracted bitter persecution by civil and religious authorities. In three places where there were significant concentrations of Babis, there was open fighting. The largest such conflict was in Zanjan, a small but strategic town in northwestern Iran . Here in 1850 a charismatic cleric known as Hujjat Zanjani led some two thousand Babi fighters with their families in an eight-month seige. The Babis, who carried out their defence with skill, energy, organization, and religious zeal, were aided by the incompetence and lack of enthusiasm of the government regular and irregular forces, eventually amounting to some 30,000 men. After eight months the Babi ranks had been reduced to fewer than a hundred fighters. When Hujjat was killed, the Babis surrendered, and most of the surviving men were executed. The women and children, after a brief informal imprisonment, were released.
Zaynab was one of two daughters of an elderly Zanjan Babi. When their father died, her sister married Hujjat and was killed by a shell near the end of the siege. Zaynab though protested that the prohibition of women fighting in the holy war had been abrogated by the Bab's new revelation. Having no brother, she ought to have the right to fight on behalf of her family in the holy war (jihad). She was allowed to cut her hair, dress in man's clothing and fight under the name of "Rustam- 'Ali." She is variously reported as having been in command of a platoon of nineteen men guarding a barricade or fighting independently where she was needed. She was killed during a sortie, having acquired a reputation among both the Babis and the beseiging troops for dash and valor.
Despite rumors that the Babis had "a regiment of virgins," Zaynab was evidently atypical. The Babi women did play an important support role remarked on by most of the historians of the siege, but for the most part they did not fight. In the simultaneous siege of the Babis of Nayriz in southern Iran, women also took an active part, but again are not recorded as fighting.
Zaynab, whose story straddles folklore and history, is most important as a symbolic figure. The Bab had challenged the very legalistic Shi'ite Islam by proclaiming the abrogation of Islamic law and its replacement with a new system of religious law. Moreover, many Babis believed that they were in an interregnum in which no formal religious law applied. Since Islamic law enforced strict gender roles, the activities of individuals like Zaynab symbolized to the Babis and their Bahá'í successors the liberating quality of the new revelation; to their Muslim opponents she personified the danger to the foundations of society posed by the new religion.
It is interesting that one of the Muslim clerics of Zanjan issued a ruling during the siege that Muslim women were obliged to participate in the jihad in Zanjan. There is no evidence that any did so.
Zanjani, Mirza Husayn. "Tarikh-i Waqayi'-i Zanjan," Bahá'í World Center MS 1632, pp. 55-56.
Sipihr, Nasikh al-Tawarikh: Dawra-yi Kamil-i Tarikh-i Qajariya, ed. Jahangir Qa'im-Maqami. Tehran: Amir-Kabir, 1344/1965 3:94.
Nabil Zarandi. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation. Trans. Shoghi Effendi Rabbani. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1932, pp. 549-52, 558-59, 563.
'Abd al-Ahad Zanjani, Aqa. "Personal Reminiscences of the Babi Insurrection in Zanjan in 1850," trans. E. G. Browne, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 29 (1897) 761-827.