Azar Besharat Moayeri

Image reproduced courtesy of Azar Moayeri

By Cristina Moreno Lozano

Azar Besharat Moayeri was born in Iran in 1945. At the age of 15, she was sent to study at Ellerlie Boarding School, in Great Malvern, near Worcester. She arrived in Edinburgh in the 1960s to pursue her studies, and became Edinburgh’s first female graduate in Chemical Engineering in 1967. After graduating, she worked for the National Petrochemical Company (NPC) of Iran, an institution responsible for the development of the petrochemical industry in the country. In 1981, she moved to Canada with her family. Soon after arriving in Vancouver, she began a family business which manufactures Canada’s first natural wax products. She still works at Parissa up to this date.

Gender and Chemical Engineering in Edinburgh

The degree of Chemical Engineering at Edinburgh started accepting students in 1955, but the Department of Chemical Engineering itself was only established in 1960, when Professor Phillip Hugh Calderbank was appointed the Personal Chair for this subject (he worked in this role until 1980). The 1960s were a period of important expansions and institutional changes for engineering in Edinburgh. In fact, the year of Azar’s graduation was a remarkable one, as it marked the move – at very short notice – of the department to the King’s Buildings. Up to that date, it shared its premises with its sister department of the Heriott-Watt College on Chambers Street in the centre of town. Students’ interest in engineering increased steadily over the years, growing from a total of 13 students graduating in 1941 to 137 students in 1982.

There are several records of women who graduated from the University of Edinburgh since the inter-war period. Caroline Haslett, an English electrical engineer and advocate for human rights, director of the Electrical Association for Women and President of the Women’s Engineering Society at the time, wrote in 1941:

No doubt, as in the last war, many women will learn the arts of engineering and will discover that their real vocation is engineering and neither teaching nor dressmaking. Is it too much to ask that a very small field of opportunity should be left to such women when “hostilities” cease?

Caroline Haslett, 1941

The first Scottish woman to matriculate in engineering is Elizabeth Smith (recorded as a student between 1911 and 1913), but she didn’t proceed to graduation. The records show that Smith became Managing Director of British Resourcing Manufacturing Co. Ltd. in 1916 and then (data unknown) became an administrative officer with the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF). The first woman to complete her degree in Engineering was Elizabeth Georgeson, from Glasgow, who graduated at age 24 in 1919. She seems to have worked for Safety in Mines Research Laboratory in Sheffield between 1926 and 1942. No further records have been found under her name (read more about Elizabeth Georgeson).

Haslett’s words resonate firmly when writing this story of Azar Besharat Moayeri in Edinburgh. What “hostilities”, as Haslett puts it, did she encounter in Edinburgh, I wonder? Twelve years after its starting date, the degree of Chemical Engineering saw its first female student graduate. She was not only a woman graduate, she was also a woman from Iran. How did she engage with her white male classmates? Did she enjoy her life in Edinburgh? On the day of her graduation in 1967, a photo was taken of Azar being held on the shoulders of her male classmates, among whom are young Roualeyn Fenton-May from South Africa and Armeane Chocksi from India, two well-known alumni with successful and highly-public careers. That year, four degrees were available at the University (including BSc Ordinary and BSc Honours degrees): Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering. A total of 96 students graduated with her: 26 civil engineers, 24 electrical engineers, 24 mechanical engineers and 22 chemical engineers. Azar confirmed with me that she was the only woman in the Department during her four years there. One woman among 95 students, some of whom were also from overseas.

When I asked her what she remembered from her university days, Azar mentioned the challenges she encountered for not knowing the names of tools and where and how they were used. “I remember once shouting at Fendon that I was not a man and did not grow up with tools and cars as toys, therefore I didn’t know them,” she said in one of the emails we’ve exchanged (Moayeri 2019, personal communication). Azar heartily acknowledges the role her dad, a man in a Muslim country at the time, had in her success as a student and professional woman. He not only equally encouraged and supported her education and that of her brothers, but also made sure Azar learnt how to swim or play the piano, which wasn’t that common at the time, she tells me. Azar also warmly recognises the early support she received from Ellerslie’s Principal, Miss Prior, who facilitated her entry to higher education by allowing her to attend chemistry at Malvern’s boys college (the only girl in the class) and taking private maths and physics lessons during lacrosse and field hockey matches.

Of her time in Edinburgh, she tells me there was a Men’s Club and a Women’s Club in the city. Women were allowed in the Men’s Club on Saturday nights only. However, she says she never joined, as she couldn’t understand the point of such segregation. She recalls living a “very metropolitan beautiful lifestyle” in Edinburgh, sharing a flat with three other women students (Greek, Armenian from Cyprus and Trinidadian) in Grindley Street.

A female engineer, petrochemical industry and Parissa

Science in the 1960s, and chemical engineering in particular, were portrayed as important trades, and there was high demand for “the armies of scientific manpower”, as Calderbank called it. This seems to me quite a fair description of the professional world in which Azar landed as a graduate woman. “Azar chooses a man’s world” is the headline of the newspaper article featuring this visually powerful photo of young Azar and her male colleagues during graduation (The Scotsman, 1967). “The masculine engineering world found a female recruit yesterday…in the shapely form of Persian Azar Besharat”, the article goes one describing, “the only girl to graduate from Edinburgh University’s Department of Engineering. “What attraction does engineering hold for a girl?”, they ask. In the text accompanying the photo, they go on describing how her fellow graduates “showed just how welcome her dazzling smile was to the engineering field by hoisting her shoulders high”.

Maryam Moayeri, Azar’s daughter, also sent me an extract of another newspaper article featuring her mother that day (source still unknown) which showed a photo of Azar and two other graduate women, which was titled “Brains and Beauty”, and described them as “three of the many eye-catching students” who graduated that year. When I read these descriptions as a woman scientist today, I am in fact quite disturbed. An eye-catching girl? Dazzling smile? I am aware these would be regarded as highly inappropriate by the public and the University today. I can’t help but wonder how Azar and other female students back then received them when they read these articles in 1967. This photo, astonishing as it is, cannot be viewed alone, disassociated from the text that came with it. Azar’s graduate took place in a particular social and cultural context, which situate Azar’s experiences of life and education at Edinburgh, and give real meaning to this brilliant photograph.

After graduation, Azar went back to Iran, where she was part of the engineering planning and the legal departments at National Petrochemical Company (NPC). When she recalls her twelve years at NPC, she tells me that she did extremely well, she was well-respected by her colleagues and went up the ladder quite fast.

The history of Iran’s petrochemical industry dates back to the 1910s, when William Knox d’Arcy, an English clerk who had made a considerable fortune in Australia, arrived in Iran to explore for oil with the aim of finding new adventures and investment avenues. He indeed found some, and founded the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which was later renamed as British Petroleum (BP). It was not until 1951 that the refineries and plants belonging to BP were taken on by the Iranian government and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) was created. In 1964, when Azar is being trained as an engineer in Edinburgh, the National Petrochemical Company (NPC) is established as a NIOC subsidiary. Only a few years later, Azar would come in for an interview which lead her to a successful career as a chemical engineer in her own country.

After the political turmoil derived from the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Besharat-Moayeri family moved to Vancouver. In June 1981, after a year in limbo in Greece, they arrived in Canada, at the height of one of the greatest recessions in the country. A successful chemical engineer with plenty of experience in business and leadership by then, Azar arrived in Canada after a successful career in the petrochemical business for over ten years, to start a new life as a migrant working woman. Soon after, Azar began a wax business – inspired by her husband’s family business back in Iran which produced sugar wax. She recalls “hitting every drug store in Vancouver in a very cold December, 1981, demonstrating the wax I had in hand to impress the cosmetician to buy the product for sale”. Some time after, the family founded their company, Parissa, and Azar formulated other varieties of wax to distribute. Parissa’s wax has been in the market for over thirty years, and is still a family business. When I asked Maryam Moayeri, Azar’s daughter and current director of Parissa Laboratories, what she thought inspired her from her mother, she told me it had “everything to do with her grit, resilience and positive attitude”. Azar indeed chose a “man’s world”, and throughout her professional career, she made it her own.

References

Birse, R.H (1983) Engineering at Edinburgh University : a short history, 1673-1983. Edinburgh: The School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh

Birse, R.H (1994) Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993: an illustrated history to mark the centenary of the Faculty of Science and Engineering 1893-1993. Edinburgh: Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Edinburgh

Calderbank, P. H (1961) The origins and purpose of chemical engineering. Edinburgh University, Inaugural lectures; no.8

Haslett, C (1941) Women in Industry. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 89 (4580): 150-164

Perry J and Carey C (1974) Iran and Control of Its Oil Resources. Political Science Quarterly 89(1): 147-174