by Golbarg Bashi
The “boom” in prose writing by Iranian women authors in the 1990s within the context of the situation of women in contemporary Iran
It may be asserted that the Iranian political and ideological discourses have always had an influential effect on the Iranian literary development, regardless of the gender of its literary artists. Therefore discussion regarding literature’s change and developments due to political upheaval amongst women authors should be made within the context of the actual country’s political situation as well as facts in present and past history.
In this essay a history of Iranian women’s social and literary developments as well as their struggle for emancipation will be discussed. This is done firstly, in order to give an evident picture of their restrictions and progresses, which are matters that go hand in hand with discovering the reasons behind women’s flourishment in prose writing in post-Khomeini Iran. Secondly, a presentation of the historical background is necessary to consider, for a better understanding of the present developments in women’s literature. Thus, I believe it is useful to take a deeper look at Iran’s historical background where these literary developments are in-rooted… >>> Full text document with notes
Iranian women’s writing has always appeared under disadvantageous times and in every stage of history has been influenced by the political realities surrounding them. Female writers of prose literature such as Goli Taraqqi, Simin Dâneshvar, Shahrnush Pârsipur, and Moniru Ravânipur are some of the famous contemporary Iranian authors who have emerged during the past century and given the women of Iran a voice which have never been heard before. They have done this despite censorship, and have sold large numbers of books aside the acute paper shortages in the 1980s and Iran’s disastrous economic situation.
Famous pre-Revolutionary authors like Simin Dâneshvar, have started to publish and write remarkably more than in the Pahlavi era. Dâneshvar was the first Iranian woman to reclaim “the verbal space denied to women in Persian prose.” She was born in Shirâz in 1921, publishing her first collection of short stories Âtash-e khâmush (Fire Quenched) in 1947, she gained tremendous success with her novel Savushun (Mourners of Siyâvash) published in 1969, the first novel ever written by an Iranian woman. Savushun became a best seller for over two decades, selling about 400,000 copies by 1984 as well as being reprinted fifteen times.
Farzaneh Milani states, “unrivalled in Iran, it has been translated into English, French, Russian, Japanese, Uzbek, Polish and Turkish. Daneshvar is not only Iran’s first [female] novelist but one of the country’s leading writers. For over forty years, she has been a key figure in the unfolding of modern Persian literature.” However, Dâneshvar in her pre-Revolutionary writings did not manage to convincingly portray women with all their emotional and physical attributes, she wasn’t a feminist nor did she write feminist stories, no prose writer did at that time. Like all other ‘serious’ writers in the era of the Pahlavi Regime, she was a part of the committed literary scene, writing mainly of Iran’s political and social problems.
However, in her post-Revolutionary works she has abandoned her past forms and themes and has started to write personal stories from a feminist point of view. Her new themes are the ill treatment of women by men, the inadequate situation of women in the Iranian society and also her strong condemnation of old fashioned ‘arranged marriages’. Talatoff suggests that, “Daneshvar has revised some of her former works in the years after the revolution further indicating a shift in her literary approach.”
In her post-Revolutionary works, Dâneshvar “depicts a male-dominated, malecentered society in which women are oppressed,…but they are active agents who work their way around prevailing norms to maximize what power they have”. Thus, Dâneshvar becomes one of the many female prose writers who have become influenced and touched by the change of Iran’s socio-political structure after the revolution.
Subsequently, compelled to write about it, trying to proffer solutions and expressing her condemnation. Furthermore, Shahrnush Pârsipur a well-known contemporary female writer of prose literature born in Tehrân in 1946, with a Shirâzi family background, she started her writing career in the Shah’s regime but became celebrated in the 1980s following the publications of her popular feminist stories. She writes both in Iran and abroad. She spent four years in prison following the publication of a translation called Zanân-e român nevis (women novel-writers), in 1984.
In 1990, she published Zanân bedûn-e Mardân (Women Without Men) which became very controversial and in the mid- 1990s banned by the Islamic Republic. Some criticised it heavily, one critic wrote: “This book is written with total disregard for moral considerations and utter shamelessness [Bisharmi].” Others complained that her only talent is her shamelessness to say things others are too ashamed to say.
In Zanân bedûn-e Mardân, a story of several women in which the “characters speak of women’s sexual oppression throughout history, express their acceptance of their sexuality, ridicule chastity, and articulate resistance to the male-dominated culture.” In this novel, Pârsipur is radical when she challenges the “traditional notions about virginity,” doing this through the protagonists’ narrative and dialogues. In a section of the novel, Munis and Fâ‘ezeh, two of the women in the story have a discussion about virginity:
“Virginity is a curtain, my mother says, if a girl jumps down from a height he’ll damage her virginity. It’s a curtain, it can be torn.
-What are you talking about. It’s a hole. However, it’s narrow, and then becomes wide.” Munis, a twenty-eight year-old woman, had always thought that virginity was a curtain. As a child she had been forbidden to clime trees and freely play around as it could result in damaging the family’s honour if the ‘curtain would fall’. In Zanân bedûn-e Mardân, Pârsipur “shows critically how the normative sexual morality surrounding female virginity shapes the feelings, aspirations, and internal conflicts of women. It disputes those norms which usually justify violence against women and often lead to a sympathetic view of the violator. Parsipour demystifies sexuality, virginity, and rape by speaking frankly about them.” Thus, she “challenges the state ideology bringing to force the agony of living under an institutionalised form of male supremacy.”
Moniru Ravânipur a prominent post-Revolutionary female prose writer, she started publishing her stories after the revolution. She was born in the village Jofreh in 1954 and was brought up in Shirâz. She established herself as one of Iran’s best contemporary writers following the publication of her first novel, Ahl-e gharq (The People of Gharq). “This novel, like most of Ravânipur’s writing, takes as its subject the rituals, customs and traditions of the villagers of the coastal region of the Persian Gulf and the small town in southern Iran.
In her writing, Ravânipur focuses on women’s unequal status in the society and the reasons behind it, criticising male domination in Iran. Talatoff suggests that, “promoting the image of the women who ‘shout’ their suffering, Ravanipour adheres to a feminist notion of literature which pleads that women should be portrayed not as helpless victims but rather, as rebels. Addressing women’s oppression and struggle, she delves into the issues of gender relations.” Her main theme is that of all oppressed Iranian women, regardless of their social status. In the story Kanizu (The Slave), she portrays a young girl’s life in her own native environment.
Ravânipur with her Southern [junubi] experience and background gives Kanizu, the main character a truthful image. In her story, Kanizu is forced to marry a old and appalling man in spite of her strong refusal. The man rapes her as it is his marital right to sleep with his wife whenever he desires. In this story “the horrific encounters of child brides, are exemplified. The experience of Kanizu,…is made analogous to the situation of a goldfish chased by a shark.” Ravânipur is diverse in her descriptions, using different types of characters in her stories. Thus, she gives a true picture and voice to women’s unjust lives in both rural and urban areas. Her work has become so popular that it “has forced the literary establishment to recognise the importance of her work.”
Goli Taraqqi, is another pre-Revolutionary female prose writer who depicts women with authenticity. Born in 1939, she started her writing career in the 1960s and published her first collection of short stories entitled Man ham Che Guevara hastam (I too am Che Guevara) in 1969. Some of her works has been translated into English and French. In the early 1980s, she emigrated to France from where she has started to write about experiences of life in exile. A familiar phenomena known to most Iranians, male or female who left Iran mainly due to the troubled political situation following the Islamic Revolution and the start of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
In one of her post-Revolutionary stories, Khâne-i dar Âsemân (A House in the Heavens), Taraqqi portrays a old woman who becomes emotionally forced to leave her home and country when her son decides to emigrate to France. In this story, she gives life to a woman “with complex and contradictory emotions, Mahin Banu, whose motivations and whose difficulty in balancing her own needs with those of her children and the expectations of her culture, appear real and believable.”
Mahin-Bânu, after moving abroad becomes a gypsy without a home of her own, just like many other elderly Iranians. She keeps quiet about her pain and as always is psychologically forced to be the ‘typical’ Iranian mother who ought not have a life of her own and who is always supposed to neglect her own needs for the sake of her children’s happiness and comfort. But, Mahin-Bânu deteriorates from inside as a result of this and dies from heartache. She is unable to adapt to living abroad as she is a prisoner of her own past memories. She constantly remembers her past life, which was full of self-sacrifice for the sake of her culture, her authoritarian husband and her children but also a life in which she at least had a home of her own.
Taraqqi successfully portrays an old Iranian woman’s inner feelings, her love for her country and homesickness, her childhood in her father’s house, her adult life and the change, which the Iran-Iraq war and the revolution brought upon her by forcing her to leave everything familiar to her. One is clearly shown the stereotypical Iranian mothers’ hardships and one is also presented with disappointments and the regrets of exiled Iranians. Thus, Taraqqi writes literature close to her own experiences, she tells the story of the pain of emigration and condemns Iran’s political situation for it. She also blames the Iranian culture for betraying women. “Her fiction is singularly reflective of contemporary life in Iran or the lives of Iranians living abroad.”
In conclusion, one can suggest that women of Iran have always had an inferior status to the men in their country, but they have been equally influenced by the political and ideological discourses and events in their country, thus portraying it in their writing. Always aware of their unjust limitations and ‘God-given’ possibilities, they have been waiting for a chance to give rise to their concerns and demands.
After enjoying some ‘freedom’ during the era of the Pahlavi Regime, educated and intellectual Urban women felt seriously threatened by the sudden change in their rights following the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The upheaval in their lives together with legalisation of patriarchal restrictions, pushed them into writing about these matters. The feminist discourse which came about at that time resulted in women’s press openly criticising the regime’s policies on women issues, demanding progress, challenging the authorities, and making huge contributions in the society.
Furthermore, the abrupt growth in population and the noticeable increase in women’s literacy, especially in the rural areas, resulted in more and more women writing and the emergence of a large number of readers who recognise their own lives, the lives of their mothers or the lives of their female neighbours. As the women writers in today’s Iran come from a diverse social and ideological background, it is easier for the readers to recognise the oppression faced by women and are compelled to debate over it, trying to find a solution in the framework of the Islamic Republic. Women in today’s Iran are reinterpreting the Shari’a law and are criticising the Constitution, doing this in a society where such re-thinking has been unacceptable. They know that if they do not take action themselves, the government will not bestow them freedom.
Furthermore, the pre-Revolutionary authors of prose literature, have started to write even more than before, adapting a new feminist style, not limiting themselves to certain political ideologies. They have turned their attention to mainly women’s difficult issues. The exiled female writers’ urge to criticise the women’s situation in Iran as well as writing about feelings of homesickness and heart ache, on top of experiences of cultural clashes abroad, have all resulted in a large number of publications outside of the country.
With major themes in women’s literature being of “women’s lives in the past, women’s poverty, patriarchy, criticism of marriage traditions, and feministoriented politics,” post-revolutionary women prose writers have succeeded in showing all aspects of women’s social and personal lives in Iran. Thus, writing literature committed to vital female issues, real life issues, giving voice to Iranian women from all levels of life and social backgrounds and experiences. In books and articles the “religiously oriented women discuss issues from within the Islamic tradition itself, and the society seems to accept these changes with more ease and openness.
Women’s issues are no longer considered automatically as middle-class or bourgeois concerns.” Women’s writing has certainly become a ‘historic imperative’ in Iran. Secular women writers have joined forces with feminist Muslim authors, creating a feminist episode in Iranian women’s writing that is making a change, a change awaited for centuries by Iranian women >>> Full text document with notes
Undergraduate project at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Manchester University (May 2000).
Golbarg Bashi is a PhD student in the area of human rights in Iran at Bristol University, UK. She holds a BA (Hons) in Middle Eastern Studies (Manchester University), and an MSc in Women’s Studies (Bristol University). She has lived and travelled extensively around the world (Europe, US, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, India and Japan), and speaks Farsi, English and Swedish fluently. Her scholarly interests are in women, gender, Islam, the Middle East and press relations. Visit GolbargBashi.com.
November 25, 2005
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