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A room of one's own
12 min read

Go back to your house

The author, publisher and critic Fereshteh Ahmadi’s states in her essay that “vagueness” is a keyword for the understanding of contemporary stories by Iranian female authors. What is the situation for literature in today’s Iran? And what are the conditions for the female authors?

Credits Text: Fereshteh Ahmadi Translation from Persian: Hossein Shahrabi November 29 2018

Once upon a time, at the beginning of the 20thcentury in a country with a name out of misfortune always associated with political issues, some renowned men decided to do something for poetry and story-telling; something that had been done in Europe maybe a hundred years earlier. Even if the goal of these men was to raise artistic styles to new levels, it was concealed behind a more important aspiration: reform and finding ways to make the public more conscious and aware. In the literature of that era, simplicity in writing was widespread and the contents mostly concerned problems such as justice, the role and the situation of women in the society, science, knowledge and anything that could help the society to progress and evolve along a better path.

In such circumstances, the presence of women’s voice seemed necessary. So the daughter of one of the distinguished authors turned out to be a renowned “poetess”; she wrote about the same issues using the same style as those men[1]. Men supported her and although the governing regimes in Iran and their ideologies have changed she is still a (wo)man of letters and respected by “everyone”. The kids in school memorize her poems and there are awards and even streets and alleys in most cities named after her. More importantly, pictures of her face are the only woman’s portrait that can be published in textbooks, on billboards and in official brochures. Why? The answer is simple: she wrote about the issues that men allowed her to; not about herself or about the disease of womanhood.

Some years later, in the same country with a name still stained by politics, war and the coming and going of many foreign armies, another woman was born. When the Allies’ armies conquered this country and exiled its king/Shah to Johannesburg, there was a seven-year-old girl who had only 25 years to become a poet and “impregnate the dry and lifeless line of time with a volume”[2]. The ambiance of the society was undergoing fundamental changes. Once more creative “men” of letters supported the “poetess” but this time, unlike the previous men, their goal was not just the content; new thoughts needed new forms and these creative people decided not only to look at the outside, but on the inside as well. Our “poetess” looked deeper inside herself and tried to understand womanhood, tried to love and tried not to seek the approval of others in order to achieve freedom and “to remember the flight, because the bird was mortal”[3]. Her poetry was banned or censored by all regimes since then. Not only the official authorities, but also the people regarded her poems as audacious and bold and scolded the sensuality in some of her poems.

Both these poetesses died in their early 30’s. Both of them have left a collection of poems, that still remain and are renowned. And there are lots of stories and rumors about them. Yes, even a book has been published about the traditional poetess called Slander of Writing Poetry(tohmat-e shâeri)[4]. In this book, the author claims that all her poems actually belonged to a man and that she was imprisoned by the fame of being a poet(ess) all her life. The book is the story of a young man in love with the poetess, constantly trying to make a connection with her and when she refuses concludes that she is not a poet at all. The author meticulously has looked into her life and allegedly discovered that in her poems she has named places she’s never been to. He even gave the drafts of her poems to graphologists and claimed that they were not in her handwriting.

The other poetess also remains a matter of controversy. Books are still published about her to show her overt and secret affairs with men. But what is forgotten among these futile squabbles is this question: Why were these two women writing poems in such a manner? Why did they have such styles that they had? In order to understand their short but turbulent lives and write about the situation of this still turbulent country in the 21stcentury, we should mention another woman; a woman who, contrary to the other two, had a long life (nearly 90 years) and saw the reign of two kings and two other leaders of her country. In the history of the literature of this land, she is considered the first woman who wrote a modern novel. She was a seasoned woman whose most important novel has been translated into 17 languages[5]. She didn’t avoid the historical and social events of her era and, as a keen observer, wrote about the last years of WWII and Feudalism in her country. Her narrator, who is the first female first-person narrator in Persian literature, describes the situation in the society, but always returns to her house and shows her concern and distress over the negative effects political incidents have had on her family and their tranquility. When the female narrator expresses her fears for the security of the family, she is reprimanded by her husband; he expects her to consider the situation of people and society more than their own personal conditions.

Although the novel has a logical and “male” structure, that attention towards family and personal conditions and the description of the romantic feelings the narrator has for her husband makes it a novel about women; in other words, a novel returning to the safety of the house. The narrator resembles the structure of the story: strong and well-built. Her distraction and confusion following the death of her husband does not go on for long. But the details of her grief and the speculations of others whether she is going mad makes her an interesting subject for those interested in women studies and Iranian female authors and their works; in this, the novel is the story of unrestrained emotions and a symbolic egress from a situation accepted by everyone else.

The narrator restrains her confusion and goes back to her logical/normal life. The interesting point is that “confusion” – an important keyword to study in the novels of women in the following decades; novels full of confused and distracted women who are not satisfied with their daily lives but do not know what they want either. The characters are constantly complaining, but do not dare to choose a new life. In the past two or three decades, one of the most important motifs in Iranian women literature has been the uncertainty whether to go or stay (unlike “Zari”, the protagonist of this novel who soon overcomes her doubts and stays in her place).

Since its publication, this novel has never been banned. Remaining in the safe space of the house, agrees with the ideals of the male protagonist, staying safe and sound, staying away from mental confusion, and being a “good” mother after the death of the husband made the novel acceptable among official and unofficial institutions of society, and emphasized the role of the woman as wife and mother of some children. This type of women is the favorite and recurring female figure in fiction and in the entertainment industry all over the world, regardless of the geographical constraints of some regions. But in 21st-century official and “permitted” literature of a country with a name still synonymous with war and politics, this type of character has a more important role: this woman determines the red line for censorship and marks the approved behavior and standard for any female character in any role. Many women were omitted from stories and their stories never told when, unlike that character, they had ambitions and didn’t want to comply with the approved and accepted behavior. They wanted to leave the safety of the house and have an independent personality, apart from the permitted roles defined for them. The stories of such women were never published or were written in a haze of vagueness.

“Vagueness” is another keyword to understand the fiction written by contemporary Iranian women. Understanding the multilayered nature of the Persian language is necessary to analyze and know, not just the Iranian women fiction, but also the whole of Iranian contemporary fiction; because whenever Persian language and Iranian fiction has faced other languages and cultures this challenge, i.e. the “untranslatable vagueness”, has always been the biggest obstacle for it to become popular worldwide. Translating Iranian fiction word by word is not enough to avoid that challenge, but a method should be found to give a partial familiarity with the social and cultural situation in Iran without bias, stereotypes, and generalizations. Considering the fact that Iran has always been seen in the media as a source of big problems, achieving such familiarity seems to be complicated. Fiction and other art display and describe details; they tunnel through the deepest emotional layers of the people in each culture and country in order to make them accessible and comprehensible to others. Films, paintings, music, and even cultural, tourism and commercial relations help the isolated people of marginalized lands to be understood; their art and literature can be examined not just as a document of their adversities, but as valuable and creative work.

But let’s get back to our story: what can the Iranian 21st-century woman write about and what gets omitted from her story?

Writing about family and the difficulties of being a housewife is permissible unless the woman revolts against the family and leaves the household. The “best” subject is enduring a promiscuous man until he gets tired of promiscuity and returns remorsefully for a happy ending. But writing about a promiscuous woman is forbidden unless the woman commits a small fault and at the end of the story comes back to the family, confesses her shame and shows her regret.

Writing about unaccompanied, liberal or intrepid women who travel alone or accept new experiences willingly is frowned upon. Writing about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband is forbidden unless her infidelity is described “vaguely”. Describing a woman’s body is forbidden and describing bold emotions will be omitted, too.

Motherhood is a sacred entity and tainting this image is not well received. Describing the feminine beauty should be done with a mixture of innocence and modesty and in order to “uphold the sanctity of the family”; otherwise, it will be omitted. Talking about sexual issues of women is impossible and even mentioning homosexuality is prohibited.

Kissing, caressing and hugging is forbidden. In one story, the cooing of the pigeons behind the window was censored; because it is a “reminder of kissing in public”. Even talking about such prohibitions is prohibited. Well, let me tell you something, quite frankly, this whole piece of writing will be omitted… from “once upon a time” to the last word.

[1] It is a reference to Parvin E’tesami (1907-1941), the great 20th-century Iranian poet in Persian classical style of poetry. She began writing poems under the guidance and teachings of her father, Yusef E’tesami, and great masters such as Mohammad-Taqi Bahar and Ali Akbar Dehkhoda. Her father, Yusef E’tesami, was one of the prolific poets and translators of his era who had a great role in Parvin’s literary life and her success.

[2] An allusion to a famous poem by Forough Farrokhzad (the poet who was mentioned in the paragraph): “The journey of a volume upon the line of time— / and with a volume / Thus to impregnate / the dry line of time: / A volume / made of a conscious image / returning from a feast in a mirror.” (Translated by Hamid Dabashi, in Dabashi, H. (2016). Iran: The Rebirth of a Nation. US: Palgrave Macmillan.)

[3] An allusion to another famous poem by Forough Farrokhzad: “I am depressed, O so depressed. / I go to the porch and extend my fingers / Over the taut skin of night. / The lamps that link are dark, O so dark. / No one will introduce me to the sunlight / Or escort me / To the sparrows' gathering. / Commit flight to memory, / For the bird is mortal.” Hillmann, Michael C. (1987). Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry. US: Rienner Publishers.

[4] Garekani, Fazlollah (1977). Slander of Writing Poetry(tohmat-e shâeri). Iran: Rozaneh. In this book, the author tries to prove that Parvin E’tesami was not a poet and her poems are actually written by Ali Akbar Dehkhoda (Iranian prominent linguist, encyclopedist, author, and political activist). The author claims that Parvin’s father and Dehkhoda were trying to show that Iranian women should and can have a role in Iranian literature.

[5]This is a reference to Ms. Simin Daneshvar, the renowned Iranian author, and her book, called Suvashunor A Persian Requiem, which was published at 1959 in Iran.Simin Daneshvar was the first Iranian woman who wrote modern fiction with great technique and professionally.

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