Persian Language & Literature

The Quest for the "real" woman in the Iranian novel:
Representations of privacy in literature and film

By: Azar Nafisi, 2003
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Shahrnush Parsipur's novel, Tuba va Mana-ye Shab (Tuba and the Meaning of the Night) (1989), begins with series of interesting images. It opens at the end of the Qajar dynasty, at a time when Western thought and new ways of living directly begin to influence and change the traditional closed society of Iran. The heroine's father is an adib, a poet-scholar, a simple man who is preoccupied with philosophy and poetry. One day as he walks the streets immersed in his thoughts, a foreigner on horseback runs him down. The insolent foreigner whips the adib across the face. Later he is forced to go to the adib's house to apologize. This incident is the adib's first and last direct encounter with the Western world. The seemingly incongruous but most important result of the meeting is his starting discovery that the earth is round. Before, he had been vaguely aware of the earth's roundness, but had preferred to ignore it.

For several days the adib contemplates what the roundness of the earth means for him. He instinctively realizes the connection between the foreigner's presence, the roundness of the earth, and all the changes and upheavals yet to come. After several days he announces his conclusion: "Yes, the earth is round; the women will start to think; and as soon as they begin to think they will become shameless" (Parsipur, 1989).

Parsipur's novel, published 10 years after the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, demonstrates the degree to which Iran's past dilemmas are still very much alive within its present historical and political context. The adib's painful epiphany imaginatively reconstructs the importance of women's social and political consciousness and the role played by what he calls their shamelessness in the changing relations between the public and private spaces in Iran's modern history. It is important that this conclusion is reached through the destabilizing and humiliating presence of the foreigner and the discovery of the roundness of the earth.

How is that past still alive in this present? In what ways have the social, cultural and political issues centered on women become essential to an understanding of the relation between private and public spaces in the present-day Iran? This paper is a preliminary attempt to respond to these questions by tracing the changing images of women in contemporary Iranian literature, mainly fiction. I will study these images with a discussion of the ways through which works of imagination represent as well as rearticulate the tensions created by the confrontations between the public and private spheres.

The adib's conclusions stem from the destabilizing and humiliating intervention of the foreigner in his life, not unlike the first encounters of Iranian society with what is commonly called "the West." This encounter, while humiliating, is also enlightening, for it simultaneously points to Iranian society's backwardness as well as the road to its movement forward, a road that can only be paved by a radical transformation in the traditional perceptions and reinterpretation of reality and its re-creation through works of imagination.

The movement for change in Iran, as in many other countries we call Muslim, began in mid-1900s as a homegrown struggle for a modern nation-state. It was the result of a deep political, social, and cultural crisis, leading to a basic questioning of the tenets of both the celestial (orthodox religion) and terrestrial (political despotism) absolutes that ruled Iran.

As Iran began to have increasing contact with the West, many sectors of the population---especially intellectuals, minorities, clerics and women--became increasingly aware of their nation's problems. From the mid-nineteenth century these forces continually struggled with Iran's rulers over the degree to which Iran should close the gap with the West by modernizing itself. The result was the 1906 Constitutional Revolution.

The movement that culminated in the Constitutional Revolution was not confined to the revolutionary demands for more political openness and social rights for women and minorities, but was accompanied and complemented from the start by a cultural revolution that introduced many new forms to Iran, foremost among them, drama, novel, music, and later film. It was obvious that this revolutionary new reality called for a fundamental change in the perception and articulation of reality itself.

Writers and poets led heated and exciting debates on the need to transform the old modes of artistic and literary expression. Some of the foremost advocates of this cultural revolution started a movement for creating what one of its proponents, Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh, called a "democratization" of the Persian language. As women opened up new public spaces through their more active presence on the social scene, the new literary and artistic forms--condemned by the reactionaries--such as the novel, theatre, music, and film provided new potentials for this reality. Novels and plays focused on the dilemmas of the individual. Women became central to the plot of many stories and suddenly they left their private and veiled spaces to demand their rightful place in the public sphere.

The reactionary elements in the clerical ranks and other supporters of despotism rightly recognized the mortal threat these new changes presented to their dominance and attacked women's public education, along with the novel, film, and music and the rights of minorities as "poisonous vapors" coming from the West to destroy the minds of the Iranian youth. Two prominent clerics, Sheikh Fazlolah Nuri and Sayyid' Ali Shushtari--mentors of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--even issued fatwas (religious decrees) against the public education of women.

Thus a new myth was created relating women's claims to public spaces, not only in reality but also in fiction, as heretical. From then on, among a certain sector of Iran's religious and intellectual elite, works of imagination and women's fights to public spaces were identified as attempts by the Western enemy to rape and destroy the Islamic nation, and these elements gained a Satanic quality that was resurrected when the Islamic revolution triumphed and like all victors confiscated and re-created Iran's history.

Two women stand out as symbols of this new heresy, demonstrating the degree of its subversive influence upon the Iranian society then as now. The first was Tahereh, a stunningly beautiful poet who was born in 1814 to an influential and respected religious family.

She gained both fame and notoriety when she became the most charismatic of all the leaders of the Babi movement. Among the enlightened groups that at the time questioned the alliance between the despotic semifeudal Qajar dynasty, and the equally despotic orthodox religion, were the Babis--a dissident movement of Islamic thinkers who were the precursors to the Bahais and who eventually broke with Islam to create a new religion and are presently the victims of vicious persecution by the Iranian government.

Because of her father's enlightened views, Tahereh and her sister were allowed to continue their studies under his and his brother's tutelage. Her exceptional talent and zeal for knowledge made her restless and contemptuous of her husband's orthodox and stagnant views of Islam. She urged radical changes in religious doctrines that she insisted must change and be renewed with time. At a time when women were not allowed to set foot outside their homes without their husbands' permission, she left her husband and two sons to become one of the Babis' most effective and outspoken leaders. She was so effective an orator that she soon gathered a large following.

In the year 1848, at a gathering of Babi followers in the hamlet of Badasht, Tahereh appeared unveiled, and abrogating the laws of Islam, she proclaimed the advent of a new faith. "Consternation immediately seized the entire gathering ... to behold her face unveiled was to them inconceivable." It is reported that many men escaped in horror and one slashed his throat at such an act of sacrilege by a woman.

To the followers of her abandoned faith Tahereh was worse than a heathen: she was a heretic, the evil "Other" who had betrayed her own. To her followers she became an enigma, a puzzle to be worshipped without being understood. She was soon put under house arrest. The tale ends with her death at the age of 36. The government, under pressure from the reactionary clerics headed by Tahereh's husband and his family, and apprehensive about executing her in public, secretly planned her death: she was strangled and thrown into a well. Her burial place remains unknown.

Alamtaj Esfehani, born in 1884, was a very different woman from Tahereh. She was also educated at home, fell in love with classical Persian poetry, and was married young--16--against her will to a man who was twice her age and who was physically repulsed her. Unlike Tahereh, it was not Alamtaj's life but her poetry that makes her a heretic.

She was a revolutionary poet whose who never intended her poems to be made public, let alone published. They were discovered after her death by her only child, a son. She had hidden them among the leaves of books by her favorite poets: Hafiz, Saadi, and Rumi.

Her poems in many ways are more revolutionary than those of the acknowledged harbingers of modern poetry in Iran. Until then poetry, including those of Tahereh's, were abstract, neglecting the personal elements and details of the individual's everyday life. Unlike Tahereh, Alamtaj focuses on her own life, thus breaking the taboo against the intrusion of the private and the personal into public articulations, be they imaginative or not. She uses her miserable and loveless marriage as the starting point for her lamentations about her life. But Alamtaj's poems are not confined to her own unhappy life; she deconstructs the traditional poetic form, turning her own personal plight into a universal manifesto against the oppression of women, against the bondage of religion, the veil, and obedience to another's demand for blind obedience, be it a husband, a cleric, or a despot. Alamtaj deconstructs the most prevalent traditional Iranian poetic forms by introducing not only revolutionary ideas, but words and concepts that until then were completely alien to poetry. Her poems are furnished with details of her personal life: her comb, the mirror in which she is frightened to see her own alien image; she even dedicates a touching poem to the Singer sewing machine that had been recently introduced to Iran.

Her poems are indignant and angry, they cry out not just against political and social injustices, but the injustice of being born a woman, lamenting the inability to love and be loved. She celebrates the "breeze from the West" that promises of strange new freedoms for her and for the women of her country. And in a wondrously prophetic poem about the future gifts of Iran, she predicts their triumph to gain freedoms that she herself is deprived of. It is no wonder that an American, Morgan Shuster, in his 1912 book, The Strangling of Persia, claims "The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not say radical, in the world." He continues, "That this statement upsets the ideas of centuries makes no difference. It is the fact."

Tahereh and Alamtaj proved correct the adib's worst fears: once women start thinking they would lose their sense of shame, questioning the traditional taboos and subverting the existing boundaries between the assigned private and public spheres. Tahereh's unveiling and Alamtaj's poetry bring the private into the public domain and turns the injustice of their personal life into a public injustice. Thus Satan appears as a woman and a poet.

In real life women's changing status in society was reflected in their demands for public education and the right to choice in private matters; in the realm of imagination the novel became the main vehicle in which this new reality and the degree to which it had destabilized the traditional male dominated world and destroyed the boundaries between the public and the private was articulated.

The novel by nature questions absolute authority, even that of the divine power. It is earthly and emphasizes the individual; its plot is based on the individuals' inner tensions and ambiguities, and his or her social, political and cultural interactions. Fiction, unlike the absolutist mindset, creates more questions than answers and its focus is on everyday life, on a celebration of the profane rather than the sacred. The novel through its polyphonic structure resists the absolutist structure of any form of orthodoxy, be it political, ideological, or religious. As such it posits a serious threat to any form of absolutism, religious or secular.

Writers become the guardians of new spaces and that is why their interests intermesh with the issues of choice and freedom and inevitably turn toward women and the eccentric, the exceptional, the original. Instead of clerics interpreting the world and God's words, it is the individual conscience that does it. The rivalry between agents of God and those of Satan who come in motley colon and shapes and of both sexes and many beliefs becomes existential, a matter of life and death. Forever the images of women and culture become linked to the Satanic power that invades the heart and mind of Iranians and forcing them to change.

As the mind discovers the roundness of the earth, as it begins to lose its own identity without gaining a new sense of wholeness (or roundness) of the self, it begins a process of disintegration in which it can no longer handle and control the "reality" around it. This is the reason why in early Iranian fiction women who have moved away from the transcendental and unreal and idealized world of classical Persian literature do not seem complete in themselves. They have moved away from that role to the concrete and "earthy" world of the novel without gaining the individuality or particularity needed to illuminate and activate their presence. Without a private, individual self, without some "interiority," these images become orphans left in someone else's story. The women ruling with wit and majesty over the fertile land of classical literature are stripped and divided in later romance novels, and mutilated and murdered as in Sadegh Hedayat's Buf-eKur (The Blind Owl) (1936). They wander the deserts of contemporary Iranian fiction, homeless, shadowy, and weightless.

Of the novels that become heretical and dangerous, the most controversial and enigmatic to this date is Hedayat's Buf-e Kur. In this short novel, Hedayat articulates the presence of Satan not merely as an enemy without, but as the insidious inner tempter; as the impotent male psyche unable to deal with the new reality that formulates itself around the shape of a woman. While modeled after the classical structure of the Persian literature, with its timeless, placeless setting, its abstract and closed atmosphere, its circular and plotless story, and its use of symbolism to formulate the plot, Buf-e Kur is ferociously and persistently modern. Hedayat's narrator, unlike the protagonists of classical Persian literature, is individualized, his torments are not otherworldly, and his characters although symbolic, articulate a very modern and concrete dilemma regarding his relations with the new threatening reality appearing in the shape of a woman.

Buf-e Kur is divided into two parts, each a central metaphor for the other. Near the end of each part the narrator kills a woman-in essence the two aspects of the same woman. It seems as if in these two (symbolic) scenes the narrator mourns the breakdown of the idealized and sun-speckled relationships of men and women in classical fiction.

In a sense Buf-e Kur creates a distorted version of the typical classical Iranian tale. In this story all the elements of the previous narratives exist, only in the reverse form. The narrator in Buf-e Kur uses external "reality" only to express his inner "reality." The women and men in his narration are mainly symbolic rather than real. In fact, the women in Buf-e Kur symbolize the two polarized images of the classical Iranian narrative: the inaccessible ethereal (athiri) woman and the all too accessible temptress (lakateh). To the narrator, however, both women have become inaccessible.

In his narration, Hedayat presents an obsession that, as expressed in the famous opening lines, eats away all the narrator's moments and leads to his complete destruction. The reader is confronted with three different archetypal images of woman: the mother, the beloved, and the whore. All carry seeds of destruction, all are madly desired, and two are destroyed by the narrator, who never recovers. This articulates the new reality of modern Iran whereby the old is destroyed and the new is still menacing and unattainable.

The woman becomes the source of constant torture, a temptation that leads to guilt. He cannot have an active and healthy relation with either of these women. One is too idealized and ideal, she cannot materialize into a real flesh and blood woman. The other is also inaccessible, in the same manner as temptation; with neither can he have a normal and equal relation. This impotence is symbolic of the inability to confront the new reality imposed on the psyche of a patriarchal society.

The narrator's impotence in confronting the women in his life is symbolic of his inability to confront the reality of his life. Women become the most obvious manifestations of this new, exciting, tempting, and at the same time frightening reality. Hedayat's sincerity and courage, his sense of integrity as a writer, enable him to write a novel in which he exposes and imaginatively articulates this impotence and vulnerability, as well as the resentment and violence they breed.

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