Images of Women in Classical Persian Literature and the Contemporary Iranian Novel
By: Dr. Azar Nafisi, 2003
Shahrnush Parsipur's novel, Tuba va Ma'na-ye Shab (Tuba and the Meaning of the Night, Tehran, 1989) begins with a 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, and yet 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 most important result of the encounter is his startling discovery that the earth is round. Before, he had been vaguely aware of the earth's roundness, but he 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."
The most important point in these scenes is that women play a central role in any form of change in the society. Indeed, in most Iranian narratives women are central to the plot and given much space. My main goal is to analyze various images of women in the contemporary Iranian novel by looking at their antecedents in classical Persian literature. In fact, I would like to construct a literary history for the recurring images of women in the contemporary Iranian novel, rewriting them through the shine and shimmer of their enigmatic past.
The first known counterpart of Romeo and Juliet is a beautiful narrative poem, Vis va Ramin (Vis and Ramin). Written in the tenth century by Fakhr al-Din Gorgani, it is probably the oldest as well as the most important Persian narrative of its kind. In one scene in the poem Ramin, who has not seen Vis since they were children, watches Vis's litter go by. 'A sharp spring wind' lifts ('steals') the litter's curtain, revealing Vis. Ramin's first glace at Vis is 'disastrous'; he swoons, and is thrown off his horse. Vis va Ramin is followed by a long series of similar love stories, most notably Khosrow va Shirin, shirin va Farhad, Layla va Majnun, and Bijan va Manijeh. Like Vis, the women in these stories are equal in love and courage to their men. They are brave and independent, and have a loyalty most of their men lack. Most important of all are the dialogues they create. They create a negative dialogue with the outside world, which is insensitive to their love, and a positive dialogue with their lovers, through which they defy the rules of tradition. In fact, the structure of the narratives is built around these two parallel dialogues.
An archetypal image for transcending a particular confine of Persian culture is the softly radiant image of Shahrzad, in Hezar va Yek Shab (One Thousand and one Nights or Arabian Nights). The king in the frame story represents ultimate masculine power. Because of a woman's 'deceit', he severs all positive relations with women and in fact with the whole world. The king is powerful enough to revenge his wife's betrayal through first marrying and then killing a virgin every night. This power masks an inherent weakness: without a healthy relationship with a woman, without trust in the possibility of such a relationship, the king is gripped by a disease with which if literally destroying his whole kingdom.
Shahrzad, a victim of the king's tyranny, is a symbol of courage, rationality and wisdom. She must use what is called 'woman's guile' in order t save the kingdom and restore peace to the king. The way she uses this 'guile' gives her the power and confidence to direct and stage the drama which step by step brings the king back t sanity. The fact that she successful uses the tale the narrative, as the king's medicine points to the healing power of fantasy over 'reality.' Shahrzad uses her wisdom and skills - and uses them consciously - not only to change but also to heal her man.
In all the above-mentioned narratives the relationship between the male and the female characters is the center round which all other relations revolve. Essential to all these relationships is what I would like to call 'creative subversion.' This term needs further elaboration.
All these narratives are created within a highly hierarchical and masculine society. All are supposed to revolve round the male hero. But it is the active presence of the women that changes events, that diverts the men's life from its traditional course, that shocks the men into changing their very mode of existence. In the classical Iranian narrative active women dominate the scene; they make things happen. Like the wind in Vis va Ramin they open their lovers' eyes to new insight and discoveries which determine the course of the men's future actions.
This subversive relationship redirects the traditional course of male-female relationships. The hero's submission to love in one way or another softens and 'civilizes' him, making his familiar world intolerable. This change is brought about less by the heroes' own will than by the active pressure of the women in their lives. The king in One Thousand and One Nights is healed; Farhad loses Shirin and dies; Bijan's life is saved by Manijeh; Khosrow, whose masculine identity is reinforced by his sexual conquests-even as he pines for his beloved-repents, and is united with Shirin, only to be killed while sleeping by her side; and Ramin is finally rewarded with Vis, with whom he lives for 81 happy years of married life.
Majnun's case demands closer attention. After his beloved Layla's forced marriage, Majnun becomes a mad mystic and spends the rest of his days in the wilderness. Majnun's love for Layla has been interpreted, according to the mystical tradition, as a stage toward higher 'reality.' But looking at it from the lovers' point of view it makes more sense to say that Layla's love transforms Majnun to such a degree that the world with its rules and conventions is no longer tolerable to him In the same manner Layla also negates the traditional role assigned to her. She dies rather than submit to a forced marriage.
My last example from classical tradition is the heroine in ' The Black Dome,' a story in Nezami's Haft Paykar (Sever Beauties). The story is about a king who arrives in a town where all the inhabitants are in mourning. Demanding to know why, he is made t go through the same process. He is taken outside the town and put in a large basket. A huge bird carries him high up in the air and drops him in a heavenly pasture where he meets a most beautiful lady served by lesser beauties. Every night the lady invites him to a feast and frolics with him until he desires to make love to her. At that crucial moment, she asks for patience and refers him t one of her beautiful servants. He calls her 'fancy.' In order to get her, he must show patience, but patient is the one thing he cannot be. He fails the test and loses her forever. Like the town's inhabitants, he too wears black for the rest of his live, mourning his loss.
The beautiful lady in Nezami's tale makes an important point about all the other images: they all are part of the poet's vision, a vision which in essence negates and defies external 'reality.' These images feel real to us not because they are portrayed realistically, but because their texture fits well the fictional reality created through the narrative. This fictional reality is created only as a backdrop to their mystical and transcendental identity; in a sense it is an extension of that identify. Within the context of a transcendent world, the women in the classical Iranian narrative either create love and peace in their men or taunt and tempt their men. Either way they disturb the present state of affairs, opening a path to a different world.
The images of women characteristic of the classical Iranian narratives have persisted down to the period when Iranian society as well as its literature were changed fundamentally. Of the few long narratives in Persian written after the introduction of the novel form in Iran in early 1900s, the one in which the women are most central is Mohamnmad-Baqer Mirza Khosravi's three-volume romance-novel, Shams va Toghra (Shams and Toghra, Tehran, 1910).
In one scene the hero, Shams, relates to his mistress, Queen Abesh, his feelings about the three women in his life. Toghra, his first love and wife, is his favorite, if for no other reason than that of seniority. Mary the 'Venetian,' a foreigner who acts like a typically shy and submissive Iranian girl, is so good and correct that he cannot help but love her. The Queen herself is irresistible because she is so skillful in the carnal arts. The serene and integrated image of the women in the classical tales is now divided into three. The hero's love does not make him concentrate on one woman; rather, it directs him toward different women. Shams va Toghra thus shows the Iranian narrative at a transition point. The story, with its tedious digressions, vacillates between a novel and a romance. As such, it makes a number of interesting cultural points. It is again a variation on the Romeo and Juliet theme. But Shams is luckier than Romeo; he marries his Juliet halfway through the second volume and continues to marry other women with the consent and blessing, nay, the insistence of his beloved.
The world of Shams va Toghra is still a masculine world, but it has lost its previous cohesion, and the men have lost their self-assurance. The women in classical Iranian literature were a part-a very central part- of the narrator's world view, which in essence moved against the dictates of its world. In Shams va Toghra the narrator no longer has a coherent world view; nor does he have a sense of himself, his world, or the new fictional form he is working with. In other words, he is constantly vacillating between the old and the new ways of appraising 'reality' as well as fictional reality.
The women in Shams va Toghra have kept the guile of the women in earlier tales, but do not use it to subvert the hero's attitudes, or to defy the conventions of their world; guile is used as a means of survival in a world where submission has more worth than imagination, where no man would listen for one out of thousand nights to the tales of a woman. The women in earlier tales used guile in order to survive as well as to subvert and change their men. In Shams va Toghra the women no longer subvert; they only submit.
Like the female images in the classical tales, the women in Shams va Toghra are idealizations. But unlike the earlier images, Khosravi's women characters are empty of connotations and meaning. They lack the luminosity and circularity of the women in the classical Iranian narratives, who feel more real to us even though their creators paid no homage to 'reality' or to what we call realism. Toghra and her female companions are mere figments of the narrator's imagination, products of a divided mind which is constantly confused by the new order of social and personal relations imposed upon it.
As the images of women within the Iranian narrative change from vision to daydream, their active and subversive function is turned into a passive and submissive one. The divided mind of the male narrator no longer can create a whole vision: it divides the whole image into fragments. None of the women in Shams va Toghra is rounded and complete; each of them represents a part of the complete woman; body, mind, and soul are disconnected. As Shams explains to the Queen, he needs three different women to satisfy his different needs.
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 these fictional women are not complete in themselves. They have moved away from the transcendental and unreal world of the earlier narratives to the concrete and 'earthy' world of the novel without gaining the individuality and 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 Iranian literature are stripped and divided in the later romance-novels, and mutilated and murdered as in Hedayat's Buf-e Kur (The Blind Owl, Bombay, 1936). From then on, they wander around in the deserts of contemporary Iranian fiction, homeless, shadowy, and weightless.
The introduction of the novel in Iran coincides with many profound social changes which Tuba's father had the foresight to predict. One of the most important of these changes is the creation of new images for women, especially during Reza Shah's reign. The unveiling of women decreed by Reza Shah, like the veiling several decades later, caused an upheaval, and symbolically expressed conflicts and contradictions that ironically made women, without any major action or decision on their part, the center of hot and violent controversy.
During this period, almost simultaneously both 'realistic' and 'psychological' fiction started to be written. In both of these genres the role of women and women's relationships or lack of relationships with men are central. The images of women in these novels almost always become identical with, or symbolic of, the novel's central 'message.'
Sadeq Hedayat's short novel , 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 reverse form. The narrator in Buf-e Kur too 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 (lakkateh). To the narrator in Buf-e Kur, however, both these women are inaccessible.
In this narration, Hedayat portrays not a vision, not a figment of the imagination, but an obsession which, as expressed in the famous opening line, 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.
Like the frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, Buf-e Kur demonstrates that the male character is not necessarily a victim of female guile, but rather a victim of his own obsessions. In both these stories the close an paradoxical interrelationship between the oppression or liberation are demonstrated. But the female characters in Buf-e Kur are much more passive than the female characters in the classical Iranian narratives. There the women use their powers of imagination to save themselves and to create a new world; in Buf-e Kur the exact opposite happens. The attempt to communicate between the two sexes leads to the narrator's frustrating discovery of his own impotence -- an impotence which is obviously symbolic of a helpless and disintegrating psyche. The only time he succeeds in making love to a woman is when he enters his wife's (lakkateh) bed, disguised as one of her many lovers; and the sexual act itself is so violent that in order to release himself from her grasp he 'inadvertently' kills her with a knife he has brought to bed with him. Sexual fulfillment and death become synonymous.
Buf-e Kur offers many interesting insights into the cultural assumptions underlying male-female relations in Iran It also illustrates a breakdown of dialogue between men and women. In the novels which follow in the wake of Buf-e Kur we observe a lack of dialogue (a sign of the disintegration of her psyche), and a lack of structural cohesion.
In Buf-e Kur the process of the self's disintegration leads to a replacement of dialogue with monologue, and to an urge toward destruction arising out of impotent desire. The male character in Buf-e Kur becomes the first in a series of impotent and obsessive characters who crowd contemporary Iranian fiction. The inability of writers to create active female characters and a dialogue between them and the male characters becomes a major obstacle to the development of the Iranian novel.
The disintegration of fictional characters in the Iranian novel may also point to a fundamental cultural problem, namely, the disintegration of the male Iranian psyche under the pressures and demands of two diametrically opposed cultures: one, the vanishing culture of the past with its unified and hierarchical view of women; the other, the modern western-imported culture of the present with its doubting, ironic view of the world and its fast-changing view of women.
The images of women in Buf-e Kur are said to be based upon the narrator's obsessions and his negation of 'reality.' but they are still more real and have more fictional life than the images which later appear in the so-called realistic novels. In these novels the preoccupation with women becomes so obsessive that unlike in Buf-e Kur it reveals the writer's own obsession In these works the aesthetic distance between the writer and the work breaks down; there exists no cohesive structure which can place the images in creative relationship to one another. These narratives become veiled and insincere autobiographies; they also become loose and chaotic, not individualized and concrete -- mere slogans, demonstrations of condescending goodwill toward women and unfulfilled, unnamed desires about them.
The main character's lament in Hushang Golshiri's Barreh-ye Gomshodeh-ye Ra'i (Ra'i's Lost Lamb, Tehran, 1977) is one of the best examples of what happens to the displaced male psyche, to a man's desire and longing for the security of his mothers closed and circular world that, like a womb, created space, blood, and nourishment for him. Ra'i decides to leave his beloved because she cuts her hair short, flings her bag over her shoulder, and might commit the ultimate blasphemy of dyeing her hair blonde. An unstated question hangs over the whole novel, creating an atmosphere almost of bewilderment: what happened to that tamely secure image of the raven-haired beauty who spent all her moments at the service of her man?
The secure male-dominated world of the past has broken down. What remains is the residue of the past in the writer's unconscious with no direct relationship to the new world. The mind is in constant struggle with this world. On the one hand, it desires to come to terms with the new reality; on the other hand, it has no firm grasp of it, no real understanding. A vague hostility and mistrust toward the new reality called the western world seeps into the Iranian novel, and colors the images of its women more than any other image.
The author becomes afraid of the suddenly real woman. In the past, the woman was a part of his vision; later she became a figment of his imagination, a tame if coyly evasive object of his desires-a presence which could be made to evaporate in the twinkling of an eye. To re-create fictionally a creature that he is wary of in reality becomes an almost impossible task.
Thus, something interesting happens in these novels: a movement away from the symbolic images of the classical tales, which somehow feel very real, to the 'real' images of 'realistic' fiction, which feel symbolic. The writer chooses a fixed pattern of thought, an ideology to define and capture this new 'reality,' stripping it of its threats, bringing it under control.
This process can be best observed in the 'realistic' tradition in Iranian literature. These 'realistic' novels were influenced mainly by the now archaic and anachronistic school of social realism. In structure, they followed the rigid and linear form of the nineteenth-century novel. The characters in these novels are supposed to be 'real,' from the working class or the peasantry.
The women in these works are usually patient and strong; their contradictions are mainly external, reflecting the class conflict within the society. The lack what I cal 'interiority': the individuality, the inner conflicts and contradictions which give western realistic novels such amazing lights and shades. For example, Mahmud Dowlatabadi's Ja-ye Khali-ye Soluch (Soluch's Empty place, Tehran, 1979) begins with Mergan, the heroine, waking up one morning to find that her husband has left her and their three children. From the very first page the narrator turns a theme which has many dimensions into a purely social issue. When describing Mergan and Soluch, he informs us in the tightest terms of how love becomes meaningless between people without money. At every crucial stage of the novel the narrator upstages his characters with tedious moralizations and unnecessary elaborations. The dialogues are constantly interrupted by the narrator addressing the reader.
Even novelists with no particular ideology share this attitude with the narrator in Ja-ye Kahli-ye Soluch: they feel more committed to ideas than to the story or the characters in the story. Women as the most obvious victims of social injustice become the center of these novelists' moralizations and simplifications, and woman the victim becomes a popular theme in this literature.
The motif of women as victims dates back to Moshfeq Kazemi's Tehran-e Makhowf (Tehran, the Fearsome, Tehran, 1925). In Kazemi's novel all the prototypes of the socially victimized woman exist, from the beautiful young girl in love with a noble and penniless young man, harassed by greedy, insensitive parents, to the duped and penitent 'fallen woman.' From then on we encounter images of women as social victims in a number of novels which could be categorized under the dubious title of 'popular novel.' These women are either love-stricken, like the suffering young heroine in Tehrann-e Makhowf or, like Ahu in Ali-Mohammad Afghani's Shohar-e Ahu Khanom (Ahu Khanom' Husband, Tehran 1961), are cheated by another favorite figure of popular novelists, the 'vamp' who steals the heroine' husband.
The popular novel develops into at least two different branches: the first is open and explicit about its form; it makes no pretensions at being literary art and exploits the theme of 'victimized' woman' versus 'vamp' or 'greedy parents' to create tension and capture the reader's attention. Most outstanding in this group are the novels of Hosayn-Qoli Mosta'an. The second group shuns the first and claims to have 'serious' intentions. It uses images of women mainly as vehicles of social protest. Some of these writers, like Kazemi, are genuinely interested in the fate of women and their emancipation. But whatever these author's intentions, their works combine two 'spicy' elements to appeal to their readers' self-righteousness and taste for 'action': women and social protest.
The Iranian art novel was deeply influenced by the popular novel, especially in its use of male-female relationships as a vehicle to introduce action and justify moralizations, rather than as a theme worthy of exploration of its complexity and problems. If a popular novelist like Mosta'an used moralizing to justify risqu action, a more 'serious' novelist like Afghani used action to make ideological and social criticism palatable to the readers. Even a highly serious novelist like Sadeq Chubak in many short stories and in the well-known psychological novel Sang-e Sabur (The Patient Stone, Tehran, 1960) makes the fallen woman his central character. In Hedayat's Buf-e Kur, the 'lakkateh' is a powerful figure representing the narrator's obsessive personality as well as his moral and sexual impotence. In Chubak's novel the 'lakkateh' is transformed into a good-hearted prostitute, a caricature of the already caricature-like prostitutes in Dostoevsky's novels.
In novel after novel, Iranian writers create and re-create two extreme and worn images of women, that of victims and that of bitches. In both cases the possibility of a meaningful male-female relationship becomes a mere mirage. With the exception of two novels written by women, no real attempt is made to untie the ropes of social protest from the captured images of women, to let the women lead to whatever buried treasure they have hidden in the depths of their shadowy existence. But even the two well-known women writers, Daneshvar and Parsipur, are unable to represent the rich contradictions and inner complexities of their fictive characters.
In Simin Daneshvar's Suvashun (Tehran, 1969), the author tries to explore the sensibilities of a happily married woman, who nonetheless suffers from the uncompromising heroic stance her husband takes against the corrupt Iranian regime and its foreign masters. Daneshvar's presentation of Zari creates some uneasiness in the reader; it seems as if beneath the straightforward and explicit descriptions of Zari's innermost feelings there exists some deep emotion which has found no expression, as if some deep resentment wishes to surface and mock Zari's most sacred loyalties. but Daneshvar never dwells on this hidden and disturbing aspect of Zari. At the end when her husband is killed, Zari takes up his political cause loyally and with conviction. Daneshvar, like her equally famous late husband, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, makes social statements through her characters. She, like him and a whole host of other writers, denounced ideology but followed Sartre's then popular dictum on the necessity of 'committed prose.' She simplified her heroine's real suffering, Zari's agony over having to choose between a husband she loves and an independence of mind she so desperately needs.
Shahrnush Parsipur's first long novel, Sag va Zemestan-e Boland (The Dog and the Long Winter, Tehran, 1976) is a first-person narration about the trials and tribulations of a young middle-class Iranian girl. In the first part she creates the illusory relations the girl is caught in. But in the second part suddenly the narrative breaks down, it switches from realistic presentation and description to a stream of associations involving the girl's dead brother, his imprisonment and sufferings. As in her later novel, Tuba va Ma'na-ye Shab, Parsipur begins with concrete images of a woman's life and then trails off into vague musings.
After the Islamic revolution, the formerly veiled and symbolic allusions to the political system and the government turned into overt and explicit criticisms of the Pahlavi era. In Reza Baraheni's voluminous novel, Razha-ye Sarzamin-e Man (Secrets of My Native Land, Tehran, 1989), naive Armenian servant-girls and fully experienced wives of high Iranian officials are seduced by unfeeling and overpowering American soldiers. to compensate for this symbolic seduction of Iranian women and equally symbolic cucholding of the Iranian men by the exploiting Americans, we have brave and heroic women such as Tahmineh, whose name is a reminder of the wife/mistress of Rustam, the unflinching Iranian legendary hero. She becomes the symbol of uncorrupted Iran.
In Baraheni's Avaz-e Koshtegan (Song of the Murdered, Tehran, 1983), we have a rare attempt to portray a modern woman. But alas, she is the wife of the hero, a writer and university professor who is constantly harassed and tortured by the Savak. In response to his regrets over the insecure life he has made for his wife and daughter, the woman gives him, and the reader, a full lecture over three pages, in which she lauds him for exposing the Shah's regime to the whole world, while 'all were silent.' Unlike most men, she says, who 'used their beautiful wives' to gain wealth and power, he has taught her to assist him in his perilous work. She continues to eulogize him. Quoting from the great Iranian poet, Sa'di, she calls him the 'voice of the murdered,' She thanks him for 'granting' her the 'possibility' to 'wipe torture from the Iranian jails.' Thus, a very complex social and political issue is turned into a lusterless version of 'Mission Impossible,' and a many-leveled, multi-dialogued relationship is turned into a banal monologue echoing itself, the wife doing what the husband cannot do directly: use their relationship to create him as a her.
Little wonder that the reader of these novels has an eerie feeling, as if the images avenging their mistreatment refused to come to life and refused to support their authors' claim that serious human issues are at stake. Generally in novels several layers of relationships are created in the interactions among individuals. The private world of these individuals becomes the flesh, the inner layer that gives substance to the other layers of social, moral, and philosophical matters. The images in most of the Iranian novels lack flesh. Their inability to have relationships turns the characters into mere echoes of one another and ultimately of their creator.
Esmai'il Fasih's Soraya dar Eghma (Soraya in Coma, Tehran, 1983) is one of the few Iranian novels that attempt, in the best tradition of popular fiction, to create the image of a modern independent woman. It follows-in fact downright copies-Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in terms of plot, theme, characters, and events. The romantically cynical hero leaves war-torn IRAN FOR Paris to visit his niece, Soraya, who is hospitalized and in coma. There he meets several, mostly unsavory, Iranian exiles among whom he finds a very attractive, equally cynical, intellectual lady. She is so overpowering that the man become metaphorically impotent. All the other characters in the novel are like vague recollections of characters in Hemingway's novel. Neither the woman's showy and frustrated cynicism nor the hero's frustrated feelings for her create any deep or lasting impressions upon the reader.
In most of the novels written after the Islamic revolution, the images of women are continuations of the images in pre-revolutionary literature. These novels lack active interaction between male and female characters. Some, like Ahmad Mahmud's 'war novels,' have no main female character. In many of the others, dialogue between men and women is avoided by the absence of the men or by their psychological, if not physical, impotence. The young and controversial Mulim novelist and film maker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, dedicated his novel, Bagh-e Bolur (The Crustal Garde, Tehran, 1989) to 'the women, the oppressed women of this land.' This novel is crowded with women whose men have either been killed in the war or will be killed by the end of the novel. The novel ends with a strangely peaceful procession of widows and children with the only man left in the novel, one who has been castrated in the war.
Ami-Hosayn Cheltan's Talar-e Ayneh (The Hall of Mirrors, Tehran 1991), set around the time of Iran's Constitutional Revolution (1906), is again filled with women. The novel's main point seems to be the relationship or, better, the non-relationship between Mirza, a 'revolutionary' from an upper-class family, and his sick and dying wife. Their beautiful daughter is apparently an exact replica of her mother. Mirza is vaguely blamed, perhaps, for neglecting his loved and loving wife. This feeling, like all others, is never expressed concretely. The novel ends with the death of the wife. The grief-stricken husband is struck by the shadowy image of his daughter whom he mistakes for his dead wife. Seldom has a writer offered the readers so many dangling, and at times dazzling, images without life or substance.
Thus, throughout the 1980s the Iranian novel vacillates between the ideological commitment and the obsessional male projections, leaving women characters shallow and intangible. It is surprising and regrettable that such a sweeping generalization safely can be made about a major part of contemporary Iranian literature.
Over the past five or six years a new trend can be seen in the work of a younger generation of Iranian writers. Iranian fiction has entered a new era whose most distinctive feature is its transitory nature. The Islamic revolution, like many great upheaval, has shaken all values and norms within the society. Some norms have persisted or reappeared in different forms. But this era, in Ian as well as in the world itself, is generally an era of doubt and uncertainty. Now, the images of women have to be rethought and redefined. Under extreme pressure, women must look at themselves not only as members of their society or their country, but as individuals whose very private lives and liberties are being redefines.
In this state of flux, when everything is questioned, when the present feels more unreal than the past, the earlier seemingly tangible and real images of women can no longer function. In the most recent novels, the images seem to have gone on strike altogether, as if they refuse to work under the present conditions. In these novels, especially those of younger writers (two of whom are women), the narrative voice either breaks down or becomes one long toneless monologue and the characters are even more shadowy and unreal than in earlier novels. The novels express a tendency to preach, and doubt and uncertainty about what is being preached.
In Tuba va Ma'na-ye Shab, we see this process. The anecdote I quoted at the beginning of this chapter shows that Parsipur is aware of the Iranian male intellectuals' instinctive fear of the social issues directly related to women. In this sense, her novel, like Moniru Ravanpur's latest novel Del-e Fulad (Heart of Steel, Tehran, 1991), provides interesting insights. Both novels are about a woman's search for her place in the world. but this search never comes into focus, never becomes concrete, internalized or fictionally real. The heroine in Ravanpur's novel, a contemporary woman writer, is less tangible than a shadowy ghost in the mind of a delirious patient. Ravanpur skillfully generalizes her character out of existence.
Tuba va Ma'na-ye Shab also becomes one long narrative in the mind of its narrator/author. It begins with concrete images, but ends as a pseudo-philosophical treatise. Rather than creating interrelated images and voices, the novel presents a series of voices that are not differentiated, and which do not create dialogue. In essence, Tuba va Ma'na-ye Shab is just one voice, monotonous, at times hysterical, pouring out what has been stored up for many long years. The book's structure is based upon commentary and not image, monologue, not dialogue; and thus does not fit the form of the novel which is supposed to be multi-voiced, concrete, and individualized. Tuba va Ma'na-ye Shab is almost frightening; it seems like an endless cry in the void. The Iranian novel for the past few years seems to have either created voices without images, as in Tuba va Ma'na-ye Shab, or images without voices, as in Talar-e Ayneh.
The importance of this stage in the history of the Iranian novel is its transitory nature and the doubt it has cast upon all previous fixed images. The tension between the novelist's tendency to preach and moralize and the uncertainly which runs counter to any form of preaching is an expression of this doubt. The contradictory quality of preaching is an expression of this doubt. The contradictory quality of these novels makes them interesting; but it also makes the reader feel as if s/he was reading about imaged created in a void.
One further point needs to be mentioned, although its elaboration is beyond the scope of the present chapter. The literary problem in Iran is not only to create fictionally real and creatively subversive images of women, but also to create a proper framework that could embody such images. Also, unlike the claims made by some feminist critics about western women, the problem in Iran is not that Iranian women, as opposed to Iranian men, have not yet developed their own narratives, but that both women and men have as yet to create their own contemporary form of narrative, their own form of the novel.
Dialogue is by nature subversive; it simultaneously asserts one's own argument and undermines it by destabilizing it, turning it into a question through the other side's argument. Since its beginning, the Iranian novel has been only superficially subversive because its writers concentrated on social or political statement. There is a need for creating subversive literary images as well as dialogues among these images.
The images in the void teach us that without tracing the complexities and ambiguities which surround the modern woman, without understanding her private world, no coherent image of women can be created. In fact, a truly subversive novel would present the image of woman as a private self, and within that context would create many levels of reality surrounding and emanating from the self, including the social, historical, and philosophical levels of experience.
But writing in the void is better than writing according to fixed formulas. Courageously accepting the existence of this void perhaps will lead us to a creative reappraisal of where we stand in relation to our literary past and future.
Going back to the first example in this chapter, I agree with the adib that once women become aware of themselves, once they begin to think independently, they create a great upheaval. In the Iranian novel this upheaval has not yet happened; it has not as yet created the 'real' woman, the full woman, body, soul, and mind. Without her, men in the Iranian novel will continue to be either absent or impotent. The Iranian novel awaits that great moment, when those wise, strong, and gracious women of the classical Iranian narrative will find their worthy peers within contemporary Iranian fiction.