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Iranian Women's Literature: From Pre-Revolutionary Social Discourse to Post-Revolutionary Feminism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2009

Kamran Talattof
Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. 08544-1008, USA.


The literary works produced by Iranian women writers after the 1979 revolution, despite their diversity in artistic value and quality of narrative, commonly manifest a remarkable sensitivity toward women's issues and gender relations. The overall theme tying these works together seems to be the problematic of gender hierarchy and women's suffering expressed in a figurative language, transcending the extant male-dominated literary discourse. In these works, women's personal and private experiences become public. Their narratives articulate their protests against sexual oppression and reflect their struggle for identity. This phenomenon is noteworthy not simply because this is a literature produced by women about women, but also because this body of work displays a contrast with the literary works produced by women in the decades preceding the revolution. Pre-revolutionary works, under the sway of the dominant literary discourse, did not give rise to a feminist literary movement, for they emphasized sociopolitical issues more than specific gender issues. To be sure, there were themes related to women, but they were often presented in the context of socially conscious yet male-dominated committed literature. Women's literary paradigms before and after the revolution thus represent different literary discourses, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 appears to be the major historical event that separates these two discourses and may well be responsible for the shift. In a strict sense, gender is socially constituted, and gender issues are in fact a type of social issue.

Articles:The Politics of Cultural Expression
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1997

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Author's note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 26th annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Portland, Ore. For its completion, I am grateful to Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Christine Dykgraaf, and the readers of IJMES for their valuable suggestions and comments. I also owe special thanks to Mansoor Moaddel for his indispensable help, guidance, and encouragement.

1 See Tierney-Tello, Mary Beth, Allegories of Transgression and Transformation: Experimental Fiction by Women Writing Under Dictatorship (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

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6 Emerson, Caryl, introduction, Bakhtin in Contexts: Across the Disciplines, ed. Mandelker, Amy (Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press, 1995)Google Scholar. See also Bakhtin, Mikhail, “Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences,” in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. Emerson, Caryl and Holquist, Michael, trans. McGee, V. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

7 Herrmann, Anne, The Dialogic and Difference: “An/other Woman” in Virginia Woolf and Christa Wolf (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 12Google Scholar.

8 For an official view of the state's gender policy, see Pahlavi, M. Reza, Inqilābā-i Safīd (Tehran, 1967)Google Scholar; Mamūriyyat Bara-yi Vatanam (Tehran, 1962)Google Scholar; and Pasukh Bih Tārīkh (Tehran, 1980)Google Scholar.

9 For an overview of the status of women in society, see Nashat, Guity, Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Afkhami, Mahnaz, “A Future in the Past: The Prerevolutionary Women's Movement in Iran,” in Sisterhood Is Global: An International Women's Movement Anthology, ed. Morgan, Robin (New York: Doubleday, 1984)Google Scholar.

10 Although the Pahlavi state made a separate feminist movement redundant, it should be noted that women's issues did not become a significant element of the state discourse as it did, for example, in the case of Kemalism in Turkey. Several scholars refer to Kemalism and women's emancipation as intimate elements of the same discourse. See Arat, Zehra, “Turkish Women and the Republican Reconstruction,” in Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East, ed. Gocek, Fatma Muge and Balaghi, S. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 5781Google Scholar, and Jayawardena, Kumari, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (London: Zed Press, 1986), 2541Google Scholar. Several scholars argue that even the rise of feminism in the 1980s in Turkey was in fact a reaction to Kemalism and its “state feminism.” See Sirman, Nukhet, “Feminism in Turkey: A Short History,” New Perspectives on Turkey 3 (Fall, 1989): 135CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Arat, Yesim, “Women's Movement of the 1980s in Turkey: Radical Outcome of Liberal Kemalism?” in Reconstructing Gender, 100113Google Scholar.

11 See Aḥmad, Āl-i, Gharbzadigī (Tehran: Ravaq, 1978)Google Scholar.

12 For a detailed study of the women's movement and the left in Iran, see Shahidian, Hammed, “The Iranian Left and the ‘Woman Question’ in the Revolution of 1978–79,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26 (05 1994): 223–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Tabari, Azar and Yaganeh, N., In the Shadow of Islam: The Women's Movement in Iran (London: Zed Press, 1982)Google Scholar.

13 See, for example, the views of Nahzat-i Azadi on the granting of women's voting rights in 1962 in Asnād-i NahẒat-i Āzādī: Jāriyān Tasīs va Bayāniyahā (Tehran: Nahzat, 1982)Google Scholar.

14 See Ghanoonparvar, M. R., Prophets of Doom: Literature as a Socio-Political Phenomenon in Iran (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1984)Google Scholar.

15 Eagleton, Terry, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Methuen and Co., 1976), 20CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This view was especially common in the West before Lukacs and the Frankfort School.

16 Some of the women who joined the left became top members of guerrilla organizations. Of 341 guerillas killed either in armed clashes or in prison, 39 were women (more than 11 percent). See Abrahamian, Ervand, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), 480Google Scholar.

17 Concerning the favorable reaction to these short stories, see Mafi's, Maryam afterword in Simin Danishvar's Playhouse (Washington, D.C.: Mage, 1989)Google Scholar; Abidini, H. in Sad Sāl Daslān Navisī (Tehran: Tundar, 1980)Google Scholar; and Sipānlū, M. in Bāz Afarinī-i Vāqʿiyat (Tehran: Nigah, 1989)Google Scholar.

18 For similar analyses of this character, see Davaran, Fereshteh, “Dar Talash-i Kasb-i Huviyat,” Nimeye Digar 8 (Fall 1987)Google Scholar; and Dabashi, Hamid, “Ḥijāb-i Chihrih-i Jān: Bih Justju-yi Zari dar Savushun-i Simīn Dānishvar,” Nimeye Digar 8 (Fall 1987)Google Scholar.

19 Dānishvar, Simīn, Savushun (Tehran: Kharazmi, 1978)Google Scholar (see closing passage).

20 The title refers to the custom of celebrating the martyrdom of a mystical hero, Siyavush, from whose blood a plant grows. The author implies that Yūsuf too was murdered innocently and that his death will cause trees to grow, implying that his death will fuel a popular uprising.

21 Perhaps in this final scene, the author is inspired by Zaynab, Imam Husayn's sister, in the events of Karbala.

22 Dānishvar, Simīn, Bih Ki Salām Kunam (Tehran: Kharazmi, 1986), 82Google Scholar.

23 Compare the two versions of this short story in Alifba, 2 (10 1973), 142–51Google Scholar, and Dānishvar, Simīn, Bih Ki Salām Kunam, 7593Google Scholar.

24 This short story is also from the collection of Bih Ki Salām Kunam, 5374Google Scholar.

25 Published in her collection Shahri Chūn Bihisht, 1961Google Scholar.

26 “Siyah” means black but also refers to a popular, clever theatrical character in traditional Iranian folk shows who has the same function as the Shakespearean fool, in the sense that he is able to say things that ordinary characters may not express openly. See Maryam Mafi, Simin Danishvar's Playhouse.

27 Sipānlū, , Bāz Afarinī-i Vāqʿiyat, 18Google Scholar.

28 One of her earlier works, a collection of short stories, Ātash-i Khamush (1948)Google Scholar, has an even closer resemblance to a report on social conditions.

29 See Abidini, , Sad Sāl Dastān Navisī, 24Google Scholar.

30 Another Birth and Let Us … include poems that Farrukhzad wrote from 1959 to 1967

31 Farrukhzad, Furugh, Asīr (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1955), 75Google Scholar.

32 Ibid., 83.

33 Farrukhzad, Furugh, Bride of Acacias: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, trans. Kessler, Jascha with Banani, Amin (Delmar, N.Y.: Caravan Books, 1982), 22Google Scholar.

34 Farrukhzad, , Bride of Acacias, 112–15Google Scholar.

35 As she leaves behind the uncomplicated rhetoric of her early poems, changes her marital status, and constructs a political consciousness, the individual in her poem is also replaced by members of her family and members of society. See her poem “Dilam Bara-yi Baghchih Misuzad.”

36 Ibid., 23–24.

37 Herrmann, , The Dialogic and Difference, 6Google Scholar.

38 Gurgīn, īrāj, Chahār Muṣāḥibih Bā Furūgh Farrūkhzād (Tehran: Radio, 1964), 21Google Scholar.

40 For detailed information on her biography and works, see Mīlānī, Farzāneh, ed., Nimeye Digar, 2 (Autumn 1993)Google Scholar, and Asadipour, B., ed., Daftar-i Hunar 2, 4 (09 1995)Google Scholar.

41 Sih Tar-i Shikastah, Jā-yi Pā, Chilchiragh, Mar Mar, and Rastakhīz.

42 Bihbahānī, Simīn, Jā-yi Pā (Tehran: Maʾrafat, 1956)Google Scholar.

43 Bihbahānī, Simīn, Guzīnah-i Ashār (Tehran: Intisharat-i Murvarid, 1988), 8083Google Scholar.

44 Bihbahānī, Simīn, Jā-yi Pā, 27Google Scholar.

45 Ibid., 45.

46 Victimized men and sick children also constitute the motif of “Dandān-i Murdah” and “Raqīb” from the collection Chilchiragh.

47 Bihbahānī, Simīn, “Az Butah-i Khushbū-i Gulpar,” Guzīnah-i Ashʿār, 127Google Scholar.

48 This period seems, in a way, less radical than even the end of the 19th century, when one finds works such as Man's Imperfection by Bibi Khanum and Zaynab Pasha's group, which carried on armed struggle in Tabriz for women's rights. See Najmabadi, Afsaneh, ed., Women's Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 20Google Scholar.

49 According to these laws, women may be stoned if they commit adultery. For merely appearing in public without the veil, a woman may be imprisoned for at least forty-five days, given seventy-six lashes, or fined. A woman charged with improper dress can also lose her job if she is working in the civil service. Strictly speaking, the law forbids social contact between the sexes and regulates sexual conduct. For information about the Islamic Punishment Codes, see “Qānūn-i Mujāzāt-i Islāmī, Majmūʿah-i Qavānīn-i Sāl-i 1370,” Rūznāmah-i Rasmī (Summer 1992), 593654Google Scholar.

50 It was not the first time that the image of woman offered such symbolic significance to the development of a revolution. The image of woman was used in the shah's White Revolution. It was also used in the French Revolution. See Moses, Caire, French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

51 Milani, Farzaneh, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 5Google Scholar.

52 See Āyandigān (11, 12, 14, 18, and 19 03 1979)Google Scholar; Iţţilāʿāt (8–12 03 1979)Google Scholar.

53 Iţţilāʿāt (8 03 1979)Google Scholar

54 Ibid.

55 For a detailed account of these incidents, see ibid, and Āyandigān (11, 12, 14, 18, and 19 03 1979)Google Scholar.

56 Āyandigān (12 03 1979), 1Google Scholar.

57 The OPMI, in its announcement, mentioned that these demonstrations by women had helped antirevolutionaries, implicitly condemning them. According to what they announced in Iţţilāʿāt on 14 03 1979, and in Pāyam-i Khalq 3 (March 1979), the OPMI did not want people to make a “fuss” about the veil. A similar position was held by the OIPFG in its conferences.

58 Women's journals, Zanān and Zān-i Rūz, follow these debates. Pāyam-i Hajar, edited by Azam Taliqani, publishes articles concerning women's rights from a religious point of view.

59 The first of these reports appeared in journals such as Haftah Nāmah-i Sūsiyalisti-i Kārgār and Faṣlī Dar Gūl-i Surkh.

60 These works include the historical, contemporary, and theoretical treatment of women's concerns in an attempt to find a “proper” form of feminist assertion to avoid obstacles such as censorship. The works of Banafshah Hijazi and Mihrangiz Kar exemplify such efforts.

61 These critical writings are so numerous that a professor at Al-Zahra University argues that they have caused an increase in the divorce rate. See Givihchiyan, Fatamah, “Sang-i Zīrīn-i Āsiyāb: Zān Yā Mard?Falsnāmah-i Ilami-Pazhuhishi Muţāliʿat-i Barnāmah Rizī 3 (Spring 1995)Google Scholar.

62 See the interview with Taraqqī, Gūlī in Adinah: Vizhah-i Guft-i Gū (08 1993): 6166Google Scholar. It has also become common for Zān-i Rūz, a women's magazine under Islamic influence, to occasionally discuss the “urgent women's issues” and to publish articles on feminism. See, for example, Zān-i Rūz 13 (08 1993), 1417Google Scholar.

63 Three bibliographical indexes (all written by women after the revolution) include more than 3,000 titles of articles about women written before 1986. See Khavhirān, Vahīd-i, Fihrisl-i MawẒūʿī-i Kulub va Maqālāt dar Barih-i Zan (Tehran: Idārah-i Kull-i Intishārāt, 1984)Google Scholar; Raʿyat, Maryam et al., Maqālah Nāmah-i Zan Tehrān: Pazhuhishhā-yi Farhangī (Tehran, 1989)Google Scholar; and Kudikān, Daftar-i ṣandūq-i, Fihrist-I Mushtārak-i Kitābhā (Tehran: ṣandūq-i Kudikān-i, 1994)Google Scholar.

64 In addition to self-expression through literature, women also resist the veil by leaving part of their hair outside of the scarf, violating the conventional use of color, participating in the social arena, attending classes in higher education, and even holding clandestine fashion shows. For a report on the latter, see Pāyam-i Imrūz, no. 6 (0506 1995), 100Google Scholar.

65 To examine the extent of such lists, see bibliographical indexes by women such as Zahra Chihrah Khand, Kitāb Nāmah-i Zan; Shahrzād Khashī, Kitāb Shināsi Naqd; and Ṣidiqah Sulţānifār, Kitāb Nāmah-i Zan. See women's journals such as Pāyam-i Zan, Zanān, Zān-i Rūz, Farzānah, Pāyam-i Hajar Mahjubah, Bultan-i Zanan, Sunbulah, Khanvadah, Fazilat-i Khanvadah, Payk-i Mama, Vizhah Namah-I Daftar-i Umur-i Zanan, Sal Namah-i Zan, Nida, Takapu-yi Banuvan. More specifically, look at Zān-i Rūz, nos. 1435 and 1436 (1972) and no. 1467 (1994) for detailed bibliographies of works on women's issues and literature.

66 Women abroad have written a great deal of literature in which they express their concern for the situation of women in Iran from a feminist point of view. Periodicals such as Nimeye Digar have played a central role in this regard.

67 See Barāhanī, Reza, “Tārīkh Ulaviyathā-yi Adabi Ra Ja Bi Ja Kardah,” Adinah 4243 (1 03 1992): 80Google Scholar; Takhayurī, Naṣrīn, “Mukhāţabān Jiditar va ʿAmiqtar az Intiẓār”; and Karīm Imāmī, “Bazār-I Garm-i Rūmān va Khanumhā-yi Rūmān Khān,” Adinah 44 (20 03 1992): 70Google Scholar.

68 Devil's Stone was reprinted within a month.

69 For more information on women's publication, see the appendix.

70 Parsipūr, Shahrnūsh, Ṭūba va Maʿna-yi Shab (Tehran: Isparak, 1989), 483Google Scholar.

71 Parsipur's only prerevolutionary novel, Sag va Zimistān-i Buland (1974), portrays the female protagonist in the context of her brother's revolutionary activism rather than in opposition to patriarchy.

72 Parsipūr, Shahrnūsh, Zanān Bidūn Mardān (Tehran: Nuqrah, 1989), 79Google Scholar.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid., 32.

75 ibid., 86.

76 Lazariyan, Janet, “Interview with Muniru Ravanipur,” Adinah 35 (10 1990): 4, 47Google Scholar.

77 Ibid.

78 Parsipūr, , Zanān Bidūn Mardān, 129Google Scholar.

79 Both of these characters, who transform into inanimate objects, distantly echo James Frazer's discussion of the lifecycle of the cult and the crops, in which the Persians' adoration for gardens is placed in a broader context of the Indo–European veneration of groves. See chapters on the tree in Frazer, James George, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1922)Google Scholar.

80 For a complete analysis of the connection between this Woolfian metaphor and the theme of the novel, see Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, “The Alterity in the Subaltern: Two Recent Works by Two Iranian Woman Writers,” presented at the Twenty-Eighth Annual Meeting of MESA.

81 Lazariyan, , “Interview with Muniru Ravanipur,” 47Google Scholar.

82 Ravānipūr, Munīru, Kanizu (Tehran: Nilufar, 1991), 17Google Scholar.

83 The vivid images of a defenseless goldfish and bloodthirsty shark give the story an edge and stand in contrast with the way they were used in the prerevolutionary period.

84 Faraj Sarkuhi, a male literary critic, believes that Ahl-i Gharq, another work by Ravanipur, is not a great success, yet he confesses that in his book “Women have principal roles. They are portrayed in a lively manner.” (Sarkuhi, Faraj, “Dar Barih-i Ahl-i Gharq,” Adinah 48 [08 1970]: 3032.)Google Scholar

85 ln Western countries such as the United States, however, feminism had existed as an articulated force since the 19th century. In some Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey and Egypt, the women's movement was part of the social fabric long before the 1980s.

86 Ḥarīrī, Nāṣir, Hunar va Adabiyat-i Imrūz (Babul: Kitabsara-yi Babul, 1987), 66Google Scholar.

87 Mafi, , Danishvar's Playhouse, 154–70Google Scholar.

88 Ibid., 156.

89 Ibid., 159.

90 Jean Starobinski offers insights into interpretive reading: “It is … the discovery of the simple truth that language is an infinite resource, and that behind each phrase lies hidden the multiple clamor from which it has detached itself to appear before us in its isolated individuality.” See Starobinski, Jean, Words upon Words (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), 122Google Scholar.

91 Dānishvār, Simīn, Ghurūb-i Jalāl (Hadis-i Nafs, 1981), 1319Google Scholar. The first section of the book was written before the revolution but was published with another article in 1981.

92 It weaves together the words of women who are married to prominent contemporary Iranian artists and reflects their response to the rise of feminist literary discourse: Hananah, Shāhīn, Pusht-i Darichah-hā: Guft Gū Bā Hamsarān-i Hunarmandān (Tehran: Dunya-yi Madar, 1992)Google Scholar.

93 Dānishvār, Simīn, Bih Ki Salām Kunam, 82Google Scholar.

94 Compare the two versions of this short story in Alifbā 2 (10 1973): 142–51Google Scholar, and Dānishvār, Simīn, Bill Ki Salām Kunam, 7593, 84Google Scholar.

95 Par Publications, Zanān Surayandah (Washington, D.C.: Par, 1991), 28Google Scholar.

96 Bihbahānī, Simīn, Ān Mard Mard-i Hamraham (Tehran: Zuvvar, 1990), 34Google Scholar.

97 Bihbahānī, Simīn, “Finjān-i Shikastah,” in Dunyā-yi Sukhan 64 (0607 1995): 72Google Scholar.

98 Bihbahānī, SimīnGuzīnah-i Ashʿār (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Murvarīd, 1988), 29Google Scholar.

99 Kadkhudāiyān, Zahra, Dukhtar-i Ḥāji Āghā (Tehran: Author, 1991), 183Google Scholar.

100 Ibid., 171.

101 Aybud, Ṭāhirah, “Bih Rang-i Khakistar,” in Kitāb-i Surūsh (Tehran: Surush, 1989), 84Google Scholar.

102 This economic crisis has given rise to polygamy and temporary marriages (sīghah).

103 Ḥijāzī, Khaţīrah, Anduh-i Zan Budan (Tehran: Rushangiran, 1992), 12Google Scholar.

104 Sari, Firishtah, Pizhvak-i Sukūt (Tehran: Bahman, 1989), 7Google Scholar.

105 Nizami Ganjavi and Jami especially employ this image in their poetry.

106 Milani, , Veils and Words, 137Google Scholar.

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