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Exploring identity through fiction: women writers in the Islamic Republic of Iran beyond autobiography.


In 1988 the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University held a seminar on "Women's Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran". The speakers were concordant on the fact that "no veiled woman has ever published the details of her personal life, let alone a novel or an autobiography" (Milani, 1990, 5) and that "Western-style autobiography does not suit Persian cultural and literary categories" (Hanaway, 1990, 63).

After more than twenty years, this situation has partially changed, mainly because now women are at the vanguard of Iranian literary movement. Officially, there are more than 400 women writers in present day Iran whose literary output ranges from short stories to novels, from poetry to drama and theatre. However, their production confirms that the majority of Iranian women (and men) still do not choose the autobiographical genre. This consideration is applicable to women (and men) who live in their country, as Iranian migration literature offers us a totally different panorama: in fact, not only have Iranian women writers from the diaspora, especially in the United States, often reverted to autobiography, but they have met such a success that the global readership might be persuaded that this is Iranians' favorite literary genre. These best-seller memoirs, which basically consist of condemnation of the present Iranian regime articulated around the author's personal vicissitudes, satisfy the Western audience's expectation, as they confirm the common prejudice and distorted image of Iranian/Muslim women as exploited and oppressed. Thus, these writings, all composed in English since they address a non-Iranian readership, are celebrated for reasons beyond their literary quality, since they serve extra purposes such as the efforts of individuals who bear witness to social/political injustice.

In this same category we can place the memoirs written by women who belonged to the pre-Revolution leadership, i.e., two formers queens, the shah's sister and other notables of the precedent regime who basically try to defend their men's (and their own) political deeds. These writings, also written in English for an international public - often with the help of a ghost-writer - combine some "Thousand-and-one nights" styled descriptions of Iran with apologetic arguments as a way to explain why their administration was overturned by popular rage in the late 1970s.

Naturally, we do not find this kind of memoirs in Iran, for a variety of reasons. First, local readers do not need this sort of testimonial literature, as they know too well what's going on in their country; second, writers in Iran cannot explicitly express their ideas through an autobiography, given the presence of a strict censorship that carefully checks every possible sign of dissent among its citizens; third, in this historical phase more than ever, Iranians are more concerned with a committed literature milieu that privileges the social engagement rather than being interested in individuals' personal grievances.

This does not mean that the genre of autobiography is completely disregarded by Iranian female writers, quite the contrary, but rather that individual's life story on the Iranian plateau assumes more articulated and peculiar nuances.

It is to be underlined that, more than using what is generally defined as "autobiography", Iranian women writers explore a variety of literary genres, styles and devices, thus creating a mirror effect through which they manage to fully express their selves, while examining and exploring their own lives projected against the background of the contemporary society. Though constrained by socio/political hindrances that attempt to limit their autonomy, women raised their voices through creative forms of expression in which they publicly affirm different images of self.

We propose here an analysis of the different ways in which Iranian female writers merge autobiographical elements and explore different identities and/or exploit diverse paths in order to become fully visible and define their self.

Simin Daneshvar: Remembering, Stating and Defending

Simin Daneshvar is the forerunner of this "pink wave" of Iranian literature, which has been flourishing since the 1980s. Born in 1921, she was the first woman to publish a collection of short stories in Iran (1948) and the author, among other texts, of one the most acclaimed novels ever written in Persian, i.e., Siavushun (Requiem for Siavush), published in 1969. In that same year which proclaimed Simin's success, her husband, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, died. It was a great loss for her, as the union with Jalal, a renowned writer and intellectual, had been nurtured by both affection and professional esteem. All these sentiments are expressed by Simin in a long tale dedicated to her husband, Qorub-e Jalal (Jalal's Sunset, 1982) in which she revisits their fourteen years of marriage and renders an affectionate and moving portrait of her man. The tale is a mixture of biographical memories and a poetic recreation of a sentimental/professional union set on the background of Iranian tumultuous history.

"He had a death as beautiful as his life had been, both swift and light as a fading flame [...] Jalal was pure movement and marched in company

of love. He was uncontaminated and passionate. His returning to the faith was due to his thirst for wisdom. In the past he had experimented Marxism, socialism and even existentialism. His coming back to religion, to the Imam of the epoch, (1) was his solution to be freed from imperialism and to defend our people's identity. Human dignity, compassion, justice, rationalism, piety: Jalal was in need of this kind of religion." (Daneshvar, 1982: 21-22).

Jalal Al-e Ahmad well symbolized the pre-Revolution intellectual who, after experimenting with various philosophies and "-isms", returned to Shi'i religion, attracted by its message of justice and freedom from the Western colonial grip. He was, in fact, the author of the highly praised "Gharbzadeghi" (Westoxication,) a novel which, by sarcastically mocking middle-class Iranians brainwashed by the American way of life, paved the way to the intelligentsia's re-approach to religion as a form of resistance to Western interference. However, after the twist taken by the Revolution and the instauration of the theocratic regime, Al-e Ahmad's position was somehow criticized by the opposition, which accused him of intellectual complicity in the process that ultimately led to the reintegration of theocracy. Simin, who had always shared her husband's engagement and political position, is therefore using this biographical note also to defend both her late husband and herself from their detractors:
   From the times of the Constitution [i.e., 1907] our exploiters
   thought that our freedom had to be limited to drill oil to be
   exported, together with our other resources, to the West. But Jalal
   had a totally opposite idea of freedom: for him, freedom meant to
   be released from the evil of Marxism of Stalin's Russia and of
   American and British imperialism. That's why in his texts he strove
   to cut those visible and invisible connections. And perhaps he died
   because of this, or, at least, this provoked his declining.

   Jalal dared to spit in the face of exploiters and colonizers and to
   whip the intellectuals for their own sake and for other people. But
   Jalal never searched for power, he just wanted to have an impact,
   and he managed to have it, at least on his contemporaries and, as
   he foresaw, even on later generations. (ibid.).

In these pages Simin hints to some troubles she went through during her conjugal life, problems due in particular to Jalal's sudden changes of humours. Nevertheless Simin Daneshvar's recollection of her husband is, above all, an elegiac tribute well summarized in this paragraph:
   ...I recited those lyrics which say:
   "Tell me which is the best town."
   "That in which my beloved dwells".
   I am still persuaded by this and I keep on thinking about it. And I
   do believe that moment is not be far. I feel that I am fading away
   day by day. Please bury me in Jalal's grave. I have already
   arranged everything. (ibid, 28).

Almost thirty years have passed since Daneshvar wrote these lines, years in which she published two hit novels (Daneshvar 1994 and 2001) and a collection of short stories (Daneshvar 1997) that combine her strong interest in social issues with a deep knowledge of Iranian historical and cultural roots, thus confirming the writer's dedication to an engaged literature along the track she and her husband traced more than forty years ago. Simin Daneshvar affirms her identity as the repository of Iranian historical consciousness and confirms herself to be its most indefatigable story teller.

Goli Taraqqi: First, a woman narrating as if she were a man

Though this paper deals exclusively with writers who live and work in Iran, it reserves a special space for Goli Taraqqi (1939) who represents an interesting and almost unique case of diaspora writer who at the same time can be considered a resident in her country of origin.

Goli left Iran almost after the onset of the Revolution and settled down in Paris with her two young children. By that time, she had already debuted with a collection of short stories, Mam ham Che Guevara hastam (I am also Che Guevara, 1969) and a novel, Khab-e zemestani (The Winter Sleep, 1973). These two works clearly show the characteristics of Taraqqi's first period: a deep attention to marginal characters, apparently similarly insignificant, who belong to the low-middle class and are endowed with some education; her predilection for opaque, gloomy atmospheres, for ambiances not totally desperate but nonetheless deprived of any hope; and an overall cold and detached pessimism. Taraqqi shows no love for her characters, from whom she distances herself by assuming a male identity. However, her choice does not seem to be a literary expedient, but rather a personal search for impartiality, as if her male identity could be a guarantee of impartiality and credibility. In The Winter Sleep, for example, she explores the lives of ten male friends who are characterized by sorrow and missed opportunities. None, even the few and scarcely sketched female figures, though more lively and reactive than the male ones, can defeat this "mal de vivre". Goli does not involve herself in the characters' events; she just philosophically and rationally explores the suffering of a humanity that seems to have no age, no gender and no hope.

Goli Tarraqi's pessimistic view worsened during the onset of the Revolution, also due to her personal misfortunes (she was deprived of her teaching position at the University of Tehran and divorced her husband). Naturally these issues were exacerbated by the general political situation in Iran. Goli poured her grief and fears into one of her best tales ever, Bozorgbanu-e ruh-e man (The Great Lady of my Soul, 1979), an apocalyptic portrait of the evils from which the country was suffering.

In this somehow autobiographical story, Goli speaks as if she were a man, i.e., a university teacher dolorously but impartially watching what's going on: the university students rioting; the intellectuals torn between the necessity of fleeing and the willingness to stay and fight; friends and relatives no longer recognized as they rapidly change ideas, ideals, alliances. Taraqqi represents the incumbent danger of the advancing obscurantism through a female character, i.e., the protagonist's wife who once used to making up and varnishing her nails. The wife now:

She has suddenly discovered God and she is all excited. At night she studies Islamic jurisprudence and during the day she rushes at the "Guide and religious instruction for women" course [.] She does not look like the person she was. She does not look like anyone I know. (Taraqqi, 1979, 39).

In the escalation of the woman's religious frenzy Goli embodies the madness of a country that is hastening towards intolerance. The protagonist's wife, who raves about her landowner's suspicious relations with Israel, who pontificates on the infidels' impurity and invokes anathema against the materialistic philosophies and the Revolution's enemies, becomes the symbol of Iranian leadership's harsh twist towards theocratic absolutism. The writer's choice of a female character to represent the detrimental turn of the Revolution is interesting and telling: Goli does not depict a woman as a victim of the circumstances but, rather as an active protagonist of the events that will tremendously change Iran. Her choice is also an act of criticism of those women who went to demonstrate in the streets covered by their chadors to ask for freedom and drive monarchy out from the country, but who eventually fell victims of their own protest.

Second: recovering the past

During her Parisian exile Goli is free to write and choose her topics, but nostalgia overcomes her. The titles of the story collections published in these last years are significant: Khatereha-ye parakande (Scattered Memoirs, 1992); Ja-ye digar (Another Place, 2000); Do donya (Two Worlds, 2002). Though established in Paris, Goli Taraqqi continues to regularly visit her country, and moreover, to write in Persian and to publish her stories in Iran with Iranian publishers, for the reason that, as she says, "I want to publish in Iran because there my readers are waiting for my books". (2)

In these texts Goli Taraqqi on the one hand emphasizes her feeling of estrangement from herself and her own country; while, on the other, she reveals her difficulty in getting into the exile dimension and in adjusting herself to the new reality. The aspect of estrangement seems to prevail on every other issue. A sample will better clarify this point: after years of work on a novel with the tentative title 'Adatha-ye gharib-e aqa-ye A. dar ghorbat (The Strange Conduct of Mr. A. in a Foreign Land), where Mr. A. is an unhappy Iranian in Paris, Goli decides to publish only a part of it (Taraqqi, 1992). In the original title appear both the word gharib, i.e., "strange, odd", but also "foreign, alien, homeless", and ghorbat, that means "remoteness from home, exile", words that evidence Goli's double alienation. The protagonist of this tale is, again, a male pathetic character: however, at the same time we may say that this character has no gender, as if the author were trying to de-masculinize it and create an universally ductile protagonist whose vicissitudes are applicable to every human being.

The overlapping between the writer and her central protagonist is unmistakable: he is a teacher (once again!) who suffers from the same cultural shock Goli Taraqqi experienced during her first years in France. Once more, the writer revisits and reinforces the merciless portrait of educated, passive Iranian middle-class intellectuals who are afraid of living in the real world, whom she had depicted in her first production.

Yet, in these memoirs there is something new, i.e., the elegiac dimension of Taraqqi's life in Tehran which she often revisits. She returns to events related to her childhood and describes people who populated it, and she speaks in first person with her true identity. She narrates a teenager's juvenile conflicts (finally, a female protagonist!) living in the 1950s Tehran and though autobiographical elements are preponderant in a geographical-cultural background meticulously definite, she is capable of transforming her own experiences into a universal paradigm. She speaks with the international voice of nostalgia and homesickness. Her identity is that of a woman who is re-writing her past while also revisiting the historical memory of her country.

In this phase, Goli Taraqqi is also revising her position towards some socio/historical events. After years spent in Paris in exile but simultaneously located in a liminal space between East and West, the writer seems to rehabilitate her native culture. More than this, while reverting to the child-Goli's voice, the writer reconsiders many small details in which she finally discovers some of the reasons for the outburst of the revolution, such as the class-fight between the elite who dominated Iran before the revolution (and to whom Goli belongs) and the rest of the population.

For instance, in the story Autobus-e Shemiran (The Bus to Shemiran, 1988) Goli recounts how during a harsh winter she contracted pneumonia and her father, who was deeply persuaded of Western physicians' superiority over the local ones, sent her to Paris. Rather, Goli had a crush on the school bus driver, a man from the lower class, and was confident in his allegedly thaumaturgic powers...

Goli recreates the conflicting setting of pre-revolutionary Iran by placing on one side her mother perennially surrounded by French scent together with her authoritarian father who asserted Western superiority; on the other side, she sets the uncultivated but kind and respectful driver and all the humble people who were, at best, patronized by her family. In this apparently weak allegory (because the conflict is seen through a child's eyes) lies the writer's criticism of the class she belonged to and a tentative approach to the new Iran shaped by the Revolution. Here her exiled voice is not confined to the nostalgia for a faraway world, but it rather turns into a sort of critical rethinking conveyed by a yearning elegy.

Third: Towards New Identities

There is also some feminist evolution in Taraqqi's last production, although we cannot talk of a "gender oriented" literature. One can only find some allusions to a "feminist rebellion", as it happens in the tale Khane-ye madar- e bozorg (Granny's house) in which the author confesses that when she was a little child she had applauded at the news that her excessively jealous uncle's wife had run away. Goli Taraqqi also describes her resentment of the greater liberty her family's males enjoyed:

It was clear to me that to become a woman meant to become a sort of silly person and that to be a good girl meant to cheat other people. Tuba [the nanny] would say: "A woman is more wretched than a dog: wait until you are an adult and you will understand why!" (Taraqqi, 1992:76)

Nevertheless, we cannot speak of feminist claims as this story also presents both female and male negative characters, such as her Aunt Azar, "a stupid woman who would fall in love once a month" (Ibid:73).

This attitude in confirmed also by non autobiographical tales, such as "Khane-ye dar aseman" (A House in the Sky), in which the protagonist, Mahin Banu, is a woman victimized by the greediness of her children who sell her own house in order to flee from Iran during the war with Iraq. Though there is an undeniable critique towards the Iranian government whose unjust laws allow children to depredate their own mother, it is also indisputable that ultimately Mahin Banu is not betrayed by the authorities but by her offspring, among whom there is her daughter.

However, this novel underlines how female characters are much better defined and expanded in Goli's most recent writings, though sometimes they are charged with negativity: as into the case of Zeinab, an ambiguous girl who intrudes herself in the writer's house, pretending to be a victim of a machination (Taraqqi, 1992) and of Delbar, a former baby sitter of Taraqqi's children, who has become a torturer after the Revolution and by whom the writer is now forcedly confronted and challenged. In this phase, Goli Taraqqi finally writes with her female voice, but she does not spare women from tough condemnation for their shared responsibility with persecutors and oppressors.

Goli Taraqqi spends more and more time in Iran and is engaged in writing a new novel, the story of a Iranian expatriate who decides to go back to Iran for good. It is interesting to listen to the writer's statement about this project:
   I want to explore whether I can settle down in Iran again or not.
   In order to verify this possibility I am writing a story whose
   protagonist is an Iranian emigre who decides to go back to Iran. If
   my protagonist can get used to this situation, so will I. (3)

After being a woman writing with a male voice and one of the most refined pens of Iranian transmigration, Goli Taraqqi is again searching for a new identity through her fictitious characters. She might carry the scars of dislocation and migration, but the result of this innovative search is likely to become the trademark of a new chapter in Iranian literature.

Farkhonde Aqa'i: exploring forbidden identities

The most outstanding writers in post-Revolutionary Iran experiment with different forms, techniques and genres inside their own production. Most of the female artists write allegorical tales in which they convey Iranian women's preoccupations about their rights, for their incomplete citizenship and for the problems incumbent on Iranian society in general, from unemployment to a deficient democracy, to say the least.

The writings of Farkhondeh Aqa'i (1956) are one of the most interesting in this respect. In her short story Seda-ye darya (The Sea Voice, 1993), while playing with surrealistic images, she portrays a disquieting situation: a mother (the narrating voice) takes the daughter to the seaside and lets the little one to play and cover her with pebbles. However, when the woman gets up she cannot get rid of the little stones, which have become parts of her body and she is forced to live with this encumbrance. This story protagonist seems to symbolize women who are generally required to cope with burdens and secrets and carry the marks of their difficult lives on their own bodies.

In the 2000 Farkhonde Aqa'i approaches her first novel in which she develops a difficult theme, a sex-change operation. It is quite odd that such a theme, while somehow "outrageous" in a Muslim country, can be openly treated in the Islamic Republic, but we have to remember that sex surgery in Iran is allowed by the religious ruling authorities. Farkhondeh lends her voice to a young man who decides to become a woman, not without going through comprehensive psychological and environmental troubles. The author is the first Iranian to capture this theme and to develop a full portrait of a man captured in a woman's body. Besides, Farkhonde takes advantage of the story to send messages about the other "lost gender", i.e., women. Intruding herself into the argument with which a psychologist tries to discourage the protagonist from changing his sex, Aqa'i says:

"Why it is so important for you to become a woman? You are a handsome guy, you come from a good family. Don't you know how many opportunities you will lose by becoming a woman?" (Aqa'i, 2000: 87).

In the introduction to the book Farkhonde Aqa'i confesses to be concerned about the loss of identity in general, (p. XII), but in reality she experiments with a new strategy in order to draw attention to Iranian women's identity dilemma.

We have to underline that in a country in which girls represent 65% of the university population and women dominate many situations (i.e., cultural, social, economic etc.), they are still discriminated against in crucial arenas, such as that of Family Law. Or that a woman who sits in the Parliament or is her family bread winner needs her husband's permission in order to go abroad. Every day Iranian women are challenged by multiple and conflicting identities that are more and more difficult to sustain and reconcile. When the political arena closes its space for discussion of such themes, women's literature intervenes to challenge the status quo and subvert the limits to self-representation.

Identities in Rhyme: Tahereh Saffarzadeh, a Rebellious Muslim Woman "par excellence"

Though most of Iranian women writers show different degrees of impatience towards the post-Revolutionary regime and its implementation of laws tending to limit's women's rights and freedom. Nevertheless, one can also find exceptional samples of authors who, being persuaded that the Islamic Revolution has increased female potentialities, praise the Revolution makers for their accomplishment. Tahereh Saffarzadeh (1936-2008), the Iranian regime's most praised poetess, is a case in point. In addition, her poetry is particularly interesting as it shows how and why some Iranian intellectual women changed their mind and identity in these last decades, shaping and reshaping the themes of their literary production accordingly.

After a degree in English literature and the publication of a first volume of poetry, in the mid 1960s Tahereh divorced her husband and moved to the United States to take a course in creative writing. In the U.S. Tahereh breathed the "wind of contestation" and the sexual revolution as it is most evident in her American anthology Red Umbrella (1969). In one of these poems, written in English and only later translated into Persian, she writes:
   Invite me to a sandwich of love
   I am tired of all the big lunches
   the big preparations
   the big promises
   remember I am not a woman out of Maugham's Luncheon
   I am the traveler
   who has experienced the weight
   of too much baggage
   who only thinks of
   a light snack
   light stomach
   light memory
   invite me to a sandwich of love
   serve me in your hands
   wrap my body
   in the warm paper
   of your breath
   at the table of this cold winter night. (Saffarzadeh, 1969, 20)

In this phase of her poetic production, Saffarzadeh resorted to daring words and expressions to represent the voluptuous pleasure of physical love. At that time, in her countryside only another woman, the most celebrated Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1968), had dared to speak so audaciously. Here's another sample of Saffarzadeh's challenging social conventions through the rhymes:
   We travel towards the enjoyment of salty waters
   in a boat with no compass, we travel from nowhere to somewhere from
   somewhere to nowhere
   cruising in the song of our bodies
   my breasts trust every word that your hands
   hands with suppleness of the gentle heart - whisper
   We drive towards a hot summer noon
   and yet men are shivering in their heavy coats
   waves transcribe our gestures in the water's cloudy avenue
   thirst is blowing our breath in all directions
   we will die in a moment
   we die in a moment of perfumed humidity and sun. (ibid., 12)

However, this phase will not last long.

The Years of Contestation

After about in year in the U.S., Tahereh returns to Iran, which is also shuddered by winds of contestations, in the early 1970s, in fact, the country was experiencing a mounting opposition in the face of the imperial regime. In this climate, the feminist movement was also proceeding at steady pace, mainly to reclaim serious amendments to the Family Law. Tahereh Saffarzadeh was sensitive to issues of justice and gender equity and on frequent occasions she articulates her frustration at being a woman in a male-dominated society:
   I have not seen my birthplace
   The place where my mother delivered
   The load of her insides
   Under the ceiling
   The first tick-tacks of my small heart
   Are still alive
   In the smokestack
   And in the cracks of the old bricks
   And on the walls and doors
   Are still visible
   the track of my mother's shameful look
   to my father
   and to my grandfather
   after a choked voice announced:
   "It's a girl!
   The midwife shivered
   Fearing she would not get the gold coin
   For cutting the umbilical cord
   And knowing there would be no circumcision tip.
   On my first pilgrimage to my birthplace
   I will wipe from the walls
   My mother's shameful look
   And where my heart began to beat
   I will begin to openly say
   That my beautiful hands
   do not long to form fists,
   that I do not scream
   that I do not feel proud to kill people
   and that I have not been fattened
   at the table of male superiority. (Saffarzadeh, 1970: 110-111).

Tahereh not only challenges the patriarchal predilection for a baby boy rather than for a girl, but she also disapproves of women's complicity in carrying on this situation; women who are either frightened by men's judgment (her mother) or anxious because they do not get any advantage from a girl's birth, as the midwife who is tipped less for a female birth rather than for a male one and who, moreover, will not get the recompense for performing the customary circumcision expected for a boy. The poetess does not limit her action to a passive lament, but rather engages herself into action, by "washing her mother's shame" and affirming her pride at being a woman who is not "naturally" inclined (as a man is supposed to be!) to consummate violence against other human beings.

Tahereh is deeply imbued with her positive feelings about being a woman, however, in her progressing poetry are becoming preponderant the traces of her disillusionment in human relationship accumulated in her resentment for social restrain on women. The confusion of her personal situation is paralleled by the socio-political turmoil in Iran. Yet, now Tahereh seems to find a helping anchor:
   The pure sound of Azan is heard
   The pure sound of Azan
   is like a pious man's hand
   which frees my healthy roots
   from feeling of being isolated and lost
   No longer just an island
   I walk towards the mass prayer
   my ablution with city air and dark paths of smoke (ibid., 94-96)

Religion is slowly entering the life of this artist who feels lost and isolated, and tries to cling to the roots of her civilization. She is attracted by the sense of community the main prayer communicates and longs to leave behind the unpleasant sense of being an island, to become integral and accepted part of a group of people. Moreover, she is persuaded that her being a woman will not be an obstacle to joining this relief project:
   And my nail varnish
   Is no barrier
   For chanting "Allah u-akbar"
   I pray for a miracle
   I pray for a conversion. (ibid.)

Tahereh is working toward her new identity, that of a woman who is re-discovering religion not as an escape or a way to retire from the mundane aspects of life, but rather because religion represents the best approach to recoup her culture, to reestablish her country's dignity and to defend people's interest:
   The pure sound of Azan is heard
   And he walks toward the mass prayer
   And all of us walk with him
   With Salman
   In the courtyard
   A courtyard of equality and justice. (ibid. 44)

In Saffarzadeh's new vision, Salman (the first Iranian to become a Muslim) represents the pure energy needed in order to overcome the social injustice and political tyranny that struck the country during the Pahlavis' rule. According to this vision, she also recovers the positive values of the Arab invasion, mainly represented by the myth of "Iranianess" as the turning point of Iran decadence and subjugation to an alien religion (Islam). For Tahereh, instead, the Arabs were mere liberating fighters who brought the message of salvation. ("Safar-e Salman", Salman's Journey, 1977)

When she writes this poem her religious message is already tinted with the political colours of protest against Reza Shah, whose power is vacillating under the strokes of the incoming Revolution:
   [the liberating fighters] with the loving hands of faith
   chanting "Allah, Allah!"
   take their lives as gift
   into the battlefield (Saffarzadeh, 1977: 36)

In Saffarzadeh's allegory, Reza Shah behaves just as the Sasanian king did in the 7th century, when he abandoned Iran to the hands of the Arab armies: both the tyrants "hide behind their army" and eventually will die "of fear and the shame of anxiety" (ibid., 44)

Now Tahereh does not refuse authority per se, quite the contrary. After contesting patriarchy and male authority in her immediate past, at this moment she needs a strong male character to reassure her shaken identity, as it is evident in the poem she offers to the new holder of Iran, the ayatollah Khomeini, whom she salutes as the rescuer not only of Iranian nation but of all the Eastern countries:
   You are the ancestor of all heroes
   the hero of the Prophets
   in an epoch of temptation and greediness
   in an epoch of omnipresent murder
   an epoch of cunning charlatans
   of bribe givers and evil doers
   in the darkest night of history
   you are the East in every in every planet
   there is nothing between you and the sun
   when you move
   sun's hours move
   with freedom and power. (Saffarzadeh, 1980: 25)

This new Tahereh embraces the idea of the Revolution, including its disdain for the West in which she had lived, studied and composed, but which she now attacks:
   We were sound asleep
   So fast asleep
   that the thieves' march
   both domestic and alien thieves
   did not wake us up.
   God itself commanded our people's alertness
   And a mountain of a man
   upheld us
   and the pinnacle of the faith
   directed us towards
   fight and martyrdom. (Saffarzadeh, 1987: 29)

Martyrdom is one of the leitmotivs of the Islamic Revolution, and each believer is required to be ready for it. Tahereh Saffarzadeh builds her own martyrdom, not as a physical commitment, but as the sacrifice of her own self. Not only does she become one of the most faithful singers of the Revolution ideology, but she also cancels her feminist opinions, her gender-oriented chant: what's more, she restrains her female voice. In parallel with her physical transformation (she adopts the all-covering veil, which she will never abandon until her death) she veils the womanly tone of her voice and becomes a neutral poet.

Nevertheless, Tahereh Saffarzadeh still believes in women's struggle and announces her candidacy for parliamentary elections, but she is not elected. Consequently, she abandons the path of active politics but without losing faith in the Revolution and its beneficial effects which she keeps on praising. With her de-genderized voice she eulogizes all the revolutionary movements in the world. She pities the Palestinians, laments the injustice against the Blacks, praises the Guardians of the Revolution, mourns the Iranian casualties in Iraq and launches messages to the Pope in order to reach global peace. In 2005 the Organization of the Afro-Asian Writers proclaims Tahereh Saffarzadeh the "leading woman in the Islamic world and at the international scene". Three years later, she dies, leaving fourteen books of poems, numerous essays related to Islamic sciences and the first bilingual (Persian and English) translation of the Qur'an. Besides, her public memory rests in a website the regime dedicates to Tahereh and which consecrates her as the bard of the Revolution. (4)


This brief overview shows how Iranian women writers interweave their identities in lines of their fictional productions. In their poems, short stories and novels they negotiate the difficult boundaries between licit/forbidden, pure/dirty, private/public, religious/secular that afflict women's everyday life in Iran. At the same time, while using fragments of their personal/collective stories, they are rendering the various images of the new women who are coming to the fore in Iran. These artists are forging a new engaged literature that takes into consideration the deep changes their country is experiencing and the tumultuous situations whose main protagonists are women themselves.

In spite of the limits of government censorship and auto-censorship, women writers manage to convey a variety of situations, conflicting feelings, contrasts and contradictions, i.e., they put into words the plurality of life. When the contrast between what they try to express (and denounce) and the limits of social conventions (along with the State grip) is too rigid and insurmountable, women writers revert to borderline fictional characters, such as madwomen, captives or even prostitutes, whose displacement embodies the feeling of insecurity Iranian women experience in this perilous era. Women recreate in their fiction a forum to comment on such issues as marriage, divorce, religion, politics, and, in order to do so, they sustain multiple and conflicting identities.

Their writings can be read both as fascinating narratives and as valuable sociohistorical documents: from this perspective, they counteract the standard Western image of Iranian women as passive and oppressed.

Iranian women are at the crossroad of tradition and change, and their literature proves that they are reformulating and subverting the literary canons of self-representation as well as creating a non-fictional alternative selves.


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Anna Vanzan

University IULM, Italy & University of Pavia, Italy


(1) I.e., Iranian Shi'i believe in a succession of 12 imams whose 12th is hidden and will come back at the end of our era.

(2) Communication at a literary event in Udine, Italy, March 2009.

(3) Personal communication, Tehran, May 2009.


Anna Vanzan holds a Degree in Oriental Languages and Cultures (University of Ca' Foscari, Venice) and a Ph. D in Near Eastern Studies (New York University). Though she is interested in the Middle East in general, her research is focused especially on Iran, Central Asia and the sub continent (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Muslim India).

She has been working in gender studies with particular interest for contemporary fictional literature produced by Iranian women. She has many publications in Italian and English: her book, La storia velata: le donne dell'islam nell'immaginario italiano, (Edizioni del Lavoro, Roma, 2006) a history of the image of Muslim women in Italian culture from the Middle Ages has been awarded with the International Prize Feudo di Maida 2006. Her last book Figlie di Shahrazad, scrittrici iraniane dal XIX secolo a oggi (Bruno Mondadori, Milano 2009) is the first story of Iranian women's literature.

She is editor of the Italian journal Afriche & Orienti. She regularly lectures in various Italian institutions on issues of multiculturalism. She has lectured at the University of Bologna, Pisa, Geneva, New York. She is currently teaching Islamic studies at the University IULM, and History of Islamic Countries at the University of Pavia.
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Author:Vanzan, Anna
Publication:Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies: Alam-e-Niswan
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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