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Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers.

"BID FAREWELL to happiness in a house from which a woman's voice can be heard out loud" thus wrote the classical Persian poet Sa'di.

This ambitious new study of Persian women writers and poets begins with intriguing questions about the virtual absence of women writers from Persia's classical literary scene. For the author Farzaneh Milani, a teacher of Persian at the University of Virginia, much of the explanation comes from the institution of veiling. "Why does the beginning of women's literary tradition in Iran coincide with their attempt to unveil?", she asks.

In this society rigidly segregated by sex, the concept of veiling, or chador, was central. The function of the veil is to hide the woman from the sight of forbidden men, to create "a portable wall" to protect and to assert her modesty. Western visitors to Persia found a total absence of women from public life. Lady Sheil, the shrewd wife of the British ambassador in mid-nineteenth century noted that "in Persia a woman is nobody."

There is a sympathetic study of the poetess Taherah Qorratol'Ayn, a Babi disciple who in 1848 dramatically proclaimed the new faith of Babism, "and symbolically heralded the coming of the new era by her unveiling." She proved, according to the author, "that women could think, write and reason like men - in public and for the public".

From the first decade of the twentieth century, with the Constitutional period, the issue of women's liberties and rights became a popular case, reflected in writings by men against the "imprisonment" or "burying" of women in veils. Yet it should be remembered that long after 1906 in Persia, (as indeed in most non-Muslim countries), women, educated and illiterate alike, were denied the vote, along with madmen and criminals, three categories which were naturally classified together.

The abolition of the veil and compulsory unveiling in Iran from 1936 brought big changes to the cultural atmosphere. Yet the two essential conditions for creativity, as once noted by the English writer Virginia Woolf, were lacking: a room of one's own and five hundred pounds a year. Women writers were still marginalised in their own country.

From the late 1960s, increasing numbers of urban women from the higher classes adopted the fashion for taking up the veil, in reaction to the Western-influenced culture. After the revolution in 1979, the reverse process of compulsory veiling of all women was imposed in stages. The author believes, to her sharp regret, "its implementation would have been impossible had it not been for the attraction the veil held for many as well as for the apathy and equivocal conduct of the educated elite."

Many modern Muslim women, of course, consider the veil a source of pride and virtue, not of social oppression. Ayatollah Khomeini declared, "what we don't want and what Islam does not want, is to make woman an object, a puppet in the hands of men." In this traditional defence, then, the veil serves simply to protect women, saving them from man's uncontrollable lust. Female writers in Persian had to pay for their fame. It was notoriety rather than fame they won, with frequent allegations to gross immorality or madness. Where they were not accused directly of immorality, their talent has been denigrated or otherwise accounted for. Even the belated recognition given to the writer Simin Daneshvar's talents was overshadowed, claims the author, "by her relegation to the status of the wife of the famous writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad. This was typical for other independent-minded writers, for whom the father, husband or lover has been held by male critics to be the crucial or determining influence on their work. That applies no less to the most famous female Persian literary figure, Forough Farrokhzad, who is the subject of a separate study by Michael C. Hillmann (A lonely Woman: Forough Farrokhzad and her Poetry, Washington DC, 1987).

There is unfortunately little here about the well-known and popular novels (Tuba and the Sense of Night and Women Without Men) by the contemporary writer Shahrnush Parsipur, a close friend of the author who she has written of elsewhere. This book, though, eloquently shows how women writers have transformed Persian literature since the emergence of a few women writers and poets in Persia in the mid-nineteenth century. Fiction writing by numerous Iranian women writers and poets is continuing, but mainly now from exile. The female side of experience, claims Milani, was "like a terra incognita in Persian literature. Women writers have produced a key to unlock this riddle."
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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