Women battling for freedom with words, not swords.
Midway through Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement, Farzaneh Milani describes visiting a restaurant in Tehran where a man, singing as a woman, rouses his mixed-gender audience to dance. Unwilling, it seems, to transgress too openly the ban on male/female dancing, the participants remain in their chairs, but, unable to restrain themselves, joyfully move their heads, their shoulders, their hands. "Tied to their seats," Milani writes, "women and men flapped their wings and soared." The image perfectly captures the "mixture of subversion and subservience" that Milani presents as key to women's lives in Iran in this impressive new work: the restrictions placed on their freedom of movement, and the creative means by which they have broken out of their enforced immobility.
Given the steady flow of memoirs, novels, short stories, and films produced by and about Iranian women in the last few decades, imagining a time when women authors occupied only a marginal space on the Persian literary landscape is difficult. Yet such was the case for nearly ten centuries. Those days fortunately now over, Iranian women seem to have settled into a marriage with writing which shows every sign of lasting happily ever after. The problem now before readers and scholars is interpreting the plethora of works emerging from the alliances of women and words.
Words, Not Swords fulfills this critical purpose admirably. In it, Milani, who took on the veil in a previous book, Veils and Words, now takes aim at what she identifies as an even more serious impediment to women's progress in the Middle East: seclusion and the immobility that usually accompanies it. As she observes, the traditional code of honor forbidding Muslim women from coming into contact with males other than close relatives often led to their confinement and the placing of severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. Using this enforced immobility as an analytical category with which to explore works about or by Iranian women, the author demonstrates that it has been both the "foundation of women's subordination in Iranian society and the source of their literary quasi-invisibility" --and moreover, that attempts to subvert it have catalyzed some of the most profound social and literary changes in Iran.
From the poetess and religious leader Fatimih Baraghani, later known better as Tahirih or Qurrat al-'Ayn, whose participation in a Babi conference in 1848 stands as a "moment of iconic importance," to Forugh Farrokhzad, whose poetry mirrors the cultural upheavals of a rapidly modernizing country, to Simin Behbehani, lauded as "the scribe of a nation that is in search of itself," it is women, Milani suggests, whose voices best represent the sorrows, struggles, and triumphs of Iran, and who have pushed it most effectively toward modernity.
This argument might be greeted with skepticism by those who would maintain that Iran is a nation of many voices and movements, or who would point out that similar claims could and have successfully been made about male authors and poets. Milani may in fact slightly overstate the case here, but few who have observed the international reach of Iranian women's voices in recent years would take issue with her concomitant implication that the significance of women's writing vastly transcends the particularities of their own lives, or indeed those of their country.
Milani covers a great deal of territory to amplify her theme of women navigating through and subverting enforced immobility.
Part One, "A Legacy of Containment," treats, in turn, women and sex segregation in classical Persian literature; the manner in which ideal feminine beauty has often been viewed in terms of restrained mobility; and women in Iranian cinema. This third section is especially interesting in its representation of the rocky fates and fortunes of the first Iranian female movie stars. One, who left the business after making only a single film, called the experience a "nightmare," citing the insults and ostracism it precipitated. Moving into the (relatively) more open-minded present, the chapter describes such female-directed films as "The Apple" and "The Day I Became a Woman," and their sympathetic portrayals of women and girls who are forced into, or struggle against, confinement and immobility. In one of the latter film's most striking moments, a character refuses to stop pedaling her bicycle in a race on Kish Island, even though her horrified husband divorces her mid-route. (Interestingly, as Milani observes, women on bicycles were similarly perceived in nineteenth-century America as "threats to the social order" and "a provocation to promiscuity!")
Part Two, "Wings and Words," analyzes the ways in which four major Iranian writers --Tahirih, Farrokhzad, Behbahani, and Shahrnush Parispur--build their "literary universe on spatial metaphors of movement and containment." Although Milani has examined these writers' works and lives elsewhere, her use of the mobility/immobility theme provides a fresh perspective. The poems and lives of Tahirih and Farrokhzad respond especially well to this treatment. Tahirih, the Babi heroine who left an unhappy marriage to become a public scholar and intellectual, appears here as a woman constantly on the move, and whose poeliy is likewise replete with movement: in one poem, she describes herself as "wandering like the wind" to find her beloved: "[f]rom house to house, from door to door/From place to place, from street to street O" Her itinerancy culminated in the Badasht conference of 1848, where Tahirih appeared without a veil and met openly with men in a public space. Identified by Milani as one of the first significant challenges to gender apartheid in Iran, Badasht "was a poignant moment that announced a challenge to the enforced spatial separation of men and women."
(Coincidentally, Badasht occurred just two weeks before the first women's rights convention in the United States held in Seneca Falls, New York, but has attracted far less attention from scholars. Why, Milani asks, does "history today celebrate the significance of one of these events, extolling its role as the beginning of women's struggle for equality, recognizing it as the dawn of universal suffrage, but for the most part neglect the other? Numerous books, articles, and documentary films explore the importance of the Seneca Falls convention and the contribution of its principal organizers, but little is known about the Badasht." Her point is well-taken; may researchers take note.)
Like Tahirih, Farrokhzad burst out of a confining marriage into the public sphere in an astounding act of courage and self-expression. The poet's brief, dramatic life here appears as a headlong struggle against stasis, a wild and desperate striving for movement that culminated in her death at the age of 32 behind the wheel of a speeding automobile. The same themes are central to her work. As Milani notes, in one of Farrokhzad's "most anthologized poems, 'Only the Voice Remains,' she asks six times in sixty verses: 'Why should I stop?' The rhetorical question, the poem's refrain, was the poet's most pressing concern in life."
Part Three, "Prisoners Awaiting Liberation," may well be the book's most significant contribution to the growing cache of criticism of Iranian women's writing. It focuses on so-called hostage narratives: a new genre of books in which Iranian women are portrayed as "the ultimate prisoners in a giant gulag the size of Iran." This category of works, into which Milani groups Betty Mahmoody's Not Without My Daughter and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, fail to acknowledge the advances made by women and their engagement in resistance and social activism. Rather, they depict women as captives "trapped in the dark dungeons of fanaticism and autocracy." As Milani drily observes, "Iranian writers are silenced on these pages in a way that has eluded the Iranian authorities." The concern is more than a trivial one. In an era in which "freeing" women from oppression is often listed among the rationales for military intervention, books such as these can all too easily serve political ends. Conversely, as the author notes, memoirs by the likes of Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis I and II) and Shirin Ebadi (Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope) offer more balanced and authentic visions of Iran.
A few shortcomings must be noted. Although Milani's prose is usually clear and jargon-free, more careful editing would have eliminated some instances of pedestrian and repetitive imagery, such as numerous references to developments that have "shaken the very foundation of Iranian society." Likewise, the introduction wanders off on tangents that serve to diminish, rather than support, the central argument. For example, devoting upwards of seven pages to the veil may seem overlong to some in a study that is looking at seclusion and immobility, and which decries the manner in which this "modern fetish" has "overshadowed substantive studies of Iranian women ..." Finally, given the number of times she has made an appearance in this context, per haps it is time to temporarily retire Scheherazade as a symbol of women, storytelling, and the Middle East.
But these are minor matters that detract little from the work's power. Words, Not Swords will be useful for any student or scholar whose research deals with gender studies, the Middle East, or contemporary Islam, or indeed anyone wishing for more than a superficial acquaintance with a country whose political, cultural, and religious clout is only beginning to be felt.
University of Washington
This book review first appeared in Iranian Studies, the journal of the International Society for Iranian Studies, and is reprinted with the permission of the editor, Homa Katouzian.
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|Publication:||Iran Times International (Washington, DC)|
|Date:||Aug 15, 2014|
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