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Three voices
Iranian feminist perspective

By Armin Ali-Akbar Rahmanian
May 6, 1999
The Iranian

Iranian culture has always been one of patriarchal dominance. This dominance has penetrated most spheres of public life, and practically all private spheres. Only in the latter half of this century have Iranian women writers made their presence felt. Under the Pahlavis (1926-79), many Iranian women may have found new opportunities to participate in society beyond domestic walls.

But even in the 1960's and 70's, when a woman achieved prominence in the public arena, she did so as a result of her relationship to an influential man, as his mother, wife, sister, or daughter, or as a result of governmental tokenism (Hillmann). In a society concerned obsessively with keeping the worlds of male and female separate, with an ideal of feminine as silent, immobile, and invisible, women writers have not found it easy to flourish.

Gocek and Balaghi argue that, "Voice and experience can be utilized as the two conceptual parameters to recapture the agency of the hegemonized. Voice advantages the text of the subject over that of the interpreter; experience assigns primacy to the way the subject and the interpreter actively and consciously give meaning and mediate their social realities (Gocek and Balaghi)."

I would agree with them, and add that voice and experience can be relayed across cultures as well, so as to create a more global approach to feminism. Subsequently, in order to genuinely address universal feminist concerns, it is imperative for this global perspective to be adopted.

The global feminist discourse recognizes that the problem of a woman constitutes an issue in its own right, not as a subsidiary of other ideologies, no matter how structurally comprehensive or textually promising they may seem to be. Since "traditional" concepts are, by definition, founded in patriarchal discourse, global feminism has no choice but to be skeptical of propositions that present themselves as liberating.

In this sense, literary forms, and in particular poetry, provide an agency in which feminist issues can be explored without the threat of patriarchal imposition. The absence of East-West disputes within poetry further lends credence to its use to achieve effective global feminism.

The Iranian female poet may simultaneously address the problems that are obviously "Iranian" and still reach a non-Iranian audience, thereby mobilizing world opinion for their cause and breaking out of the boundaries of patriarchal discourse on their own, on their way to addressing their problems in a way that will lead to their solution (Afkhami).

In this essay, I will explore the voice of Iranian women through their poetry, and their use of voice to create agency for themselves, a necessary condition for the advancement of feminism in Iran and worldwide. I have chosen to focus on the works of three contemporary poets: Parvin Etessami (1907-41), Simin Behbahani (b. 1927), and Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-67).

Using these three poets enables me to provide concrete examples of women creating an agency of their own through poetry. The controversial nature of each artist's poems, and in particular those of Farrokhzad, have made them the most influential women of their time. Each poet's role in influencing a male-dominated society will now be discussed.

Parvin Etessami

Parvin Etessami was raised primarily by her affluent father, who was well known for his non-traditional feminist views and translation of Qasem Amin's "The Emancipation of Women." Therefore, it is not surprising that E'tessami, with her remarkable education and unfailing support of her father, broke free from social confinement. By doing so, she was able to freely express her feelings through her poetry without receiving the negativity expressed towards Farrokhzad, as described later.

Many discounted Etessami as the authentic author of some of her earlier poems, considering claims that she began publishing poetry at the age of eight. Many suggested that her father had authored the majority of her poems. However, it is evident that these false accusations were just tactics incorporated by the male intellectuals of the time to deny a woman the praise she deserved for her poetry.

One such infamous critic, Fazlollah Garakani, in his 1977 book Tohmat-e Sha'eri [Accused of Being a Poet] went so far as to argue that no woman, let alone Parvin E'tessami, who in his view was, "kind of ugly, timid, and cross-eyed," could have written such sophisticated poetry. Garakani further contends that a widely held patriarchal view of the time was, "A woman's art is making an artist out of a man." Granted literary value, she is denied her womanness; allowed her gender, she is refused her talent (Milani).

E'tessami's literary excellence is not interpreted as evidence of women's potential, should they be given the chance to develop it as was E'tessami. Instead, her poetry is considered as "masculine", with the implicit assumption that men alone can write sophisticated poetry. If a woman "miraculously" writes a popular poem, she must be some kind of deviation from the norm, a deviation that is quickly resolved by regarding it as unwomanly. In this way, the male authorities of the time were able to undermine the authenticity, and thereby effectiveness, of E'tessami's voice.

It has been argued that until the abolition of the veil in 1936, Etessami had not taken a clearly definite feminist stance, despite her fascination with issues surrounding the veil. Etessami refused to consider the veil as a sign of feminine modesty, even though she never explicitly condoned veiling. Instead, she argued in the last line of her poem, Ganj-i-Iffat [Hidden Treasure of Chastity], that, "A worn out Chador is not the basis of faith in Islam (Milani)."

Consequently, it appears that Etessami realized that unveiling could be equated by most with corruption and immodesty - cardinal sins for a Muslim woman - but a woman without a veil was not necessarily contradicting her Islamic faith. In this way, Etessami avoided subordinating a woman's welfare to the symbolic significance of unveiling as a token of the newly adapted modernity of the state.

Simin Behbahani

Unlike her contemporary poets, Etessami and Farrokhzad, Simin Behbahani has been virtually neglected by the literary establishment. In more recent years, however, she has earned more prominence as a result of the strength of her personality, her talent, and her perseverance.

Among Behbahani's many neotraditional themes and ghazals, her sixteen poems dedicated to kowlis [Gypsies] best exemplifies her role in the feminist struggle. A gypsy, always a woman in her poetry, is a social mutant. Ambiguous and unclassifiable, she has an amorphous social status. She has no home of her own, is in constant wandering and migration. She is socially and culturally marginal, and refuses to be domesticated.

Unrecognized in her capacities as daughter, wife, mother, she has no family-bound existence. She has a reputation for non-conformity. A gypsy is mobile, and her mobility affords her visibility; she is not confined in the home. Unmindful of rules governing modesty, she has an overtly public presence.

To appreciate the significance of her freedom to roam at will, one must look at it against the backdrop of the normative immobility of women in Middle Eastern societies. The privilege of mobility holds such special value for a woman in a sexually segregated society that Fatima Mernissi, in her treatise entitled, "Women in Modern Paradise," equates it with a paradisiacal right.

Another powerful challenge to normative society created by the image of a gypsy is her public voice. Behbahani, reminiscing about a childhood ear infection, writes, "The doctor interpreted my infantile screaming as kowligari [Gypsy-like] and told my mother, 'This girl will avenge you!'." Although condemned, she is also admired; abased, she is also exalted.

As a social type, a gypsy transcends properties and boundaries. The image of the gypsy unavoidably challenges the narrow definitions of womanhood in Iran. She is a potent cultural figure; the ideal and the counter-ideal. She combines many intense and contradictory feelings about womanhood.

By using the gypsy, Behbahani has, instead of importing a model or creating a new heroine, appropriated what currently exists. This strategy has enabled her to evade most of the anti-Western criticisms aimed towards most of the other feminist writers of the time. As a result, Behbahani has been spared much of the damaging categorization applied to her contemporaries, despite the radical connotations of her feminism.

In her use of the gypsy, Behbahani casts a familiar figure in a heroic mold, questions perceived interpretations of her life, and promotes radical changes. She revives, and then revises, mythologies that govern patriarchal thinking. By reinterpreting the figure of the gypsy, Behbahani asserts the gypsy's power rather than her victimhood, and turns it into a triumphant image of female autonomy (Milani).

Forugh Farrokhzad

Forugh Farrokhzad provides the most controversy among these three poets, and in fact any other female or male poets of her time. The controversy her poems created were primarily due to her honesty and superb ability to accurately convey her feelings through poetry.

Farrokhzad was extremely successful at describing her inner world, who she is, and what she holds as valuable. In other words, she was able to reveal to her readers her identity, which was unprecedented at the time, particularly since it came from a woman. Although she received praise for the literary value of her poetry, this popularity never raised her social status as a result of her gender.

Farrokhzad was sincerely concerned about the fate of her Iranian people. While she was not a formally trained social scientist, she was acutely aware of her surroundings. She was able to take the sociological perspective through her poetry, and understood that her current state was a result of her society and the times. Surely she was aware of what it meant to be a woman, in Iran and globally. She was aware that around the world, women have been held socioeconomically inferior to men.

No woman in Iranian history, literary or otherwise, was able to correct the contemporary perception of a woman's identity, or how it feels to be a woman, as eloquently and candidly as Farrokhzad. As a result of her openness and inner exploration, the reader is better able to relate to her. In this way, she captured the hearts of many Iranian women, and revealed to the lost masses not necessarily how to find themselves, but more importantly how to explore the lost self.

In her poems, Farrokhzad does not idealize the way things should be, but rather brutally describes the reality in which she lives. Many of her critics use this against her, as they argue that the artist should find the solutions to the problems of life, not just the problems themselves.

However, Farrokhzad thoughtfully realized that the world was already in abundance of solutions. Instead, she searched for the problems to be solved. Herein lies the remarkable points of Farrokhzad's poetry. Through her writings, she was able to ask the simple, yet elusive, question of who we are, meanwhile not providing excessive answers that are already so abundant. Farrokhzad's ability to find the real, yet positive, aspects of life, and her potent womanhood is revealed in the following poem she authored (Makhmalbaf):

Oh, come man
Oh, you who are selfish
Come and open the doors of my cage
You have imprisoned me for ages

Now set me free from this cage
I am that bird
The bird that for a long time
Has been thinking about freedom and flying unconstrained
My voice became a pain in my throat
My life ended with this wish

But, oh man, you selfish one
Don't say that my poem is shameful
Have you ever been aware of
The feelings of people who are caged for ages
Throw away your so-called manhood, oh man
My supposed shame is intoxicating
God will forgive the poet to whom He has given a crazy heart

Through the works of three contemporary poets, I have demonstrated how each has dealt with the problems and obstacles facing women with a voice in contemporary Iranian society, and indeed most of the rest of the world. Simin Daneshvar, Iran's leading woman author of today, calls E'tessami's perspective a feminine one, but not the bold, freedom-seeking voice of Farrokhzad.

This may have been one major reason that most male intellectuals have praised Etessami over Farrokhzad. E'tessami's circumspectness, modesty, and the use of personae no different in many cases from masculine personae in traditional Persian lyric and didactic verse may have been another factor to the favoring of Etessami over Farrokhzad.

Finally, Farrokzad's style in verse and life was full of significant sexual implications. Farrokhzad was excellent at delivering the nontraditional and unexpected in this sense, lending herself to patriarchal criticism (Hillmann).

More recently, there has been a significant proliferation of women's voices in Iran. Between 1983 and 1985, 126 books by or about women were published in Iran. In the course of twelve months, more than 500 such articles were written. If compulsory veiling, implemented with the end of the Islamic Revolution in 1980, was meant to segregate and silence women, then it has not been successful. Women's unprecedented visibility in literature is only one eloquent testimony to this failure (Milani).

In the last year, there was a collection of the works of 50 contemporary Iranian women writers compiled and published in Iran. In recent works such as these presented here, as well as more recent ones, it is possible to better appreciate the struggles of such early poets as Parvin E'tessami, Simin Behbahani, and Forugh Farrokhzad.

I conclude the paper with Gypsy Poem 13, from Simin Behbahani, that advocates and celebrates the transcendence of three central cultural fears: women's visibility, women's mobility, and women's voice (Milani).

Sing, O, Gypsy, in homage to being, sing
To register your presence in people's ears, sing.

Eyes and throats burn from the smoke that trails monsters
Scream if you can, of the terror of this night. Sing.

The secret of the monster's life hides in the stomach of a fish
That swims in waters to which you cannot reach.

Every maiden holds the head of a monster on her lap
Like a lump of coal in silver wrapped.

The rapacious monsters have plundered from the pretty maidens
The silk of their cheeks, the agate of their lips.

O, Gypsy, with the yearning for liberty, stamp your feet,
To receive an answer, send a message with their beat.


Armin Ali-Akbar Rahmanian is a graduate student at Ohio State University in the field of health administration.


1) Michael C. Hillmann. A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry. (Washington, DC: Continents Press & Mage Publishers, 1987) p 1. To top

2) Fatma M. Gocek and Shiva Balaghi. "Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East Through Voice and Experience." Nationalisms & Sexuality. eds. Andrew Parker et al. (New York: Routledge Press, 1992) p 1. To top

3) Mahnaz Afkhami. "Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran: A Feminist Perspective," In the Eye of the Storm, eds. Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994) pp 16-17. To top

4) Farzaneh Milani. Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992) 105-06. Ibid, 124. Ibid, pp 235-38. To top

5) Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992) 231. Ibid, pp 238-39. To top

6) Mohsen Makhmalbaf, "Forugh Farrokhzad" trans. Azadeh Jahanbegloo, Majale-ye Zanan, no. 25 (August-September, 1995). To top

7) Michael C. Hillmann, A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry. (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press & Mage Publishers, 1987) pp 85-87. To top

8) Farzaneh Milani. Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992) 105-06. Ibid, 124. Ibid, pp 235-38. To top

9) Farzaneh Milani. Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992) 105-06. Ibid, 124. Ibid, pp 235-38. To top

10) Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992) 231. Ibid, pp 238-39. To top


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