“Poetry is a serious business for me. It is a responsibility I feel vis-a-vis my own being. It is a sort of answer I feel compelled to give to my own life.” — Forough Farrokhzad
Beginning in the 1950s a bold new tradition of writing by women emerged in Iran, and it would be a development that would completely transform Persian literature in the space of half a century. That women are today a vital part of Iranian literary history owes much to one woman, the poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Farrokhzad was not Iran’s first woman poet; a handful of well-born women began to publish their verses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But she was the first to rise to fame without the support of a prominent male figure. More significantly, her poetry broke totally new ground with its modern form and equally modern sensibility.
In her short life, Farrokhzad traveled a great distance from most Iranian women of her time. The daughter of a traditional, middle-class Iranian family, she abandoned an early marriage and instead embarked upon the life of an independent woman and professional artist. Raised in a culture that venerates classical poetic forms, she joined the ranks of Iran’s best modernist poets. Notorious during her lifetime, after her death Farrokhzad attained a fame and following arguably unmatched by any other Iranian poet in the twentieth century.
And she left behind a body of work that sits squarely on every vexed intersection in modern Iranian history: individualism and tradition, sexuality and religion, nationalism and modernity.
The Iran into which Farrokhzad was born was in the midst of one of the most dynamic — and many have argued most confused — periods of its history. During his reign between 1921 and1941, Reza Shah implemented a massive modernization campaign in Iran, which included outlawing the veil in 1936 and instituting a series of law’s aimed at modernizing Iran’s women. But despite such formal legal gestures, the Iran of Farrokhzad’s youth was a country deeply anxious and ambivalent about women’s roles — a situation mirrored in Farrokhzad’s own upbringing. The head of the Farrokhzad family was a stern patriarch who had once been a colonel in Reza Shah’s army. Outwardly, he embraced many aspects of the emperor’s modernization campaign. At Colonel Farrokhzad’s direction, Forough and her two sisters attended the new coeducational schools that had replaced religiously based instruction in Iran and was producing the first generation of Iranian women to enjoy the privilege of a modern public education.
As a young woman Farrokhzad was by all accounts bold in speech, dress, and manner, and her behavior was a frequent source of distress and strife in the household. While her three brothers would all go on to pursue professional degrees abroad, at age sixteen her own future was unclear. The emperor’s modernization program included education for women, but only up to a point, and with little direction or opportunity for women who wanted to enter professional life. Farrokhzad left school after tenth grade to study art and clothing design at a technical school. In 1951 she married a cousin ten years her senior, a man of some literary ambition, and nine months later she gave birth to a child.
Her first volume of poetry The Captive (Asir) was published in 1955, when she was twenty years old. Bold, sensual, and unmistakably female, Farrokhzad’s was voice that had never before been heard in Persian poetry. Many of The Captive’s forty-four poems take aim at the strictures of a conventional Iranian marriage, likening it again and again to a prison and cage for women. In one poem, Farrokhzad writes from the perspective of a young woman contemplating a divorce and what she knows will mean permanent separation from her child. In others, the speaker confesses to adulterous affairs, sometimes with regret but never without some degree of delight. The erotic poems in the collection are set in tight, enclosed spaces; despite their moments of physical intimacy, Farrokhzad’s lovers are frequently haunted by an unconsummated longing for connection.
In the year that she published The Captive, Farrokzhad and her husband were divorced. In accordance with the law and custom of the time, her husband was awarded custody of her son, and she was denied visitation rights. Devastated but determined to begin her writing career in earnest, she left the town of Ahvaz for Tehran. After a brief and tempestuous stay at her parents’ home, she settled into her own flat in the city. It was a risk beyond measure for a woman of that era, and it caused a bout of emotional distress so intense that she was hospitalized for a month.
But Farrokhzad recovered, took on a few odd writing and editing jobs, and continued to write poetry. The Wall (Divar) appeared in 1956 and The Rebellion (Esyan) followed the next year. By the age of twenty-four, Farrokzhad was Iran’s most notorious poet. With each volume her skill had risen to match her bold poetic persona. If there is one theme that unifies Farrokhzad’s early poems, it is that of silence — and the necessity of breaking it. In “The Captive” she would write:
Don’t put the seal of silence on my lips
I have untold tales to tell
Take off the heavy chains from my foot
I am disturbed by all of this.
Such pronouncements by an Iranian woman in those years were nothing short of shocking. To many at the time, Farrokhzad represented a fearsome specter: an Iranian woman corrupted beyond recognition by Western influences. The verdict had as much to do with her poetry as her lifestyle. At that time, a divorced woman who lived alone but was often in the company of men cut a scandalous figure. Rife with sensual details, Farrokhzad’s poems were read as proof of her promiscuity and moral lassitude.
In Tehran, Farrokhzad soon became the sole woman among a group of Iranian poets and writers experimenting with new artistic forms and themes. Even in this company, her outspokenness and unconventional lifestyle were often barely tolerated. Progressive journals and newspapers would run her poems alongside illustrations of a woman’s naked body. More than one colleague boasted publicly about his romantic relationship with Farrokhzad. And when she entered into an eight-year-long relationship with a married man, the film director Ebrahim Golestan, the relationship would be a constant subject of gossip and censure.
Fascinated by the details of her personal life, reviewers of the time focused almost exclusively on the erotic aspects of her poetry. Erotic poetry, in fact, has a long history in Iranian literature; passion is a frequent theme of ancient Persian poets like Hafez, Rumi, and Khayyam. Farrokhzad, however, was the first woman in Iranian history to write erotic verse. Rather than placing her in a tradition of the great lyric poets, critics deemed her erotic poems the product of a depraved female sentimentality.
Even today readings of Farrokhzad often fall prey to a false division between her early poems, which are dismissed as merely intimate and sensual, and her later ones, which are lauded for their historical and metaphysical themes. But in a culture in which anxieties about female sexuality stand at the heart of legal and moral control of women’s lives, Farrokhzad’s treatment of sexual themes was without precedent or parallel, and it would produce a revolution in Iranian women’s writing.
The best of Farrokhzad’s poems often embody the entanglement of old and new, Western and Iranian, masculine and feminine. Adamant in her commitment to free verse as the only form befitting modern life, Farrokhzad nonetheless echoed the ancient cadences of the Persian language as well as the imagery and themes of classical Persian poetry in her work. One of her best-known poems, “The Sin” (“Gonah”), evokes an idyll frequently depicted by the fourteenth-century lyric poet Hafez: the sensual communion between two lovers. But in Farrokhzad’s poem, the “beloved” of ancient verse becomes herself the “lover.” The reversal upends not only poetic but also moral convention. Here, it is the woman whose eyes linger on the man’s body and who captures her own “sin” with poetic rapture.
In the sixties, Farrokhzad traveled to England to study film production, which would become another rich form of artistic expression for her. Her first film, A Fire (1961), won gold and bronze prizes at the Venice Film Festival. The House is Black (1962), a documentary about an Iranian leper colony, earned her admiration and new respect in Iran. She traveled several times to Europe, studied English, and further broadened her reading. She made her stage debut in a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In 1963 the famed Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci traveled to Iran to make a film about her.
Her artistic reputation was strengthened further by the publication of her fourth book of poetry, Re-Birth (Tavalodi Digar) in 1964. Critics who’d doubted her seriousness were impressed by the artistic skill and thematic complexity of the Re-Birth poems. While erotic and romantic themes were still prominent, in this collection her poetic vision took on a more explicitly political and even epic tone. Many of Farrokhzad’s last poems have been read as eerily prescient not only of her death but also of Iran’s fate in the late twentieth century. Catastrophe is suggested by images of bleak physical landscapes, tortured bodies, and horrific silences. The poems frequently depict a land consumed by a hunger for Western commodities, its women arrested in postures of submission, the men indifferent and inaccessible.
In a letter to her brother in 1967 she wrote, “My hair is turning grey and there are lines on my forehead and two deep furrows between my eyebrows. I am glad that I am no longer a dreamer now that I am nearly thirty-two, even though being thirty-two years old means having used up and left behind thirty-two years of one’s allocation of life. But instead I have found myself.” She was working on a new adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play about Joan of Arc. She had several new film projects underway. Farrokhzad was poised for singular achievement, no longer an infamous “poetess” but finally a poet in her own and others’ estimation.
Then on the afternoon of February 14, 1967, Farrokhzad was driving along on a country road when she crashed her car against a concrete wall. There were rumors that she had swerved suddenly to avoid a bus full of schoolchildren, but the only thing known for sure was that she died almost instantly of head wounds. She was buried in a snowstorm, a ring of men — colleagues, critics, friends, her lover — encircling her grave.
Farrokhzad’s death shocked the country more deeply than even her life managed to do. Newspapers and journals rushed to publish celebrations of her work. For a time, her critics all but disappeared, and Farrokhzad was posthumously crowned poet of her generation, inspiring the emergence of so many new women poets that the decade following her death became known as the era of the Iranian “poetesses.”
After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Farrokhzad’s poems were officially banned by the new Islamic government. Her publisher was ordered to stop printing her books, and when he refused, he was jailed and his factory burned to the ground. Still, Farrokhzad’s poems continued to attract a wide readership in Islamic Republic, selling briskly on Iran’s black market. In the eighties, young students took to the streets of Tehran and chanted the words of her poem “I Pity the Garden” in protest of Khomeini government.
Today in Iran, Forough Farrokhzad has been embraced by a new generation of men and women bedeviled by the same cultural and religious forces against which she so often railed. The 1990s saw the publication of several new editions of her poems as well as new reviews and biographical sketches. A few years ago a stage production of her life story played to sold-out audiences in Tehran, as did the film Green Cold (Sardeh Sabz), a recent documentary about her life by the controversial young filmmaker Nasser Saffarian.
Iranian exiles in the West have also produced several extraordinary invocations of Farrokhzad’s life and poetry. In one of her first exhibitions, Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born artist and filmmaker whose work has been featured at the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, presented a series of black and white photographs in which she had inscribed lines from Farrokhzad’s poem onto her own body. Neshat’s trademark has been her traffic in ambiguities, and it is a style suited to the ambiguities that inhere in many of Farrokhzad’s poems. At first glance the inscriptions might be assumed to be religious in nature, perhaps originating in the Koran, but when the origin of the lines is revealed as a feminist icon Forough Farrokhzad, the images take on an entirely different connotation. Neshat’s treatment is thus a tribute borne on the body, the articulation not of silencing but its opposite: self-expression.
Inspired as much by the example of her life as artistry of her verse, many Iranians find in Farrokhzad the long-suppressed voice of feminism and human rights in contemporary Iran. In a time when images of the chador have come to dominate ideas about Iranian womanhood, hers happens also to be a voice that few in the West would associate with the Middle East — and one that only echoes with greater eloquence as the divide between Iran and America widens.
This article originally appeared in the November/Decemeber 2006 issue of The Women’s Review of Books.
Jasmin Darznik lives in Tiburon, California, and working on her first book.