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Modernization through reforming the Persian language

By Kamran Talatoff
March 19, 2001
The Iranian

From Kamran Talattof's The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature, (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

Modern Persian literature emerged during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a secular activity and has since demonstrated close affinity to such diverse ideological paradigms as nationalism, Marxism, Islamism, and feminism.

Each ideological paradigm has, in its own way, influenced the form, characterization, and figurative language of literary texts. It has set the criteria for indigenous literary criticism and has determined which issues related to politics, religion, or culture are to be the focus of literary journals. And these ideological features have changed in an episodic fashion according to the prevailing social and political conditions. The contact between literary and ideological paradigms has determined the politics of writing.

Persianism: A Literary Revolution

I venture the term Persianism to describe the earliest modern literary movement, which has been referred to as "modernist" or "nationalist" by other scholars. It emerged during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century when traditional forms of poetry came under attack by a new wave of writers who, mostly through their contact with the West, approached literature in a radically different way.

The constitutional movement (1906-1911) and later Reza Shah's project to modernize Iran provided further encouragement for the development of this movement. This literary episode was characterized by modernist ideas such as the use of western literary forms, new styles, and the promotion of non-traditional culture. Such ideas shaped the thematic and figurative features of literary works in this period but the authors exceeded the simple expression of these aspirations.

These authors sought, on the one hand, to modernize society through the reform of the Persian language and, on the other, regarded traditional culture of the Qajar period and religion as barriers to the evolution of Persian literature. Persianism, therefore, refers to an ideology that not only inspired authors to write in a new style with the hope of modernizing literature but also made that ideology the theme of literary works.

Advocates of Persianism denounced the use of Arabic terminology; sought to purify the Persian language; promoted a literary language closer to common parlance over the formulaic and artificial style in vogue for centuries; linked ancient Iran to the present time through diverse linguistic structures; and finally, celebrated modernity through the development of new literary forms.

Muhammad Ali Jamalzadih's Farsi Shikar Ast (Persian is Sugar), Sadiq Hidayat's Buf-i Kur (Blind Owl), Jalal Al-i Ahmad's Seh Tar (Sitar), Khusraw Shahani's "Murdih Kishi" (Pall Bearing), and Nima Yushij's "Manili" all exemplify this literary episode in Iran whose discussion constitutes chapter two.

Feminist Discourse in Postrevolutionary Women's Literature

Since the Revolution, the number of women writers has increased dramatically. Their work, despite great diversity in literary value, commonly manifests an awareness of women's issues and gender relations. This work shows concern over problems of gender hierarchy and women's suffering and expresses it in a figurative language that transcends male-dominated literary discourse.

Women's personal and private experiences become public. Women protest against sexual oppression and struggle for identity. This body of work contrasts sharply with the literary works produced by women in the decades preceding the Revolution. Women's literary paradigms before and after the Revolution represent different literary episodes, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 appears to be the decisive historical event responsible for the shift.

In other words, what explains the increased significance of gender issues in women's literary works after the Revolution is the state's structuring role in social as well as literary movements and the attitudes of the left toward women's issues. This new political influence on literature and a "cultural revolution" that directly undermined women's freedom brought about change in the themes, characters, and language used by women writers. Ironically, the Islamization of the country caused the emergence of unprecedented literary works by women


Kamran Talatoff is an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona. He received his Master's degree in comparative literature (1994) and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies, Persian language and literature (1996) through a joint degree program from the University of Michigan. His work focuses on Persian literature and Iranian culture.

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