Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran
The Life and Legacy of a Popular Female Artist
By Kamran Talattof
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011
Kamran Talattof is professor of Persian and Iranian studies at the University of Arizona. He is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of numerous books and articles. Talattof finds that the process of modernity never truly unfolded, due in large part to Iran's reluctance to embrace the seminal subjects of gender and sexuality. Talattof's approach reflects a unique look at modernity as not only advances in industry and economy but also advances toward an open, intellectual discourse on sexuality. Exploring the life and times of Shahrzad, a dancer, actress, filmmaker, and poet, Talattof illuminates the country's struggle with modernity and the ideological, traditional, and religious resistance against it. Born in 1946, she performed in several theater productions, became an acclaimed film star in the 1970s, and pursued a career as a journalist and poet.
Excerpt from the introduction:
On March 8, 1979 (International Women’s Day), less than a month after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, my friend Azar and I were standing near the front gate of the University of Tehran, which was filled with outraged women. They were preparing to protest the mandatory public veiling of all women. Two days earlier, this demand had been voiced by Ayatollah Khomeini in a speech he delivered in the city of Qom.
We were joined by another woman who told us the crowd at and around the University of Tehran was about to move to the prime minister’s office, where another rally was in progress. We all walked down the street and the newcomer, who like the two of us was young and secular, but somewhat more leftist, pointed out famous people who were marching. One woman was a former political prisoner, another was an author, and she laughed when she identified an actress whom I did not recognize at that time.
This rally and others that took place over the next few days were covered at length by the press. One newspaper reported the events in a supportive tone. Others attributed the demonstrations to supporters of the old regime and so called antirevolutionary forces. One published a photo of the demonstration that featured several women wearing makeup and mocked them as “the kind of women” who have been rallying against the revolutionary government. In the center of the photo was a woman with large glasses, a rare color photo in that newspaper in those days. I realized this was the actress whom we had seen on the day of the demonstration: Shahrzad, the dancer. I also learned from these reports that she was one of a few women who were arrested.
More than a decade later, in 1991, in a section of the Graduate Library at the University of Michigan known as “the Cage,” where they stored publications that lacked sufficient cataloging information, I was combing through Persian materials when I came across a book that aroused my curiosity. It was a short book of poetry entitled Salam, Aqa (Hello, sir), written by Shahrzad, whose picture appeared on the cover.
I sat in a corner of the dusty Cage and read it from cover to cover. Many of the poems were grammatically and thematically distorted and were filled with ambiguous references to deserts, horses, seas, and other natural elements. Yet, I believe that it was the book’s highly unusual imagery that made me read it through in one sitting. Later, I found and read two other books she wrote before the 1979 Revolution. I also gave some thought to her metaphors and her symbolic, surrealistic language.
In the late 1990s, I returned to Shahrzad’s books and tried to gather more information about her literary works, films, and life. My contemplation of her career and imprisonment was now an academic (pre)occupation. It was also relevant to my new enthrallment with what Nancy K. Miller describes as the “feminist theory’s original emphasis on the study of the personal.” “The personal,” especially when related to ordinary people, was an unknown theme in the leftist materials I read with eagerness in those revolutionary days. I grew suspicious of the sufficiency of the study of high culture and its elite producers and was interested in “what had become forgotten,” to use Susanna Scarparo's words. Yet other issues related to writing biographies can be taken into consideration. Elspeth Probyn, for example, encourages a move beyond the problems of representation, where no one can speak for another, by questioning the dichotomy of “moving selves and stationary others.” Perhaps Virginia Woolf could provide a lesson here. Her interest in biographical writing stems from her work on “the lives of the obscure,” which oft en translates to the lives of women and her reflection on the balance that should exist between fact and fiction in works of biography. Scholars such as Susanna Scarparo have been successful in overcoming the frustration biographers experience in locating the subject of their biographical works through an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study. Scarparo writes, “I revisit the canonical separations between genres by placing biography at the centre of debates about the boundaries between genres and disciplines.”
I participated in those demonstrations, and later I wrote on women’s literature, but then I began to see the margins, from a farther breadth, in terms of both time and space.
I tried to track down Shahrzad in Iran to ask questions about her books and her careers. A prominent woman publisher was adamant when she told me that Shahrzad had been ill and disoriented and that she was in a psychiatric hospital. Others thought she was dead. But it turned out that Shahrzad was living in the streets of Tehran at that time and usually could be found near a place called the Cinema House. She would not talk to anyone.
If true, then Kobra Saidi, known as Shahrzad, who played in a great number of theatrical productions, danced in skimpy costumes in cabarets and films in the 1970s, acted in about sixteen movies (some of which were considered risqué for that time), worked as a journalist writing commentaries on cinema and culture and also as a published poet, had surely been the most famous homeless person in Iran!
To be sure, she received a number of cinematic awards, and one of her roles in a movie titled Dash Akol (based on a story by Sadeq Hedayat) was highly acclaimed. By many accounts, she was also a screenplay writer and a film director. At the height of her dancing and acting career in the seventies, she gave it all up to devote herself entirely to her writing. In other words, in a relatively short time, a woman who, perhaps due to the Shah’s modernization projects, was able to excel in several areas of artistic and professional activities was also agonized in prison, confined in a hospital, and left homeless in the streets of Tehran.
How is it possible?
Why did it happen?
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