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New Texts Out Now: Farzaneh Milani, Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement

[Cover of Farzaneh Milani, [Cover of Farzaneh Milani, "Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement"]

Farzaneh Milani, Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Farzaneh Milani (FM): In a way, Words, not Swords is a rebuttal to my first book, Veils and Words. The central argument of Veils and Words revolved around Iranian women's literary output. I claimed that the veil had covered not only Iranian women's bodies, but also their literary voices. Women's self-expression, either bodily or verbal, I surmised, was covered by the material veil and its verbal counterpart—silence. I explored ways in which women poets and prose writers escaped the censoring of their culture and transcended the limits placed on their bodies and their voices. I chronicled the many internal and external hardships women have faced in their efforts to counter physical and verbal exclusion. To explain—or, rather, to explain away—the unparalleled thriving of post-revolutionary Iranian women's literature in spite of obligatory veiling, I conveniently reasoned that the veil has developed new connotations of its own quite different from the traditional notion. This new veil, I contended, no longer segregates: it now serves as a means of desegregation. It covers women's bodies, but not their voices.

In the two decades since Veils and Words was published, I came to wonder: Why consider the veil as the focus of my critical inquiry in a study of women's integration in Iranian society if it is cause and effect, sign and symbol, of both segregation and desegregation? If one does not have to be veiled to be confined and silenced—or, conversely, if a woman can be veiled but also desegregated and voiced—why then consider the veil my critical paradigm? I had not asked this question previously. Nor did it occur to me that perhaps the veil was a convenient cover to avoid addressing more fundamental issues. It took me years to realize that physical confinement—not the veil—was the foundation of women's subordination in Iranian society and the source of their literary quasi-invisibility. It seemed to me that I needed to reach beyond the confines of the veil if I wished to fairly assess women's vital integration in the public scene in general and in the literary arena in particular.

The central thesis of Words, not Swords is simple: a woman not only needs a room of her own, as Virginia Woolf remarked in her seminal work A Room of One’s Own, but also the freedom to leave it and return to it at will. A room without that very right is a prison cell; a house without it turns into house arrest.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

FM: Words, not Swords is divided into three sections:

In part I, I look at the social, literary, and aesthetic implications of sex segregation in a society in which the right of place depended on anatomy. I focus on how rules of segregation are simultaneously adhered to and subverted in classical Persian literature and Iranian cinema. I examine issues of women's representation as well as their entry onto the written page and the silver screen. I also analyze the intersection of feminine beauty and restrained mobility. Why, I ask, are static women—the sleeping beauties—lauded, whereas those who are on the move—the flying witches (often portrayed as women)—are vilified?

In Part II, I celebrate Iranian women writers, who have refused to disappear from the public scene and are among some of the most influential figures in contemporary Iran. They have produced a radically dissenting and questioning body of writing with a momentum Persian literature has never before experienced. They have attained unprecedented stature at a level previously reserved only for male writers and are considered a most threatening emblem of change to all stripes of extremists. In particular, this section focuses on four seminal women poets and writers who build their literary universe on spatial metaphors of movement and containment. The legacy of Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, Forugh Farrokhzad, Simin Behbahani, and Shahrnush Parsipur to the world of letters has been as extraordinary as their defiance against the age-old patterns of gender apartheid. Tahirih, who rejected sex segregation and celebrated freedom of movement (and of conscience) in the mid--nineteenth century, is being accorded recognition as the symbolic mother of the women's movement in Iran. The twin themes of flight and captivity are presented as the central tropes of Forugh Farrokhzad's poetry. The candor and courage of Simin Behbahani—the lioness of Iran—has made of her a symbol of resistance and integrity inside and outside the country and has given Iran a female national poet for the first time in its glorious literary tradition. And Shahrnush Parsipur proves that issues of containment and crossing are central to women's artistic universe and the central trope of their writing.

In part III, I shift the emphasis from an exclusively Iranian perspective and concentrate on how Iranian (and Muslim) women are reduced to stereotypes in the West. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are totally false. There is usually an element of truth to them. The problem is that they are arrested representations. They are fixed. Frozen. Dehumanized. They are immobilized, caged images of a reality that is perpetually moving and shifting. In this section, I consider the birth of a new literary subgenre—the hostage narrative—and the portrayal of Iranian women as the ultimate prisoners in a giant gulag the size of Iran. Hostage narratives, I argue, generalize and simplify, flatten and fix, rather than specify and expand. They present women in the role of victims and effectively dismiss their contributions to Iranian culture in favor of a master narrative of oppression and irrelevance, of entrapment and imprisonment. Intentionally or not, they perpetuate a legacy of silence and insignificance where there is in fact a resolute struggle for freedom and expression.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

FM: This book was made possible by, among others, a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In keeping with the spirit of their genuine commitment to accessible scholarship, I have made every effort to write a book that is jargon-free and hopefully appeals to a wide readership.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

FM: Currently, I am writing a biography of Forugh Farrokhzad, the iconic Iranian poet of the twentieth century. In the mid-1970s, I decided, against the advice of many well-wishers, to switch my dissertation topic from a male French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, to Farrokzhad, a female Iranian poet. Farrokhzad had produced poetry more autobiographical than had ever been attempted in Iran.

Finding biographical data on this most autobiographical poet, however, proved to be quite a task. Farrokhzad did not keep a journal, at least not one that we know of. Although she was a prolific correspondent, I did not have at my disposal, at the time, stacks of her letters safely tucked away in some attic or generously published by the recipient. Nor did I have access to tapes of her therapy sessions or records of her institutionalization. Moreover, my plan of amassing information through interviews was thwarted at every turn. Many men, who claimed to have been her lovers, were all too eager to share their “personal” experiences. But her family members and those closest to her refused to be interviewed. Others argued against revealing the private life of a dead person. Since no library houses Farrokhzad’s papers, letters, unpublished poems, or manuscripts, the research obstacles involved in writing her biography turned out to be manifold, and compounded by the fundamental limitations of life narrative as a genre.

I want to re-imagine Farrokhzad’s biography as a quasi-multi-authored text with polycentric perspectives, offering the different portraits of a rebel, daughter, sister, wife, biological and adoptive mother, lover, poet, cinematographer, and Iranian woman with universal relevance. The challenge, for me, is to be factual and informative without being sensational; to be revealing, but not voyeuristic; coherent, but not univocal; candid, but non-judgmental. I want to avoid turning her life into a metaphor for political or gender agendas while recognizing her pioneering significance in Iranian literature and history.

Excerpts from Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement 

From the Prologue: 

Yeki bud, yeki nabud”: Iranian stories always begin with this paradoxical phrase, which simply means “There was one, and there wasn't one.” Throughout my childhood, this phrase was my passport to an enchanted world of wonder and mystery. Like the word abracadabra, it had incantatory powers: now you see it, now you don't. It is so, and it is not so. Maybe, and then maybe not. Like dreams, like the unconscious, like nature in its infinite glory, “yeki bud, yeki nabud” was a tangle of competing viewpoints, expansive enough to accommodate seemingly contradictory claims. It was a warning at the threshold to all stories that there is always another story, another side to the story, that truth is elusively mutable. In its succinct yet economical way, it was a reminder that every story is the ghost of the life that inspired it. It celebrated the birth of one while mourning the death of the other, acknowledging the complexities of life and of its telling. It embraced paradoxes, destabilized certainties, allowed opposites to live in perfect harmony. It declined to choose one side over the other and greeted all moments that defied classification. It refused to be immobilized in certitudes, immured in dogmas, bound by judgmental pronouncements. “Yeki bud, yeki nabud” was a warning at the threshold of all stories that the mind creates its own elaborate, self-serving fictions. Bedazzled, I would throw open the gates of my eyes and ears and witness the birth of a charming world. On the wing of words, on the magic carpet of stories, I would journey to faraway lands, inaccessible places, spaces of boundless possibilities where everything sounded real but was beyond my everyday reality. 

Before I knew it, childhood and its tantalizing tales came to an end. Chasing new dreams and different stories, I left my home country, and, ironically, it was by leaving Iran that I became an Iranian. Uprooted and transplanted, I looked every which way for a sense of familiarity and belonging. I needed something solid to hold on to—some familiar signpost, a lasting fixture in the ceaselessly changing landscape of my immigrant life. I gradually adopted Iranian literature as what I later called “my surrogate home” in my book Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. It became my accessible consolation, my perennial and portable garden. I put down roots in it and turned it into a place to grow in. Every time I opened its gate, a familiar scent wafted out of it, a scent of home, a scent of effortless belonging, of childhood and its memories. I soon found myself drawn increasingly to the works of Iranian women writers. Against the advice of many and after having completed a substantial amount of research on Flaubert and his search for the ideal woman and the right word, I eventually chose for my dissertation topic the study of Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-67). Many well-wishers, including some of my teachers, were genuinely concerned about my professional future. They wanted to know why I was switching from a world-renowned author to an obscure woman poet from Iran. They argued, with conviction and concern, that an Iranian woman writing her dissertation on another Iranian woman from a feminist perspective was triple professional jeopardy. More than three decades later and with the benefit of hindsight, I consider that choice to have been a turning point in my life. 

… 

Iran is a land of paradoxes. It has a mercurial political climate and is in the midst of sweeping cultural transformations and profound intellectual ferment. It is one of the world's oldest civilizations and has one of the world's youngest populations. In the crowded streets of its major cities, Calvin Klein jean ads compete with portraits of turbaned clerics. And surely no one can accuse the Islamic Republic of intolerance toward its contradictions, particularly when it comes to its treatment of women. Iranian women can vote and run for some of the highest elected offices in the country, but they must observe an obligatory dress code. They can drive personal vehicles, even taxis and trucks and fire engines, but they cannot ride bicycles. They are forcibly separated from men into the back of buses but can be squashed in between perfect strangers in overcrowded jitney taxis. They have entered the world stage as Nobel Peace laureates, human rights activists, best-selling authors, prize-winning film directors and Oscar nominees, but they cannot enter governmental offices through the same doors as men. It is this complex mixture of advancement and setbacks, protest and accommodation, resistance and acquiescence, innovation and tradition, that most accurately reflects women's lives in Iran today. Yet for decades and prior to the highly contested 12 June 2009, election, only one side of this ongoing battle—the side that reflects a static image of victimhood and immobility—has dominated America's imagination and most of its best sellers. 

Focusing on both sides of this ongoing struggle, this book explores two competing narratives of womanhood that exist side by side in Iran. Women are oppressed by restrictive laws and male-centered interpretations of Islamic Scripture. They are also the most vibrant forces of change. And women writers have been and continue to be at the forefront of this conflict. Breaking the spell of their textual quasi-invisibility coincidentally with breaking into the public sphere, they have made the circulation of their bodies and their voices central to their artistic universe. Metaphors of containment—walls, veils, imposed silences, fences, cages, blind windows, closed doors, and bars—coexist in their works side by side with the desire to sprout wings, fly, flee, run, dance, sing through their texts, bear witness to the hitherto unspoken, and push boundaries into the unsaid and the forbidden. By refusing to focus solely on one side of this equation or to reinforce the veiled/unveiled, East/West divide, I examine how freedom of movement allows women—whether they are veiled or unveiled—easier access to centers of power, facilitates the exercise of legal and economic rights, permits the pursuit of a variety of careers in the public sector, promotes their integration into the literary arena, and sanctions the development of a civil society. 

Relying on the wisdom and experience of thousands of storytellers over hundreds of years, I thus begin my tale of Iranian women's physical and literary desegregation with “yeki bud, yeki nabud.” 

From the Epilogue: 

Scheherazade calmly and convincingly defied death by weaving tales. She began every storytelling session with a succinct and simple yet paradoxical phrase, “Yeki bud, yeki nabud”: “There was one, and there wasn't one.” Who could listen to such an inspired opener for one thousand and one nights and not be transformed by its infinite wisdom? Scheherazade summoned all her diplomatic know-how, all her storytelling techniques, all her diagnostic and healing skills. She knew trust building was key to her enterprise. Her tales, like Babushka dolls, were always pregnant with another tale. They didn't have tidy endings. They avoided pigeonholing, stereotyping, imprisoning. They opened vistas of beauty, adventure, romance, but also ambiguity. They appeased creepy monsters, prevented intruders from executing their evil designs, showed the infinite complexity of human nature, punished an unfaithful husband or an adulterous wife without blaming the whole gender for the mistake of one. It was through these powerful aphrodisiacs that Scheherazade succeeded in turning confrontation into cooperation, in having the sultan cease his bloodletting. She led him to a twilight zone where certainty and doubt lived in peaceful coexistence, where absolutes no longer ruled supreme, where there was room for ambiguity. She destereotyped his mind and populated his universe with heroes and villains of both genders. Good or bad were not the monopoly of any one group. In the end, Shahriyar—a paragon of political power, the king of kings, the shelter of the universe, God's shadow on earth—had to admit that a woman who personified powerlessness and vulnerability had made him doubt his “kingly power.” “O Scheherazade,” he told her lovingly, “you made me regret my past violence towards women and my killing of innocent girls.” Marital harmony was finally established in this household, too. Words replaced swords. 

 

Scheherazade's tales circulated from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation, from mothers to daughters before they were written down at some point, probably sometime between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries, when the writing pen was mainly in the hands of men, just as the public square was increasingly monopolized by them. Otherwise, how can one explain that this woman who “had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things,” this erudite, wise, and witty woman who “had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers,” did not write down her own mesmerizing tales? Why did such an accomplished teller of tales, who had scrutinized “the works of the poets and knew them by heart” and “had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments,” need to rely on male scribes for the recording of her stories? One Thousand and One Nights does not answer these questions but portrays Scheherazade as being at the mercy of male rulers and scribes, indebted to them, in need of their mediatory role, beholden to their writing skills. And herein is the difference between Scheherazade and her literary progeny. Iranian women have appropriated the writing pen and broken the spell of their physical and literary quasi-invisibility. No longer consigned to immobility of body and voice, no longer immured physically or verbally, they have written their bodies and their voices into circulation. Like their foremother, they have rejected violence and challenged the very foundations of their society through words. Like her, they have inserted their message of hope and temperance in the turbulent history of their land. Unlike her, however, they have become their own scribes. They have rejected the traditional partitioning of physical and literary spaces.

For the past 160 years, Iranian women writers have struggled for mobility of body and voice. And today, whether women teach or study in institutions of higher education, congregate in offices, mosques, nongovernmental agencies, or conferences and study groups; whether they appear in front of cameras or direct films from behind it; whether they communicate through books and articles or paintings or plays or keep in touch through blogs and online forums and information networks; whether they ascend the ladder of government or vote in unprecedented numbers, they are more mobile than ever before. And they are refusing to relinquish their newly acquired spaces. Never before in the written history of Iran have women moved so far outside the framework preordained by their culture, reaching beyond the traditional fields in action and imagination. Never before have they been as present in the public sphere and the public discourse as they are today. Animated by a dizzying, dazzling sense of movement, they have emerged as a formidable civic force to be reckoned with. One might even argue that they have been at the center of a bloodless, nonviolent revolution that has shaken the very foundations of Iranian society. Although this revolution does not correspond to traditional definitions of a revolution, it has nonetheless fundamentally transformed the country's social structures, redefined masculinity and femininity, modified the balance of public and private power. It has been a turnabout, a reallocation of physical and discursive spaces, a redistribution of authority and resources.

Women writers have indeed led the way not only toward literary liberation, but also toward gender liberation.

[Excerpted from Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement, by Farzaneh Milani, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2011 by Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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