The Female Voice in Contemporary Persian Literature

By Nasrin Mahoutchi-Hosaini

A new diverse and dynamic literary landscape has emerged since the 1978-79 revolution in Iran, “…a fusion of creative resistance and resistant creatively[1].” New male and female writers have succeeded in bringing fresh aesthetic principals to the era. In fact one of the remarkable achievements of modernity in Iran is the inclusion of Iranian womens’ voices in literature.

For example, Zoya Pirzad, Farideh Golbu, Fariba Vafi and Shiva Arastui are female writer who have diverged from social realism and employed post modern techniques, as enchanting to the reader as free air.

They were eager to experiment and create a style of their own. Two collections of short stories by Zoya Pirzad (b.1953), Mesl-e Hamaye Asrha”(Like All Other Afternoons, 1991) and Ta’m –e Gas-e Khormalu (The Astringent Taste of Persimmon, 1997) display a marked accuracy for depicting urban alienation and its effect on marital relationships, yet often tinged with understated humour.

But this shift wasn’t sudden. The foundations were laid by a small but extremely powerful previous female generations of writers.

From the very beginning of Persian literature, there have been women poets  listed in the long history of the traditional Adabiat, which translates as “literature”. But the first published fiction by woman goes back to 1930, with Irandokht Teymurtash’ debut literary work, Dokhtare-e Tireh Bakht va Javan Bolhavas, (The Ill-Fated Girl and the Unfaithful Boy). The second book was published three years later written by a second female author, Zahra Kiya, Parvin and Parviz, which is eponymous.

According to Farzaneh Millani, “…from the 1930’s to 1960’s, only a dozen women – compared to 270 men—published works of fiction in Iran. Simin Daneshvar reached widespread popularity during this period when she produced her masterpiece, Savushun[2].”

Simin Daneshvar (1921-2012), was the first woman writer of note in modern Iranian literature. Her novel Savusun, (A Persian Requiem) (1969) was a bestselling novel which has been translated into English, German and French. Her fiction and essays focus on the social exclusion of women in the Iranian society of her time. Daneshvar has used a linear plot form with a documentary style to narrate the story of a household whose residents were facing a traumatic time in Iran during the Second World War.

Shahenush Parsipur (B. 1945) is a prolific writer of her generation and a well known novelist. She has confronted unimaginable obstacles through her inspiring literary life; imprisonment four times for a total of more than five years before and after the 1979 Revolution, battling the demons of depression and repeated hospitalizations, economic hardship and unemployment and self-imposed exile. However, she never succumbed to silence. She has ten novels, collections of short stories, a prison memoir and has edited an anthology of essays. She is also a translator.  Writing has been both her affliction and cure. She embraced pen and paper as a tool for her philosophical and spiritual quest and as a necessity to survival.

She is one of a few Iranian writers – female or male who has experimented widely with different modes and styles; realism, the political novel, Sufi writings and the influence of Persian fairytales, invoking magical realism.

Her famous literary work, Zanan-e Bedun-e Mardan (Women without Men 1990) is a book of inter – connected stories about five female protagonists and one man, employing multiple points of view. An old maid, two teachers, a housewife widow and a prostitute walk the road of life and face all sorts of hazards in search of   self-knowledge and spiritual rebirth. This literary work has been adapted to film by the famous Iranian female visual artist and film maker, Shirin Neshat.

By the 1990s, the number of female fiction best sellers was higher than male writers. However it is not just the number of women writers which is significant but also their diverse social, political, and religious background. Although their literary merit varies, their stories resonate with an ever-increasing readership. Exploring taboo subjects such as gender and family relationship, domestic violence, mental illness, depression, the tyranny of the old patriarchy, the right to a free path in life and desire to be free are common themes in today’s Iranian fiction.

[1] 1: F. Milani, Words Not Swords, 2014. Syracuse University Press. P. 189.

[2] Ibid 2: Milani, P.185.