A Novel of Modern Iran

Patriarchy is a value system that is common in many cultures and societies across the globe. Since time immemorial, men were seen as natural leaders. Their judgements were interpreted as the supreme laws of the land, and women, projected as the weaker gender, were expected to be subservient to these laws. Even in the most basic unit of society, the family, the father is naturally given the highest level of authority and, in his absence, the eldest male members wield more authority than the female members. The passage of time saw the erosion of the patriarchal system as the voices of women have become more audible through the din. However, despite the ascent of feminism, the presence of the patriarchy still reverberate in different corners of society.

In different corners of the world, patriarchal societies still lurk. Iran exhibit one of the strictest forms of patriarchy. Whilst there were changes that took place over the past few decades, the highly secular nation remain grounded in its traditional and conservative views. As projected by their leaders, they show little regard for what women can contribute to the society as a whole beyond their domestic roles as wives and mothers. Drowned and stifled by the overwhelming male voices, many a female Iranian writer resorted to the pen to challenge the patriarchy and to call for changes in the system. It was in this spirit that Shahrnush Parsipur wrote one of her most popular works, a novella titled Women Without Men.

Originally published in Iran as Zanan bedun mardan, Women Without Men follows the story of five women from different stations of life. Each woman told her own story and were carefully woven together by Parsipur into a singular and lush tapestry. The first narrative thread commenced on the outskirts of Tehran and related the story of Mahdokht. A traditionally raised young woman, Mahdokht has a soft spot for children and was preoccupied with tasks associated with children such as knitting for her brother’s children. Her love for children extended beyond blood. Formerly a teacher, she also wanted to perform charitable acts for other children.

“She would stay and plant herself. Perhaps she would turn into a tree. She wanted to grow on the riverbank with leaves greener than the slime, and fight the battle of shades of green in the pool. If she became a tree, she would sprout new leaves. She would be covered with new leaves. She would give her new leaves to the wind.”

~ Shahrnush Parsipur, Women Without Men

The second narrative thread introduced Faizeh. After moments of hesitation, she finally decided to confess her love for Amir. In a society where marrying young was a norm, she was already seen as old, both by herself and by society even though she was in her late twenties: “Twenty-eight years and two months of her life gone. Of course, she wasn’t really old, just weak.” She met Munis, her friend and Amir’s sister. A decade older than Faizeh, Munis was the narrative’s third distinct female voice. Munis has lived a cloistered life, adhering to the brother’s stern instructions. In Amir’s own words, “home is for women, the outside world is for men.”

At fifty-one years of age, Mrs. Farrokhlaqa Sadraldivan Golchehreh seem to be the epitome of a successful Iranian woman. She is married to an affluent man and is living a seemingly comfortable life. Despite the passage of time, her beauty was immaculately preserved. The fifth character, Zarrinkolah, is a prostitute. An amiable character with a healthy amount of humanity within her, she was loved by her colleagues. The natural rhythm of her uneventful life was disrupted when she experienced an unusual phenomenon. She kept seeing many of her customers as headless. After performing ablution, Zarrinkolah foresees a future for herself which saw her set off for a garden in Karaj.

Following the untimely demise of her husband, Farrokhlaqa retreated to Karaj, on the outskirts of Tehran, to pursue her dream of purchasing her own garden. The garden she bought was formerly owned by Mahdokht’s family. The garden was put up for sale when Mahdokht transformed into a tree after she witnessed an act she was unaccustomed to. Whilst many traditionalists saw a human tree as a disgrace, or worse a curse, Farrokhlaqa saw otherwise. As fate would have it, the destinies of the five women, each looking for a refuge, converged in this very same garden. Sans any iota on who these women were, Farrokhlaqa nevertheless welcomed them into her garden, which, in turn, became their own Garden of Eden.

Through the experiences of these women, Parsipur painted a spectrum that encompasses the challenges that women face in modern Iran. Parsipur gave an eye-opening account of their plight through her vivid portrayals. The challenges they are facing share a common denominator: a society adamant and unshakeable in its conviction, oblivious to the conditions of its female population. Its unwillingness to change its ways helped foster a society where patriarchal control and abuse to remain prevalent. Male characters loom above our heroines, as they stomp their authority all over their female counterparts. Most of these five women we meet experienced abuse, some in the hands of their husbands, some in their families, and some in the hands of strangers. Some, like Farrokhlaqa, the only married character, faced abuse as a consequence of fragile masculinity and insecurities.

“Of course, it’s dangerous to walk along the road. Either you’re strong enough to face the danger, or you’re not, and you return like a lamb to the flock. Maybe when you go back, they’ll act like you have the mange and shun you. There are only two possibilities: either you endure the shunning or you don’t and kill yourself.”

~ Shahrnush Parsipur, Women Without Men

What stands out in the novella is its no-holds-barred exploration of female sexuality; Parsipur never skirted around what most would find as controversial. In most traditional societies, virginity is highly valued. They view it as the highest form of female honor. It is inculcated into their mind at a young age. “My virginity is like a tree,” Mahdokht was quoted saying while Faizeh said that “virginity is not a curtain, it’s a hole”. Through these strongly worded lines, we see a society that is too preoccupied with virginity and the female honor. Too much emphasis is placed on honor and virginity that they are used to rationalize infidelity and other liaisons beyond the ambit of marriage.

Women have no liberties on their body; they are barred from taking liberties, of transforming their own bodies. It is not their domain and they have no free will over it. Those who try to regain these liberties or transform themselves are seen as disgraces. Women who break their “honor” are often seen as a disgrace and are banished by their families. In extreme cases, these “dishonorable” acts are used to justify women killed by their own kin in what is referred to as “honor killings”. An archaic practice, honor killings, unfortunately, are still prevalent in many conservative cultures.

The story of the five women, however, was not always wrapped in darkness. Murder, domestic abuse, suicide, and rape were situated in various parts of the novel but it was also brimming with hope. In a garden in Karaj, these five women escape the suffocating confines of family and society. In each other, they find strength and they undergo individual transformations. “By comprehending darkness. Like most people, you don’t understand unity. Comprehend darkness. This is the foundation. Don’t become light. That’s a one-way transformation. Look at your friend, she wanted to become a tree, and she did. It wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be. Unfortunately she didn’t become human, she became a tree. Now she can start over so that she can become somewhat human after billions of years. Seek darkness, seek in the darkness, in the beginning, in the depths, in the depths of the depths where you will find light at the zenith, in yourself, by yourself. That is becoming human, go and become human!”

One of the novel’s accomplishments was Munis. Her reactions to new knowledge were the most realistic and it is safe to conclude that her transformation and growth through the narrative was the heart of the story. These elements were also complimented by Parsipur’s lyrical writing. It reverberated with elements of both fabulism and realism. Its elements of magical realism gave the tapestry an interesting complexion. Whilst this often draw parallels with western influences such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Parsipur was quick to quell such comparisons and reminded everyone that The Thousand and One Nights is a Persian heritage. However, her writing was also a little inconsistent and some of the magical elements seemed whimsically interjected.

“It might not be bad to change it to a smith. As it is, some of the rhyme words don’t make sense. Like a sad one without a saltshaker, or nibbling on a cracker, or be a giver and a taker, none of which fits correctly. You could use new rhyme words to go with smith. Then again, there’s this snake-hearthed creature in the sand. Of course, people may like that, but I don’t understand what it means. Or this about a dancing heartbreaker.”

~ Shahrnush Parsipur, Women Without Men

Whilst it challenged the patriarchy, Women Without Men is not anti-male novel. To its credit, the novel was never black and white and possesses a balanced view. In a world dominated by Amirs, Golchehreh, and those truck drivers, there are still men like the “good” gardener who was a reassuring presence in the women’s Garden; and Fakhredine who extent respect to women. On the contrary, the women are not all likable as well. Some are complicit and harbor ill-will even to their fellow women. In the first part, Mahdokht was quoted saying, “I hope she’s pregnant so that they will kill her.” Faizeh was also quoted saying, “You’re a man! You can’t cry What are you crying for? You’re a brother, you upheld your family’s honor. You killed her? You did the right thing.”

Parsipur’s own story is a testament to the narrative’s relevance. Challenging the patriarchy comes with a price, at times, a stiff one. Following the novella’s publication in 1989, all of Parsipur’s works were banned from further publication. Authorities have cited the novella’s discourse on virginity as taboo; it was the primary consideration in the novella’s permanent ban in Iran. Women Without Men was also considered as un-Islamic due to its references to Western culture – The Sound of Music was mentioned and Farroklaqah was compared to Vivien Leigh. With the permanent ban of her works, Parsipur is unable to pursue a career as a writer in Iran, and in 1994, she finally moved to the United States as an exile. Whilst it was unfortunate, it opened opened her works to a greater audience.

In Women Without Men, we meet women who were victims of the systematic oppression by men and a patriarchal society that continues to dictate how they should act and think. However, the solution is not in detaching from men either. What Parsipur arrived at was that women should seize autonomy of their own destinies, of their own bodies, both physically and mentally. They should endeavor to establish their own identities by challenging the norms. It is only then that they can come full circle. It is when one is not shackled to the ground that she fully realizes her own potential. If there is one lesson that can derived from the writer’s own life, it is that one should never be daunted by the obstacles and should let her voice be heard through the din.

Ratings

78%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%

Women Without Men was, again, one of my random purchases but I am walking away satisfied with my purchase. It delved into the depths of modern Iranian society. However, I did find it a little lacking. I wish the book was longer, and the exploration of the experiences of the characters more intricate. Whilst it was interesting and wonderful, I did find like the novella started to cram as it nears its conclusion. Just when the women were settling into the comforts of the Garden, the narrative abruptly moved forward. The transition was not smooth. For its faults, Women Without Men is a powerful and important read because of its dissection of the modern Iranian society.

Book Specs

Author:  Shahrnush Parsipur
Translators:  Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet
Publisher: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Publishing Date: 2004
Number of Pages: 131
Genre: Fiction

Synopsis

A modern literary masterpiece, Women Without Men creates an evocative and powerfully drawn allegory of life in contemporary Iran. With a tone that is as stark and bold, yet magical, as its elegantly drawn settings and characters, internationally acclaimed writer Shahrnush Parsipur follows the interwoven destinies of five women – including a prostitute, a wealthy middle-aged housewife, and a schoolteacher – as they arrive, by many different paths, to live in a garden on the outskirts of Tehran. Reminiscent of a wry fable and drawing on elements of Islamic mysticism and recent Iranian history, Women Without Men depicts women escaping the narrow precincts of family and society – only to face daunting new challenges.

Shortly after the novel’s 1989 publication, Parsipur was arrested and jailed for her frank and defiant portrayal of women’s sexuality. Though still banned in Iran, this national best-seller was eventually translated into several languages, delighting new readers with the witty and subversive work of a brilliant Persian writer.

About the Author

Shahrnush Parsipur was born on February 17, 1946 in Tehran, Iran.

At a young age, Parsipur already showed interest in literature which her liberal-minded parents cultivated. They also supported her education and her interest in writing. She has read the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway but her greatest inspiration was modernist Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat. After graduating from high school, Parsipur pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at the University of Tehran. She was one of the first women to be admitted to the university. During her stay at the university, she has published a score of short stories such as Tupak-i-qermez (The Little Red Ball) and Garma dar sal-i-sefr (Heat in the year zero). Some of her short stories were also published in popular Iranian literary journals.

Her stay in the university piqued her interest in Chinese philosophy. To further cultivate her interest, she studied Chinese language and civilization at the Sorbonne from 1976 to 1980. In 1970, she published her first novella, Tajrubah’ha-yi azad (Trial offers). A year after graduating from the university, she published her first novel, Sag va zimistan-i-buland (The dog and the long winter, 1974). Her second novel, Tuba va mana-yi shab (Touba and the meaning of night) was published in 1989. One of the biggest challenges in her literary career happened after the publication of her novella, Zanan bedun mardan (Women Without Men). The book, for its graphic language and “un-Islamic” contents, was banned in Iran.

Despite the censor on her works, Parsipur was able to travel freely, but her inability to write and publish in her native Iran, led her to moving to the United States in 1994 as an exile. Parsipur was the recipient of the prestigious Hellmann Hammett Award for Human Rights in 1994 and was honored in 2003 at the Encyclopaedia Iranica Gala in Miami. She was also the first recipient of the International Writers Project Fellowship from the Program in Creative Writing and the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University for 2003-2004. It is a grant given to established creative writers who are unable to freely express themselves in their home countries. In 2010, she received an honorary doctorate from Brown University.