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TitleOn the lasting relevance of Shahrnush Parsipur’s 'Women without Men'

Not without each other

8 Oct 2010

■ Ann De Craemer

When I saw Shahrnush Parsipur briefly appearing as the brothel’s bossy madame in Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men (2009), a movie that is loosely adapted from a magical realist novel by Parsipur, I was proud of her. It might sound awkward to be proud of someone you don’t know personally, but never say that readers don’t know the authors they love: reading a book that overwhelms you establishes a kind of intimacy between strangers that is rarely found in real life.

So let me call her by her first name this once. I was proud of Shahrnush because her guest appearance as the brothel’s boss in Neshat’s movie is a subtle middle finger directed at the Iranian regime, which banned Women without Men in the mid-1990s and put pressure on the author to desist from such writings. The success of Women without Men (1989) caused Parsipur to be arrested twice, and after a decade of political pressure from the Iranian government, she immigrated to the United States in the 1990s.


Shahrnush Parsipur

The Islamic Republic has forbidden Shahrnush to be an Iranian woman speaking her mind and living in her home country, but in Neshat’s movie – which is dedicated to all those who have struggled for Iran’s freedom – she takes revenge. First, she plays the role of the kind of woman the Iranian regime is afraid of, because they only tolerate women who show no desire to break free from their cage. Second, Parsipur becomes part of the story she has written two decades ago, allowing her to make an imaginary return to her country, and isn’t imagination for any writer just as powerful as reality?

After having watched Neshat’s enchantingly poetic version of Women without Men, I decided to read Parsipur’s novel for the second time. Again, I was blown away by how relevant this story still is today. Munis, Faezeh, Zarrinkolah, Mahdokht and Farrokhlagha are five Tehrani women belonging to different social classes, but they have one thing in common: they suffer from the male-dominated society they are living in. Munis is a prisoner in the house she shares with her tyrannical brother, who kills her for refusing to obey him. Faezeh is in love with Munis’ brother, Amir, and hopes that one day she will marry him. He however is too busy with politics to bother with Faezeh’s desperate cry for love and marriage. Zarrinkolah is a prostitute who worries that she is going crazy when all her clients turn into headless monsters. After witnessing an illicit sexual encounter, Mahdokht is so disgusted that she decides to become a tree. Farrokhlagha, finally, is the wealthy wife of a general who constantly humiliates her. She punches him in the stomach one day, causing him to fall down the stairs and die. She then buys a house in Karaj, just outside Tehran, where the lives of these five women intertwine. They all end up in Farrokhlagha’s garden, which becomes a sort of feminine utopia, a refuge for those fleeing the suffocating atmosphere of patriarchal Tehran.

Even twenty years after its publication, this novel has lost nothing of its relevance. First, it is still highly topical in its daring treatment of the position of women in Iranian society. Parsipur’s characters speak without any restraint about their sexual oppression and express their resistance to Iran’s male-dominated culture. Virginity and chastity are ridiculed in a subtle but marvelous way, making contemporary readers think of how the regime is today even more backward than it was two decades ago. When Munis is shocked to find out that ‘virginity is a hole, not a curtain’, I thought of the raging ayatollah Kazem Sadeghi, who told the world a couple of months ago that women who dress inappropriately can cause earthquakes.

The Iranian regime wants the entire population to be one homogeneous mass that obeys their inhumane rules

Another aspect of Women without Men that makes it a book we should reread is the subtle but all the more powerful message that is conveyed at the ending of the story. The garden that Munis, Faezeh, Zarrinkolah, Mahdokht and Farrokhlagha live in does not turn out to be paradisiacal after all: cracks are beginning to appear very soon. These five women seemed to be the same when they were living in a society that defined them by their gender. Being together in a ‘female utopia’ however causes their differences to appear, but that is exactly the reason why they can acquire what they want. It is an important point that Parsipur makes: only when we acknowledge the differences between people can they become individuals. And isn’t it exactly these differences that the Iranian regime refuses to acknowledge? They want the entire Iranian population to be one homogeneous mass that obeys their inhumane rules. Today, both Iranian women and men know what it is to be Munis, Faezeh, Zarrinkolah, Mahdokht or Farrokhlagha. They are all yearning for a place and time that allows them to be individuals.

The last reason why I can recommend Women without Men – a title alluding to Ernest Hemingway’s Men without Women (1927) – is the wonderful transformation of Mahdokht, the most powerful character of the book. Having witnessed an illicit sexual encounter which fills her with disgust, she decides that her ‘virginity is like a tree’. She plants her feet in the ground and becomes a tree, being able to use her own seed to reproduce while maintaining her sexual purity. Still, though she does not need the seed of a man, it is only with the help of the gardener that she manages to give birth to a lily. It is the gardener who then gives her milk, turning her into a marvelous green tree that transforms into a sea of seeds traveling around the world. She is now free at last.

It is this subtle message that all Iranian women and men struggling for freedom should remember after reading this book: that women can’t do it without men, and that men can’t do it without women.

 
Tehran Review
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    تهران‌ریویو مجله‌ای اینترنتی، چند رسانه‌ای و غیر انتفاعی است. هدف ما به سادگی، افزایش سطح گفتمان عمومی در مورد ایده‌ها، آرمان‌ها و وقایع جهان امروز است. این مشارکت و نوشته‌های شما مخاطبان است که کار چند رسانه‌ای ما را گسترش داده و به آن غنا و طراوت می‌بخشد. رایگان بودن این مجله اینترنتی به ما اجازه می‌دهد تا در گستره بیشتری اهداف خود را پیگیری کرده و تاثیرگذار باشیم. مهم‌تر از همه اینکه سردبیران و دست‌اندرکاران تهران‌ریویو به دور از حب و بغض‌های رایج و با نگاهی بی‌طرفانه سعی دارند به مسایل روز جهان نگاه کرده و بر روی ایده‌های ارزشمند انگشت بگذارند. تهران ریویو برای ادامه فعالیت و نشر مقالات نیازمند یاری و کمک مالی شماست.