Images of Women in Classical Persian Literature and the Contemporary Iranian Novel (continued from previous issue)

By: Dr. Azar Nafisi


The main character's lament in Hushang Golshiri's Barreh-ye Gomshodeh-ye Ra'i (Ra'i's Lost Lamb, Tehran, 1977) is one of the best examples of what happens to the displaced male psyche, to a man's desire and longing for the security of his mothers closed and circular world that, like a womb, created space, blood, and nourishment for him.  Ra'i decides to leave his beloved because she cuts her hair short, flings her bag over her shoulder, and might commit the ultimate blasphemy of dyeing her hair blonde. An unstated question hangs over the whole novel, creating an atmosphere almost of bewilderment: what happened to that tamely secure image of the raven-haired beauty who spent all her moments at the service of her man?

The secure male-dominated world of the past has broken down.  What remains is the residue of the past in the writer's unconscious with no direct relationship to the new world.  The mind is in constant struggle with this world.  On the one hand, it desires to come to terms with the new reality; on the other hand, it has no firm grasp of it, no real understanding.  A vague hostility and mistrust toward the new reality called the western world seeps into the Iranian novel, and colors the images of its women more than any other image.

The author becomes afraid of the suddenly real woman.  In the past, the woman was a part of his vision; later she became a figment of his imagination, a tame if coyly evasive object of his desires-a presence which could be made to evaporate in the twinkling of an eye.  To re-create fictionally a creature that he is wary of in reality becomes an almost impossible task.

Thus, something interesting happens in these novels: a movement away from the symbolic images of the classical tales, which somehow feel very real, to the 'real' images of 'realistic' fiction, which feel symbolic.  The writer chooses a fixed pattern of thought, an ideology to define and capture this new 'reality,' stripping it of its threats, bringing it under control.

This process can be best observed in the 'realistic' tradition in Iranian literature.  These 'realistic' novels were influenced mainly by the now archaic and anachronistic school of social realism.  In structure, they followed the rigid and linear form of the nineteenth-century novel.  The characters in these novels are supposed to be 'real,' from the working class or the peasantry.

The women in these works are usually patient and strong; their contradictions are mainly external, reflecting the class conflict within the society.  The lack what I cal 'interiority': the individuality, the inner conflicts and contradictions which give western realistic novels such amazing lights and shades.  For example, Mahmud Dowlatabadi's Ja-ye Khali-ye Soluch (Soluch's Empty place, Tehran, 1979) begins with Mergan, the heroine, waking up one morning to find that her husband has left her and their three children. From the very first page the narrator turns a theme which has many dimensions into a purely social issue.  When describing Mergan and Soluch, he informs us in the tightest terms of how love becomes meaningless between people without money.  At every crucial stage of the novel the narrator upstages his characters with tedious moralizations and unnecessary elaborations.  The dialogues are constantly interrupted by the narrator addressing the reader.

Even novelists with no particular ideology share this attitude with the narrator in Ja-ye Kahli-ye Soluch: they feel more committed to ideas than to the story or the characters in the story.  Women as the most obvious victims of social injustice become the center of these novelists' moralizations and simplifications, and woman the victim becomes a popular theme in this literature. 

The motif of women as victims dates back to Moshfeq Kazemi's Tehran-e Makhowf (Tehran, the Fearsome, Tehran, 1925).  In Kazemi's novel all the prototypes of the socially victimized woman exist, from the beautiful young girl in love with a noble and penniless young man, harassed by greedy, insensitive parents, to the duped and penitent 'fallen woman.'  From then on we encounter images of women as social victims in a number of novels which could be categorized under the dubious title of 'popular novel.'  These women are either love-stricken, like the suffering young heroine in Tehrann-e Makhowf or, like Ahu in Ali-Mohammad Afghani's Shohar-e Ahu Khanom (Ahu Khanom' Husband, Tehran 1961), are cheated by another favorite figure of popular novelists, the 'vamp' who steals the heroine' husband. 

The popular novel develops into at least two different branches: the first is open and explicit about its form; it makes no pretensions at being literary art and exploits the theme of 'victimized' woman' versus 'vamp' or 'greedy parents' to create tension and capture the reader's attention.  Most outstanding in this group are the novels of Hosayn-Qoli Mosta'an.  The second group shuns the first and claims to have 'serious' intentions.  It uses images of women mainly as vehicles of social protest.  Some of these writers, like Kazemi, are genuinely interested in the fate of women and their emancipation.  But whatever these author's intentions, their works combine two 'spicy' elements to appeal to their readers' self-righteousness and taste for 'action': women and social protest.

The Iranian art novel was deeply influenced by the popular novel, especially in its use of male-female relationships as a vehicle to introduce action and justify moralizations, rather than as a theme worthy of exploration of its complexity and problems.  If a popular novelist like Mosta'an used moralizing to justify risquŽ action, a more 'serious' novelist like Afghani used action to make ideological and social criticism palatable to the readers.  Even a highly serious novelist like Sadeq Chubak in many short stories and in the well-known psychological novel Sang-e Sabur (The Patient Stone, Tehran, 1960) makes the fallen woman his central character.  In Hedayat's Buf-e Kur, the 'lakkateh' is a powerful figure representing the narrator's obsessive personality as well as his moral and sexual impotence.  In Chubak's novel the 'lakkateh' is transformed into a good-hearted prostitute, a caricature of the already caricature-like prostitutes in Dostoevsky's novels.