The other night, I watched the Movie Woman without Men, which was based on Shahrnush Parsipur‘s novel “Women without men; a novel of modern Iran”. Shirin Neshat’s feature length film beautifully captures the underlying political tone of the book advocating FREEDOM, DEMOCRACY and JUSTICE.
In the movie, Nahid asks “Don’t you think that justice depends on freedom? And a poet answered “You can only speak about freedom or even democracy when a society is culturally developed and conscious.”
Essentially, the people must know who they are and what they deserve. The people must unite and struggle for what they believe in. The peoples’ voice must be heard, but, more importantly to Parsipur’s book, women’s voices must be heard.
The demands for freedom, justice and democracy by the people are reflected in the silent cries of the women in the movie; the females’ pain, sorrow, sacrifices and even death epitomize the women’s cry for their voice to be heard in the misogynistic society portrayed by the movie.
However, when you read the book you are blown away by the fantasy and spirituality with which the author conveys her views on women and the part they play in Iranian society. The book does not suggest that women are better off without men but that women need to find themselves and not limit themselves to the Iranian vision of “SHARM“, which loosely translates into English as the code of conduct for maintaining one’s “reputation” or chastity.
Shahrnush Parsipur tackles the taboo subject of Iranian women and their sexuality, which is in part the reason why her books are banned in Iran and she is now living in exile in the USA. For one, she challenges the long held myths of “virginity” and “propriety” strongly upheld in Iranian culture.
Not only does she encourage women to know themselves by reading, experience and self-discovery but also to create their own identity and not just take on the role that man has ascribed to them.
This reminded me of the poem Four Springs by Partow Nooriala, which celebrates the beauty of all stages of womanhood.
Yellow silk cocoon,
Butterfly flaps fluttering
Disheveled hair, bare feet
The little girl
Sets out in the breeze
And lost games linger in afternoon haze.
Where is that twelve-year-old girl?
With my dolls and jump ropes
And cardboard house
And a drop of blood
A veil between childhood
And puberty’s dawn.
Bashful, clinging to childhood,
She bathes her breast-buds
In morning dew.
She is a budding spring
A sudden pageantry of green.
She averts her eyes from her beloved
But the thumping of her heart
Is audible even through a storm.
The almond blossom
Brushes the sixteen-year-old girl
As does the here and now of love
My lustrous skin.
How it burns
Dagger gouging, skin pins and needles
Blows on the bones
Half-conscious and torn asunder.
Push, push, push
She claws at the sheets,
Those mercurial clouds shift.
Bright wet hallucinations and dry
Tongue stuck to palate.
Pressure, pain, perishing…
An impatient child
Escapes the uterine strait.
My howls drown my nineteenth year.
In one instant
My creation assigns its pain to me.
Is not wary of phobic
In a frenzy of repollination
And the ray of light
Emanating from my soul
Releases me from
Ecstatic in yet-springing-anew
Finally wise to seasoned love
Menopause*, this Change of Life
Fights an uphill battle
For this old shrub of a heart
Has never before blossomed so red.
From Selseleh Bar Dast Dar Borj e Eghbaal (With Chained Hands in this House of Fortune) 2004
Chaahar Rouyesh©Partow Nooriala2004
* In Farsi, the word for Menopause also means annulment and/or despair.
“Women without Men” is a fantastic non-linear narrative filled with imagery illustrating the oppression and limitations placed on women by an excessively patriarchal Iranian society pre- and post- the 1979 Iranian revolution, which is readily exemplified in the story of the five women who seek temporary relief and sanctuary in the garden of Zaraj.
The book starts with Mahdokht who witnesses a sexual act between a 15 year girl and the gardner Yadallah (not the good gardener), which makes her extremely angry. She even wishes death upon the child because she has committed such an heinous crime. She then comes to the realization that “My virginity is like a tree” and that she must stay in the garden and “plant herself” in the ground. Later, in the novel we see that with the help of the “good gardener”, the former prostitute Zarrinkolah, and the twice-dead brought back to life Munis, Mahdokht becomes a tree. She sprouts roots, grows and get’s new leaves until the tree bursts and turns into a mountain of seeds that is spread across the world. Mahdokht’s transformation into a tree thereby becomes a metaphor for the fulfillment of her sexual desire without the loss of her virginity. Thus, she propagates herself without getting involved with human sexuality, but in so doing she is not human. At the end of the novel the good gardener tells Munis: “Look at your friend, she wanted to become a tree, and she did. […] 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 depths where you will find light at the zenith, in yourself, by yourself. That in becoming human, go and become human!”
Throughout, the book the garden of Zaraj is not only the place where the women are free from male control but also a place where they can reinvent themselves outside the confines of a repressive male society. The garden of Zaraj is only a temporary refuge in their journey, and in the end of the novel the women acknowledge that they are not satisfied living a life separate from the men or the outside world. But, as a result of finding themselves in the garden, they evolve and reinvent their relationship with the world and with men. Two of the women transcend the limitations of their flesh, while the other three females chose relationships that are based on love and respect that fulfill some of their needs. They are no longer a shadow of a preconceive patriarchal notion of an “ideal woman” but WOMEN expressing their desires and needs. They no longer simply exist or react to the confines of a limiting framework of there society but find their inner voice and are guided by their psychological vision of what is possible and who they are.
Needless, to say the movie uses the women’s journey to enlightenment as a symbol for the Iranian people’s struggle not only to find themselves but their voice in the confines of a limiting and oppressive society. Likewise, Mahmoud Darwish has illustrated his people’s struggle for freedom in the poem No more and No less by writing in the voice of a woman part of an excessively patriotic society.
So, on that note I will end on the poem No more and No less by Mahmoud Darwish.
No More and No Less
by Mahmoud Darwish translated by Fady JoudahI am a woman. No more and no lessI live my life as it isthread by threadand I spin my wool to wear, notto complete Homer’s story, or his sun.And I see what I seeas it is, in its shape,though I stare every oncein a while in its shadeto sense the pulse of defeat,and I write tomorrowon yesterday’s sheets: there’s no soundother than echo.I love the necessary vagueness inwhat a night traveler says to the absenceof birds over the slopes of speechand above the roofs of villagesI am a woman, no more and no lessThe almond blossom sends me flyingin March, from my balcony,in longing for what the faraway says:“Touch me and I’ll bring my horses to the water springs.”I cry for no clear reason, and I love youas you are, not as a strutnor in vainand from my shoulders a morning rises onto youand falls into you, when I embrace you, a night.But I am neither one nor the otherno, I am not a sun or a moonI am a woman, no more and no lessSo be the Qyss of longing,if you wish. As for meI like to be loved as I amnot as a color photoin the paper, or as an ideacomposed in a poem amid the stags …I hear Laila’s faraway screamfrom the bedroom: Do not leave mea prisoner of rhyme in the tribal nightsdo not leave me to them as news …I am a woman, no more and no lessI am who I am, asyou are who you are: you live in meand I live in you, to and for youI love the necessary clarity of our mutual puzzleI am yours when I overflow the nightbut I am not a landor a journeyI am a woman, no more and no lessAnd I tirefrom the moon’s feminine cycleand my guitar falls illstringby stringI am a woman,no moreand no less!