Women without Men? …

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.

Four Springs


Yellow silk cocoon,
Butterfly flaps fluttering
Disheveled hair, bare feet
The little girl
Sets out in the breeze
Children flittering
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
A thousand
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.


Forty nine-year-old
Is not wary of phobic
Fuddy-duddy chitter-chatter.
Time spins
In a frenzy of repollination
And the ray of light
Emanating from my soul
Releases me from
Decadent superstition
And wrath.
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 Joudah

I am a woman. No more and no less
I live my life as it is
thread by thread
and I spin my wool to wear, not
to complete Homer’s story, or his sun.
And I see what I see
as it is, in its shape,
though I stare every once
in a while in its shade
to sense the pulse of defeat,
and I write tomorrow
on yesterday’s sheets: there’s no sound
other than echo.
I love the necessary vagueness in
what a night traveler says to the absence
of birds over the slopes of speech
and above the roofs of villages
I am a woman, no more and no less
The almond blossom sends me flying
in 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 you
as you are, not as a strut
nor in vain
and from my shoulders a morning rises onto you
and falls into you, when I embrace you, a night.
But I am neither one nor the other
no, I am not a sun or a moon
I am a woman, no more and no less
So be the Qyss of longing,
if you wish. As for me
I like to be loved as I am
not as a color photo
in the paper, or as an idea
composed in a poem amid the stags …
I hear Laila’s faraway scream
from the bedroom: Do not leave me
a prisoner of rhyme in the tribal nights
do not leave me to them as news …
I am a woman, no more and no less
I am who I am, as
you are who you are: you live in me
and I live in you, to and for you
I love the necessary clarity of our mutual puzzle
I am yours when I overflow the night
but I am not a land
or a journey
I am a woman, no more and no less
And I tire
from the moon’s feminine cycle
and my guitar falls ill
by string
I am a woman,
no more
and no less!


About radiaj

I am a Research Scientist & Bioinformatician who specializes in Immunology and Cancer Biology. I routinely use R and other programing languages to explore genomic data of cancer cells to identify molecular changes and risk factors that contributes to cancer development.
This entry was posted in Mahmoud Darwish, Poetry, Politics, Shahrnush Parsipur. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Women without Men? …

  1. Jana Awad says:

    Beautiful prose as always Radia!
    I love both poems you referred too.
    Also, the concept of garden that you describe and in which the movie seems to take place makes me think of an analogy, referring to an inner-self, as the place where to retreat and to find balance and strength. It is not a physical place but rather a mystical one.
    Note for other readers: in Darwish’s poem Qyss and Laila are characters of a famous/legendary tale of love (such as Romeo & Juliet, Tristan & Isolde, etc.)
    Looking forward to watching the movie someday 🙂
    Thanks so much for this pleasant read!

    • radiaj says:

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it and I agree! It is within the inner self that we can take solace:)

      You can rent the movie at Queen Video if you have the time. But I more strongly recomend the book! 🙂

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