The Image of Woman in Contemporary Persian Prose1

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Even before plunging into my books in search of the image of woman in contemporary Persian prose, I had a nasty suspicion that my task would not be an easy one. The reason: hard as I tried, I could not remember off-hand many women characters in our literature, which have remained with me in one way or another, out of the multitude of books written by various authors.

This I found very odd, because I flatter myself by thinking that I am an attentive reader. Could this lack of recollection only be due to a sudden selective failure of my memory, or could it be also the result of the attenuated role of women in our novels and short stories? To prove one assumption or the other, offered no joyous perspective. Call it masochistic if you like, but I had to know; hence, I rushed to my books and started thumbing feverishly through them.

As for the first supposition, I concluded that there is not a dark fathomless well in my memory, which only sucks women into oblivion — its failure is quite general! As for the second, I observed that it is not so much the absence of women in many stories that leaves a vacuum in the mind of the reader, but the repetition of a single brand of women that renders them almost insignificant. Most of our contemporary writers have created a stereotype-woman to whom they have clung for dear life. I will give a few examples to illustrate this point.

To do so, I will go back to the pioneer writers of this century and start with Dashti, Hejazi and Mostaan2.

Their idea of a woman is best expressed in this old song:

                 "Follow a shadow, it still flies you

                 Seem to fly it, it will pursue.

                 So court a mistress, she denies you;

                 Let her alone, she will court you.

                 Say, are not women truly then,

                 Styled but the shadows of us men?"

Having said "Amen", these three have gone to work. However, they put their men so directly in the limelight that the "shadows" they cast are almost reduced to negligible spots.

In short, women, as far as these men are concerned, are nothing but perfumed, elegant, attractive ladies only too ready to get undressed and fall into somebody's bed. Their virtue: beauty; their passion: vanity or love.

All these three authors have produced at least one novel, which has the name of a woman as its title (Dashti has written "Fetneh"; Hejazi, "Ziba" and Mostaan, "Rabeeh"). These heroines, however, never come to life in a three-dimensional way. They remain throughout the book only what their creators had intended them to be i.e. pin-up pictures of dolled-up women, with a soul so small / that some believe they have none at all!

This style of writing, once the height of fashion, did not stand the test of time, however, and after a relatively short period died away completely. My generation totally snubbed it, and the ones that followed mine, remained practically unaware of it. Only a few writers of certain periodicals kept on producing the-ever-in-love or ever loved, at any rate ever-flat, portraits of women cherished by Dashti, Hejazi, Mostaan; writers such as Kasmai and Fazel3.

Although I started with three of our earliest writers of fiction, I do not intend to stick to the chronological order to demonstrate further my point of view. I shall talk of some other authors of monotype woman, more or less at random and as they come to my mind.

In the works of Sadegh Choubak (1916-1998) and Gholam-Hossein Saedi (1935-1985), you will find the diagonally opposite cliché of woman to that of the aforementioned trio. Choubak's and Saedi's women are smelly, filthy, beaten up creatures who are dressed in rags, if at all dressed, because both these authors are particularly fond of depicting women as prostitutes. Other occupations, which they have seen fit for women, are begging, washing dirty linen or dead corpses, getting pregnant out of wedlock and then somehow getting rid of their bastards. However, whatever they do, whoredom is never too far away. If ever any other sort of woman puts in an appearance in one of their stories, she is either so sketchy that she cannot be considered as a character, or else so insipid that she hardly attracts any attention. (The women in "Wooden Horse" by Choubak and "Being Calm in the Presence of Others" by Saedi are of the sketchy-insipid type.)

First, let us have a quick look at their prototypes:

Two sisters in "Zanbourak-Khaneh" by Saedi, who live in squalor with their other sister, mother, father and a brother-in-law in a single shabby room, are simply two foul-mouthed, dirty-minded harlots. Two women in two stories by Choubak, "The Gravediggers" and "Why the Sea was Stormy", are trampled-upon, roughly-handled women who kill their newly-born children — one by burying it alive and the other by throwing it in to the sea — in order to continue their adversity-stricken lives.

"Under the Red Light" by Choubak is the description of a paltry brothel, so is "Shadow to Shadow" by Saedi – with one noticeable difference: Choubak's brothel is populated with whores, where as Saedi's can boast of only one, Delbar Khanom, whose advanced age has forced her to retire from that oldest profession to provide the addicts with opium and narcotics.

Khanom Bozorg of "Beggar" by Saedi is a vagabond woman who earns her living by asking people for alms; Saltanat and Kolsoum of "A Purple Dress" by Choubak live thanks to the corpses they rub and wash.

Both Choubak and Saedi have a lot of stories in which no woman figures at all; and their other women characters, as I mentioned before, are merely fleeting figurants who just happen to be in the story.

Jalal Al-e-Ahmad (1923-1969) is another writer with just one model for women; and this model, in all probability, has been taken from his family surroundings. She could be his illiterate mother (as in "Cooking Porridge") busy in sorcery and witchcraft to get rid of a rival wife. She might also be his chador-clad sister (as in "The Unwanted Woman") willing to remain the slave of the man who has married her, rather than face being sent back as a bad coin.

The only thing for which I feel grateful to Al-e-Ahmad is that he is not a prolific author. He has, of-course, amply compensated for the meagreness of his literary efforts by the enormity of his pompousness, which today does not concern us.

He has only a few short stories with woman characters in them. Apart from the two I have already mentioned, the others are "The Pink Nail Varnish", "Someone Else’s Child", "The Auspicious Festival" and "Nezhat-doleh". In all these stories, with the exception of "Nezhat-doleh", the reader is again faced with the eternal mother and sister, in that eternal kitchen sweating and toiling away, ready to satisfy every wish or whim of the man of the house. They no doubt satisfy the superiority complex of their creator as well, who makes them as miserable as possible just to appear magnanimous by showing some pity.

Nezhat-doleh, the only odd woman out, is such a flop as a story that one wishes that Al-e-Ahmad had stuck to his uneducated veiled housewives, drab as they are, for at least he could not have committed the same stupid mistakes in describing them as he has committed in trying to portray Nezhat-doleh.

The reasons why this story is a complete failure are manifold:

a) Al-e-Ahmad does not know the most elementary details about the character he is creating,

b) He does not possess the necessary sense of humour to write a satirical story,

c) His obvious hatred for his character, (a well-to-do woman who cares for her face and figure), has rendered the writer enervating rather than the personage etc. etc.

Nezhat-doleh serves one purpose however: she shows that Al-e-Ahmad has not only chosen the female members of his family as models of women to write about, but that he simply considers them as model women to be emulated in life. This idea, of-course, comes through very clearly in "The Auspicious Festival" as well. There, he glorifies his father, a foul-mouthed mullah, who refuses to take his wife to a party given in honour of the emancipation of women.

Al-e-Ahmad's arrogance has made him believe that he is a man of sense; and as a man of sense, according to the formula coined by the Earl of Chesterfield, does not ever consult women about, or trust them with serious matters. The Earl of Chesterfield lived in the 17 Century — so should have Al-e-Ahmad, I believe.

Paradoxically, the further we move from the writers of the turn of the century and the nearer we get to the present time, the image of woman in fiction gets paler and paler. Even the women writers who have taken up pen, have not produced any memorable female character, some one who is more than a mere name or sex, who is a person indispensable to the story, whose qualities – good or bad – whose attitudes – right or wrong – whose actions – calculated or naïve – make her stand out in the memory of the reader.

One of these women writers — Taraghi (1939- ) often talks in the first person singular as a man — in one story on his nuptial night if you please! In addition, when she happens to talk about a woman, her knowledge of a woman's anatomy seems to be even scantier than that of her male counterparts. She has made a woman, for example, deliver long ideological lectures between two labour pains! Now those of us who have borne children know that such a performance and such an effort is not humanly possible. That is why, I for one, was not in the least surprised to see her character die in the middle of one of her elaborate speeches.

Another woman writer — Simin Daneshvar (1921- ) seems to believe that only men must act and women should watch. Kingsley sums up her work nicely in these couple of lines written in mid l9 Century:

"For men must work and women must weep

And the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep."

In Daneshvar's case, I have often wondered how much Al-e-Ahmad, who was her husband, is responsible for her creation of those snivelling nonentities as women.


Back to the pale image of woman in other writers: In the works of Bahram Sadeghi (1936-1986) and Jamal Mir-Sadeghi (1933- ), no woman is described in full detail to have a distinct face or shape. Some other writers of the same generation go even further in that direction — their women don't even have a name, and are referred to simply as "the girl" or "the woman". Their indolence is justified: why bother, after all, to give a name to a bag of bones!

Ahmad Mahmoud (1930- ) has also economised well on his energy, for out of his 22 short stories, only two are burdened with a woman character, and out of his three novels, two could boast of being womanless.


As a sort of an apology to those of you who have come here to-day to discover the Persian versions of Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary, or Lady Chatterley, or Cousine Bette, or Scarlet O'Hara, I have saved a few colourful pictures of women for the end. However, before getting to them I would like to say a few words about the works of Mahmoud Dolat-Abadi (1940- ).

He could also be considered as a writer who has encountered only one class of female. For his women, without exception, are all hard working, needy peasants living in near-starvation villages around the Khorasan province. Nevertheless, his women somehow manage to exist in each case as individuals. They are all credible convincing characters, who cannot be taken away from the text without leaving a considerable gap; something that certainly could not be said about very many authors I have mentioned so far.

In Dolat-Abadi's case, the image of the woman he portrays — repetitious as it may appear — should not come under scrutiny, but rather his concept of goodness and evilness of woman. Chastity is cherished by him to the point that whenever a woman of his, deviates from its path, the reader can be certain that catastrophe shall follow catastrophe. The life of no playful woman could possibly come to a happy end as far as Dolat-Abadi is concerned. This idea obsesses him to such a degree that it either constitutes the leitmotif of his story, or else it forms an important part of it, in almost all his books. "Journey", "Departure of Suleiman" and "The Man" are among the first category; "With Shabairou", "The Fable of Baba Sobhan", "Around the Curve" and "Kolidar" belong to the second.

The image of woman I reckon as memorable can be found in the works of Mohamad-Ali Jamal-Zadeh (1892-1997) and Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951).

Both these writers are the authors of their time. By that I mean, they have depicted their era with such a fidelity and accuracy, that their books, apart from the literary merit, have a sociological value as well; and what is more, their dialogues are so very representative of the language spoken at the time, that they could be considered as good sources for linguistic studies. In short, one can see and hear Tehran of 60 or 65 years ago through the works of these excellent narrators.

What distinguishes the two authors from one another is that Jamal-Zadeh is happy just to mirror his society, whereas Hedayat goes further than only reflecting the different aspects of life. He has a sharply critical eye that leaves (usually) an unwritten moral between the lines.

The three women characters I have chosen from the works of Jamal-Zadeh are as different from one another as any three women are in real life. Two of them appear in his "Book of Water- ducts" and the third in "The Judgement Day".

Ezat-Molouk, a widow five-times over, doesn't mind (to put it mildly), becoming a bride yet another time; but waiting for that happy moment, she doesn't deprive herself from having some good times. At any rate, remarrying is not her major preoccupation, because she is first and foremost a businesswoman whose main task is to collect every penny of interest her capital accumulates for her. To achieve this end, she does not hesitate a fraction of a second to use her feminine charm, and if that happens to fail, to start her threats and menaces, and finally, as a last resource, to kick up a scandal, which has proved to be an infallible method. She, needless to say, uses exactly the same tactics to avoid paying her debts.

Ezat-Molouk is described in only a few pages of the book and we hear only two of her conversations in full. Nevertheless, in those pages and through her vocabulary, the reader knows all there is to know about her: the way she puts on her make-up every morning; how she starts her round of daily visits; her manner of talking and walking; the reason for her faking humbleness or blowing her top off. She is an authentic woman, and without her, the district Jamal-Zadeh paints for us would not be the same.

Robab Soltan, the wife of the baker living in that same district, is a modest housewife who passes her time cursing and cajoling, alternately, the half a dozen unruly offsprings she has given birth to in seven years of marriage. Her curses are just as colourful as her sweet lullabies and both ring as true as the character of Robab Soltan herself.

Robabeh occupies a much smaller place in "The Book of Water-ducts" than Ezat. She is not seen in the alley, but is heard all over it, particularly when there is a good hot meal at home which softens her sulky husband, or while he is away and Robabeh starts her routine of coaxing and swearing to calm her children down. Through her voice, one is acquainted with her, and that voice cannot be mistaken for any body else's.

Finally, Masoumeh Shirazi: She first appeared as a part of Jamal-Zadeh's book: "The Judgement Day". The chapter devoted to her is entitled "The Ecclesiastic and the Courtesan". Being by far the most moving part of the "Judgement Day", Jamal-Zadeh later turned this chapter into a separate book called "Masoumeh Shirazi".

The angel Esrafeel has blown his trumpet, it is the day of resurrection, and all the dead are out of their graves standing in front of the Divine Court of Justice. Masoumeh is just one of these sinners. She addresses God in a simple sincere tone, telling Him all her life story. Her monologue is interrupted only a few times by His voice to encourage her to go on, and is frequently punctuated with remarks such as "O God! Strike me deaf-mute if I sound blasphemous, but you are not a woman and cannot possibly understand what it means to have a miscarriage!"

When Masoumeh finishes her story, she appears as pure and untouched as the first snowflakes, the very personification of innocence. What can Jamal-Zadeh's God do, but canonise her? Now let Khomeini's God sizzle in His holy juice!


Now to Hedayat.

I personally believe that the women created by Sadegh Hedayat are better portrayed than his men are. He captures them more accurately, more precisely. One of the reasons for this is, I suppose, that he sees the shortcomings of the society in which he lives better reflected in a woman. His anticlerical and anti-Islamic feelings — highly developed and well known to all the scholars of his works — could find no better vehicle than women to drive his message home. Women, after all, have always been the main victims of religious fanaticism and superstition in my country.

In stories such as "In Quest of Absolution", "The Go-between" or "Chador", Hedayat brilliantly explains the absurd and the morbid aspects of Islam. Who could demonstrate better these absurdities than women characters? And they do so most successfully.

Sadegh Hedayat understands women. He is perfectly familiar with their different and often complex feelings. That is why his women are not simply a handful of passive characters that sit inert and accept whatever befalls them without showing any reaction — each, needless to say, in her particular manner and within her individual capacities. They are women capable of hating, loving, being clever or jealous. In short, they are made of flesh and blood and come to life most vividly.

Although Sadegh Hedayat is aware of the ignorance and miseries of the women of his time, he never over dramatises the situation to show despair; nor does he tear a woman to pieces to convince the reader that she is under unbearable pressure.

Zarin-Kolah, the heroine of the story called "The Woman who had lost Her Man",, in spite of her tender age and lack of experience, is far from being totally crushed when she finally realises that her husband has abandoned her for good. Alavieh Khanoum's life is no better than a dog's, but that does not stop her from getting the better of all the other people surrounding her in the story. It is just about her — Alavieh Khanoum — that I would like to say a few words.

She is a fat, bosomy woman with fuzzy hair and swollen eyelids, whose only means of defence is a sharp glib tongue. Her strong sense of survival makes her flexible at times and rigid at others, a skilful liar, a shrewd plotter and a perfect mistress of her feelings at all times.

The reader meets her on the way to Mashad among other rather poor travellers who go there on pilgrimage. However, for her, this journey is nothing but the means to win her bread and butter. Alavieh Khanoum commands a small and strange group of people. They have been trained by her to narrate the plights of the saints in Karbela desert, with the aid of a painted curtain depicting the bloody scenes of the Holy War, thus swindle the other passengers or the inhabitants of the villages and towns through which their shabby carriage passes.

One never knows exactly how she has recruited her army: she constantly lies about her relationship with the members of her group. The women in that group are sometimes her sisters sometimes her daughters; the man, alternately her son and son-in-law; the children, her grand children or orphans adopted out of charity.

Whatever or whoever they may be, they are all dependent on her. She uses the people around her and finds no one indispensable; but the others need her — Alavieh Khanoum is irreplaceable. Her quackery gets her into some tight spots every now and again, of-course, but each time her sense of survival shows her a way to wriggle out of the difficulty.

Alavieh Khanoum is a prominent character thrown into relief, who remains engraved in the mind of the reader forever.


I may have given you the impression that I have a very poor opinion of Persian contemporary writers, with the exception of Hedayat and Jamal-Zadeh. Although this may be true of some of those mentioned in this lecture, it is certainly not true of all of them. I must also add that certain stories, to which I have referred today, to demonstrate the weakness of the women characters, are not necessarily bad stories. Another point worth mentioning: I have not analysed the works of all writers in this exposé — some because I do not consider them worthy of analysis, but others because this modest study could not pretend to be exhaustive.

There is one absence, however, that I hope you have noticed and missed. I mean, of-course, the image of woman in my own books. This negligence has not been due to any sort of modesty on my part, (I am afraid I cannot boast of any), but because, oddly enough, the praiseworthy things others "discover" in your works always sound much more convincing than the "facts" you relate about yourself!

To prove that I did not start this survey with some preconceived feminist ideas, I would like to conclude my speech with a quotation from George Eliot:

"I'm not denyin' the women are foolish, but God Almighty made 'em to match the men."

I had expected only this much and no more of our contemporary authors, but I am afraid most of our writers seem to have forgotten the latter part of this saying, because their women do not match their men. This is regrettable.

I thank you for bearing with me.

1This lecture was given at the following centres: University of Pennsylvania (U.S.A.), Columbia University (U.S.A.), U.C.L.A. (U.S.A.), University of Michigan (U.S.A.), University of California at Berkeley (U.S.A.) and Utrecht University (Holland).

2All three popular authors at the turn of the century. However, Ali Dashti will be remembered for his studies of Persian classics and religious matter — chiefly for “Twenty-three Years” (a study of the prophetic career of Mohammad). He was after the 1979 Islamic Revolution imprisoned and tortured at the age of 85 and died as the result of his injuries in December 1981 or January 1982.