From utopia to reality
"Women Without Men"
By Asghar Massombagi
August 17, 2001
Shahrnush Parsipur's Women Without Men came out right after the 1979 revolution when the Iranian literary life, along with the rest of the society, was too consumed with politics to take notice of this strange little novel. Why then bother write a review almost two decades after its initial publication? Well, in spite of its slim 135 page, Women Without Men packs quite a punch and, at least in my opinion, marks a watershed in Iran's modern prose, which up to the 1979 revolution, with the notable exception of Simin Daneshvar, was largely male dominated. Has it influenced other Iranian writers, female or male? If not, it should have.
The book's mixture of realism, surrealism and fabulism (do we dare call it magic realism?) and its appropriation of Iran's modern literary history is ambitious and daring. Parsipur's ambition is no less than to articulate what it means to be an Iranian woman, or to be precise, the Iranian womanhood as represented by Tehrani women. In poetry Forough Farrokhzad and Tahereh Saffarzadeh had previously charted the dicey waters of presenting works clearly marked by their experiences as women. In fiction however, Daneshvar's work was permeated with too much of masculine politics of her contemporary male writers and the politeness of her middle class upbringing. It would take a braver, perhaps more transgressive writer to use the word "jendeh" (skank) liberally in a book of fiction and describe a prostitute serving a john in a language unbecoming of a nice middle class Iranian lady writer.
Parsipure's writing career stretches back three decades and Women Without Men contains, thematically and stylistically, elements of pre-revolution Iranian literature. But its urgency to present a female narrative is very much a post-revolutionary one. Briefly, the novel concerns the lives of five women, who temporally exist in different periods and belong to different social classes. The eldest is Farrokhlagha, an aristocrat from an old family who lives the pampered life of a trophy wife in the prosperous northern Tehran; Mahdokht and her friend Faeze are working class girls from southern Tehran. Feaze is in love with Mahdokht's brother, Amir, and is hopeful that one day she will marry him. Amir though is too busy being an anti-Shah activist to bother with Faez's desperate insinuation of love and marriage. Zarrinkolah is a prostitute working and living in Tehran's notorious red hot district; and Munis is a shy, timid girl from a middle class family, hostage to her virginity and destined to be an old maid and work as a school teacher. The women's paths cross in the book's surreal and fabulist logic because their destinies are determined by their gender. These women live in that inner sanctum of muted gestures, brief glances, hushed voices, internal monologues, day dreams, gossips and petty rivalries that marks womanhood in the Iranian society. The anxiety that defines their lives is the specter of virginity and the potential loss of it before they can offer it to a suitable husband. In the book, virginity becomes a metaphor for the claustrophobic, at times nightmarish, experience of being a woman, excluded from the public arena and exiled into a labyrinthine inner life. Farrokhlagha and Zarrinkolah have prostituted theirs, the former for social status and the riches, the latter for a mere chance to exist. Feaze and Mahdokht lose theirs to the rapist truckers, punished for transgressing against their families. Munis, the good respectable girl, is merely a prisoner of hers, her long repressed desires knotted into sever neurosis.
After a series of highly charged dramatic tableaus, from rape and sister killing to resurrection and murder, the five women end up in a beautiful garden oasis in Karaj. The majestic Farrokhlagha having bought the garden from Munis's family resides over the other women like a secular mother superior. Determined to become a literary personality, she turns the garden to a salon, attended by artists and literati. She takes poetry classes and sets out to compose a poem which is to make her name and transform her from the beautiful trophy wife of a well to do bureaucrat into an individual on par with any man. Meanwhile the other women tend to the house and the garden. They clean and prune and cook and serve the guests. But once the initial euphoria dies down, the original bond amongst the women begins to disintegrate. Perched in her ivory tower, Farrakhlagha tires from the all the fussing and squabbling between Feaze and Mahdokht. Meanwhile Faeze yearns for Amir's arms and can't stand being around the cipher presence of Mahdokht who magically eavesdrops on others' inner thoughts. Having arrived at the utopia of their womanhood, the women find themselves divided by boundaries of class and the burden of human nature -- the petty jealousies and squabbles that marked their private worlds in the city continue to haunt them in their utopia of the Karaj garden.
In the end they achieve their desired destinies, grand and poetic as well as minute and quotidian by leaving the garden and joining the humanity in general. They do get from life what they set out to get. Farrokhlagha marries a man she loves and ends up in Paris of her Julie Andrews dreams; Faeze marries Amir; Zarrinkolah becomes as pure as light, literarily washing the shame and grime off her prostituted body and bears a beautiful child who is a flower; and Munis metamorphasizes into a tree, becoming an abstract idea of life.
Is the garden a kind of all-women Eden? (There is one lone male, a rather innocuous elderly gardener who's shacked up with Zarrinkolah). Initially, yes, at least that's what the women imagine it could be. But no sooner has the writer brought her characters to the garden when she sets out to tear down its foundation. And that's what saves the book from a potentially reductivist fate. Parsipur is much sharper than the average "girl power" writer. Throughout, she remains clear-eyed and sober. The garden where the five women come together is no feminist utopia -- the women stay divided by their prejudices, limitations on their imagination and their social origins. In fact, once they leave the society that marks them by their gender and become a sort of non-gendered citizens of the garden, their differences surface. In the absence of patriarchy, money, social class and human nature separate them. Parsipur's agile prose closely reflects the lives of her characters. One minute realist, next fabulist, then surrealist. In one instance the book mimics the socially conscious political novels of post-1953 coup d'état then turns into a parabolic and phantasmagoric tale. The narrative of political writers of post 28th of Mordad era centred primarily around the coming of age of a young activist man and maturing of his political consciousness, to the exclusion of female characters except as sexual catalysts. Amir the political activist brother of Mahdokht could easily be a protagonist of stories of Bahram Beizaei or Ahmad Mahmoud. But instead of walking the burning streets of Tehran or Ahvaz with Amir, we're stuck with Mahdokht and Feaze, impotent and helpless at home, excluded from the political arena. By making Amir a close minded sister killer, Parsipur brazenly confronts the dominant masculine pre-revolution literary discourse. In yet another literary appropriation, Farrokhlagh's story is told in the style of Virginia Wolf's tales of regret and lost time. Farrokhlagha forever looks backward, her daydreams suffused with memory of old lovers, passionate kisses behind elm trees, summer afternoon walks in the tree-lined street. And she bubbles with resentment towards her husband, a boring and unfeeling government official as she fantasizes about plotting his murder. To tell the story of Feaze and Mahdokht's flight, the writer then borrows from the popular melodramas of an earlier era in Iran, where decent middle class women through some fault of their own leave the safety of their families, often transgressing against the authority of their fathers and brothers, and end up raped and dishonored, often ending up in a brothel.
Women Without Men is both about an idea of life and an idea of literature, that is, not only about what it means to be a woman in Iran but how to write about it. This post-modern quilt is framed with Persian mythology and its concept of garden of pleasures and knowledge. The Karaj garden, the oasis away from the heat and grime of Tehran, is this garden. The fact that the garden fails to live up to its utopian promise is not a measure of the writer's pessimism but her sobriety. She doesn't fetishize womanhood. Women are not inherently better or worse than men. They're just people, warts and all and deserve a chance at happiness like everyone else.