Forugh Farrokhzad: An Appreciation

Forugh Farrokhzad: An Appreciation

Table of Contents

Editor’s introduction

The encounter with modernity is a major theme in Iran‘s story during the past hundred years. During this period, perhaps no other poet in modern Iran symbolizes the struggle with modernity more than Forugh Farrokhzad, who, along with her poetry, is the subject of the following essay. Farrokhzad’s poetry depicts vividly what Immanuel Kant considered the hallmark of modernity and the enlightenment, that is, the maturity and courage to “dare to know.” Living in a traditional society in transition, Farrokhzad had the audacity to tear away the veil of norms, mores, taboos, and boundaries of society to reveal her innermost personal desires, no matter how sexual and carnal. Her poetry challenged the pretenses of a society that congratulated itself on having achieved a stage of enlightened tolerance. Especially boldly for a mid-century woman, Farrokhzad questioned the roles society assigned to women as daughters, lovers, wives, and mothers. She paid for her audacity with the loss of her mental health, but she was above all, authentic. Her authenticity, which runs through her life and work, makes Farrokhzad both modern and post-modern. She took up Kant’s challenge to “dare to know” and thus became a modern person, confident and self-reliant. Yet at the same time, she was what Richard Rorty, the American post-modernist thinker, calls “the strong ironist” –someone who discards the need for solid foundations in her life but recreates herself authentically and anew each day. On the cusp of a new century, Iran, like Farrokhzad, is faced with the same reckoning between the embrace of tradition and the allure of modernity. More than sixty years ago, Farrokhzad showed Iranians the way forward to liberty, and the price of liberation. 

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Poetry has for centuries occupied an important position in the political consciousness of Iran. In the beloved epic, Shahnameh, Ferdowsi wrote, “he cannot choose but sit before the throne,” when referring to the close ties between poets and rulers in medieval Persia. Works of poets like Hafez, Mevlana (Rumi), Saadi, and Khayyam, which transcend the realm of politics, are often quoted by contemporary politicians, of all factions. Although Iran’s rich heritage of poetry is dominated by men—not an uncommon phenomenon in other literary cultures—in the past century female writers and poets have claimed their place in the literary canon.  

The Suppression of the Female Voice

For many in the West, the veil has become a symbol of both Iranian women’s liberation and oppression. In 1936 Reza Shah Pahlavi enacted a law which forbade women from wearing the veil in public. Following the 1979 revolution, men in turbans imposed the veil on women with the same vigor that men in uniform had torn them off forty years before. Portrayed as a repudiation of foreign influences on women, the return of the veil also redefined the boundaries between the sexes; men dominate the public sphere, while women are confined to the private sphere. Farzaneh Milani argues in her book Veils and Words that since 1979, the veil has covered not only Iranian women’s bodies but also their literary voices. The norms and values that regulated women’s physical concealment applied equally to their voices. 

Some have argued that the traditional norms and values that subordinate women are reflected in the structure and vocabulary of the Persian language, further hindering women from developing their literary talents. The Persian word zayif, comes from the Arabic word for a female slave and was historically used in Persia to describe women of lower classes. The Persian word dushizeh, denotes virginity, and the words for “woman,” zan and khonem, can also mean “wife.” In contrast, the Persian words for men, mard, aqa, shohar, represent ideas of independence and sovereignty. A woman who uses her voice too much becomes a zan-e zaban deraz, a babbler or tale-teller, which equates to licentiousness. In fact, the voice has long been considered a part of women’s awrat, or sexual organs.  Accordingly, the female voice was suppressed to safeguard women’s chastity and sharm, or self-restraint and self-effacement. Given these traditional mores, which kept women out of the public sphere and emphasized their silence, it is no surprise that Iranian women struggled to find their individual voices and channel them into the written word.

Women’s rights in Iran advanced unevenly during the past century, experiencing periods of expansion and contraction.  In 1911, the newly formed Majles made primary school universal for both sexes. By 1922, public education was formally separated from religion, which led to the establishment of many girls’ primary and secondary schools. Women achieved the right to vote during Reza Shah Pahlavi’s White Revolution in 1963 and in 1975 they were granted  equal rights in marriage and divorce, which  enhanced rights to child custody. Reza Shah’s reforms legalized abortion and increased the minimum age for marriage to eighteen for women and twenty for men. These reforms however were overturned after the 1979 Revolution. Most notably the minimum age of marriage for women was reduced to nine. 

In this maelstrom of reforms and counter-reforms, Iranian women acknowledged the power of their voices. Some argue that this is due to the import of feminist theories from America, Europe, or the Soviet Union. There is an element of truth to this claim certainly  in the case of specific reforms, but Iranian women also deployed their voices in an organic and authentic fashion: they did so through poetry. Poetry provided the space, full of metaphors and indirect speech, in which women could express their emotions and leave it to their audience to interpret them.

Perhaps no woman shifted the public discourse in Iran as much as Forugh Farrokhzad. For more than five decades since her tragic, early death, her work and biography have tantalized both her ardent fans and critics. She wrote 130 poems during her thirty-two years of life. Many of them were published after her death. Though her themes ranged widely over the course of her artistic life, her words have been used by generations of women and men as lyrics of liberation and rebellion. This was evident during the 2009 Green Movement, when protesters marked their posters and placards with lines from her poems.

Farrokhzad was born in Tehran in 1935, the third of seven children. She married a neighbor and satirist, Parviz Shapur. A year later she gave birth to her only son, Kamyar. Farrokhzad divorced her husband just three years after the birth of her son. Due to child custody laws at the time, she was unable to see her son after the divorce. She suffered through bouts of severe depression and grief for years and was eventually admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Tehran in September 1955. In that same year she published her first collection of poetry, Asir (The Captive), and a year later she published her second collection Divar (The Wall). This collection contained one of her most renowned and controversial poems, Sin:

I have sinned a rapturous sin

     in a warm enflamed embrace,

     sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,

     arms violent and ablaze.

Sin first appeared in a magazine next to a picture of the young Forugh and a short biography mentioning that she was a mother of a young boy. In a few lines of poetic verse, Farrokhzad confessed to a crime that was punishable by death. In doing so, she revolutionized Persian poetry and ignited the flame of the female voice.

With the use of a “naked” I, Farrokhzad confesses her sin. Never before had a woman presented herself the subject of a love poem, especially in such an expressive and provocative manner. Throughout the Persian literary canon, women were viewed as the “beloved,” the passive recipients of men’s lustful affection. Farrokhzad in fact  also completely broke with the tradition of classical poetry and wrote instead in simple colloquial language rather than in classical poetic verse. What is also noteworthy is that there is no moment of salvation in the poem. She does not repent or turn to religion or authority to rectify her sin. She instead becomes the vulnerable confessor, who leaves the wounds of her sin open for her audience to explore and exploit.

I have sinned, a delectable sin

Beside a body, trembling and dazed

O God, how can I know what I did

In that dark and silent place?

Many criticized Sin’s subject matter as lewd. Some later critics argued that Farrokhzad wasted her poetic talents on personal grievances rather than channeling them for the greater good of society. It is true that Farrokhzad’s first two collections contained predominantly confessional poetry in which she lamented her personal conditions. As she matured as a poet and as a woman, she wrote poems which allegorized Iranian society as a whole. She proved that the female voice could be not only seductive but also critical.

In 1963, Farrokhzad published another volume of her poetry titled Another Birth, in which she expresses herself as an autonomous woman. Though her body exists in an oppressive space, her words seem emancipated from it. Her art provided her a space wherein she could re-invent and distance herself from the ills of society. In fact, Farrokhzad’s work was never truly political in nature; she was never actively engaged as a political activist. Rather, she used her poetic eye to critically view the conditions which surrounded her. Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, her final volume of poetry, which was published five years after her death, contains her poem “I Pity the Garden”, which is an allegorical commentary on Iranian society:

No one thinks of the flowers.

No one thinks of the fish.

No one wants to believe the garden is dying,

that its heart has swollen in the heat

of this sun, that its mind drains slowly

of its lush memories.

The garden symbolizes Iran in its current state of crisis. Though published in a volume in 1974, Farrokhzad wrote this poem in the mid-1960s during the rapid modernization campaign of the Shah’s “White Revolution.”[x] The “White Revolution” of 1963 led to land reforms and extended the right to vote to women but was viewed by many to be burdensome and corrupt. Farrokhzad is considered by many to be a “modernist” poet for her deviation from the traditional forms of Persian poetry, but that does not mean she necessarily embraced all facets of modernization.  Some of her later works, including “I Pity the Garden,” can be viewed as verses of resistance against the forces of rapid modernization put into motion by the Pahlavi monarchy. These later works reflect the fluidity of the term “modern” in the context of Iran. 

Our garden is forlorn.

It yawns waiting

for rain from a stray cloud

and our pond sits empty,

callow stars bite the dust

from atop tall trees

and from the pale home of the fish

comes the hack of coughing every night.

The garden in the poem belongs to a family. Each member represents a different faction of Iranian society at the time. The father pays no mind to the garden and notes how his time has “passed” and now it is only his “pension that counts.” He retires to his room, enthralled by the former glories of his country in Ferdowsi’s epics. The mother’s life is “a rolled-out prayer rug.” Though “a sinner by nature,” she has discovered a religious ferocity later in her life and has dedicated herself to God.  The brother calls the garden a “graveyard.” He is addicted to philosophy and “sees the healing of the garden in its death.” He represents the aloof, male intellectual, who “carries his despair everywhere, just as he carries his birth certificate diary, napkin, lighter and pen.” The narrator of the poem notes how the sister has undergone a transformation. Once, she had been a “friend to the flowers,” but as she grew older, she and the garden grew apart.  She became enthralled with the luxuries of modernity and “now lives on the other side of town, in her artificial home and in the arms of her artificial husband she makes natural children.”

Our garden is forlorn

Our garden is forlorn

After such a reiteration, the narrator mentions how from the garden one can hear the sounds of blasts, as “neighbors plant bombs and machine guns, instead of flowers, in their garden soil.” Some critics have theorized that these lines point to Farrokhzad’s prescience of conflict and revolution. In fact, the first-person narrator of the poem is its most complicated character. She fears for the future of her country, which mirrors itself in the condition of her family’s garden. She does not call for certain actions or reforms. Instead, distant and forlorn, she brings light to the troubles around her.

In a similar vein, Farrokhzad criticized the bloated bureaucracies and antiquated theories of nationalism in her poem “O Bejeweled Land.” [Here again, Farrokhzad walks a fine line to show but not to tell, something that her poetic predecessor,  Parvin Etesami, was not so talented in doing in comparison.  She wraps a social and political critique in a web of irony and symbolism. Her voice is fierce and emancipated, yet when channeled into poetic form remains poignant and discreet. After the 1979 Revolution the Islamic Republic officially banned Farrokhzad’s work. Her publisher was ordered to stop printing her work and when he refused, he was imprisoned. In spite of the government’s attempt to censor and ban Farrokhzad’s voice, her poems still flourished on the black market and took on a renewed meaning of resistance. Farzaneh Milani notes that Forugh Farrokhzad transcended the myths of the static feminine character and became a reputable symbol of a woman’s unsupported struggle for self-realization. This struggle for self-realization has shifted over time, and certainly has shifted between the generations of today and  Farrokhzad. Yet, Farrokhzad weaponized her voice to encapsulate the inner- workings of this struggle, and thereby her poetry remains timeless.  Her iconoclasm unleashed the power of the female poets and thinkers which came after her. 

 

Research Intern | + posts

Christian Petrillo is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He is particularly interested in the cultural and social history of Iran, especially in the cultural dialogues between Russia and Iran leading up to the Constitutional Revolution. He was the recipient of the University of Pennsylvania Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Department's Best Essay Award in 2019 for his paper on Mirza Fatali Akhunzade and Cultural and Linguistic Resistance. 

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